What I’ve learnt during the first year of my PhD

I started my PhD last October and so far I’m loving every second… yes even the hard days! Northumbria University is like a second home to me. I did my undergraduate degree and the Bar Professional Training Course here. So after taking a year out and coming back to do my PhD it felt like coming home. I’m comfortable here, I know many members of staff, how to get around campus and, most importantly, where the closest bars are! This doesn’t mean that I have breezed through my first year. I’ve learnt so much about myself and the life of academia that I thought my first blog should be to share my experiences.

1) Your PhD is your own

This for me was very important. I felt like I spent most of the first few months of my PhD listening to how other people think a PhD should go. Whilst I do encourage students to discuss their work with others who have gained that well earned Dr status, be careful. It is great to hear about other people’s experiences and take little tips away from them. But your work is your own and you do it how you and your supervisor think is best. Over this last year I have been told that I shouldn’t be collecting data in my first year, I shouldn’t be presenting papers at conferences yet, I shouldn’t be publishing that much… the list can go on. This really panicked me and I ran to my supervisor exclaiming, ‘I’m doing my PhD wrong!!’ Her reply: ‘Well, are you happy?’ I thought about this. I am happy. I have loved collecting data this year. I have loved giving papers and attending conferences. That’s when I decided that my PhD is my own, I know what I’m doing, I have a great supervisor to guide me, and I shouldn’t let anyone else influence this. You know your work better than anyone else, so just go for it!

2) Build good relationships 

These relationships are with a variety of people. First of all, make sure you have a great relationship with your supervisor. I’m not saying be best friends with them, but make sure you feel comfortable with them. I absolutely love my supervisor and I know how lucky I am to have her… trust me, other PhD students tell me! But I also know that the reason I’m so lucky to have her is because we have a give and take relationship. She provides me with a lot of support and guidance and in return I never miss deadlines and I will help her where I can. This can even just be grabbing her a coffee for our monthly meetings!

It is also important to build relationships with other members of staff. Knowing you have people to turn to is a comfort, even if it’s just for a little bit of advice or reassurance. Also, academics are great to drink with! Especially if they are lawyers too…

External relationships are good too. Once you’ve been to a few conferences you start to see the same faces. By the end of this year I was catching up with other academics from all over the world and feeling like I really belonged in my field.

Finally, don’t forget your fellow PhD students! They are going through what you’re going through. It is great to be able to call someone from my office to ask stupid things, like ‘where do I find this document?’ and ‘do you remember how to make maps on NVivo?’ I also love shouting ‘PINT’ and someone will go for a drink with you.

3) Learn how to say no

This is hard to do as a PhD student. When we get asked to be research assistants etc., we feel obligated to do it. If we say no academics may think we are lazy or not offer us the same opportunities in the future. This is not the case. You are fully justified to say no if you do not have the time and you should not feel guilty. I’ve said no to a couple of things this year and nothing bad happened. If you just explain that you have a lot on your colleagues will understand.

Equally, don’t be lazy! If you do have the time then they are excellent experiences and sometimes you can earn some extra cash. It also looks great on your CV. But like I said, only if you have the time. You are there to do your PhD and that comes first.

4) Go to conferences and talk to people

Going to a conference is so much fun. You meet like minded people who care or are interested in your work (there’s only so much clinical talk my friends can take!). It is also an opportunity to see what is going on in your field, gain inspiration and start forming your own opinions. If you can present, even better! I’ve found that attendees at conferences take it easy on you if they know you’re a PhD student. They know you are just starting out and finding your feet. Giving a paper is a good way to get feedback on your work by those other than your supervisors, see different perspectives and maybe get little tips!

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I mean, just look at that smile. I was having the best time!

And you can make some great contacts. If you do, follow up with an email. I’ve had people send me their articles which they think are relevant to my research. Win!

5) You MUST take breaks

I think this is my most important lesson this year. When I first started my PhD I felt as though I had to know everything about everything and I started working all the time. I would easily get home from the office and open my MacBook until 10pm. Eat, sleep, work, repeat. And I burnt out. It is so important to look after yourself during this long process. Otherwise you do burn out, become unhappy and lose motivation. Luckily I live with my best friend and she sorted me out. She now drops me off and picks me up from the office so I’m not staying unnecessarily late. If I do want to do work outside of office hours, other than reading, I have to justify to her why it is urgent. I have to say, this has really worked. I feel happy, I still feel motivated and I still love my PhD. I don’t feel guilty for binge watching Netflix on a weekend instead of writing a paper. We all need time to wind down. If you have a best friend like I do then you’re very lucky!

Lastly, take holidays! One of my great loves is travelling. I try to do it as much as possible. My big holiday this year was spending time in Australia visiting friends I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I did no work, apart from one day presenting work at Monash University, and I loved it.

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Look how happy I am with this koala! The break did me good and by the time I got home I felt ready to get back to work. Next year I’m taking a month off to go hiking in America. Do I feel guilty for spending that much time away from my PhD? Nope! I work really hard all year, so I feel justified taking time off.

And just remember, enjoy your PhD. You can take something away from every experience, even the difficult ones.

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