What to expect during your PhD

What to expect during your PhD

The Victoria PGSA (Post Graduate Student’s Association) published this summary which is without a doubt the most succinct and useful I have found on the net. Keep it as a Bible: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/pgsa/downloads/resources/Postgrad%20Survival%20Guide.pdf

PGSA Postgraduate Survival Guide – Cross off when you do them!

  1. Start writing chapters NOW – this will save you time when you come to write your thesis and provide a basic framework from which your thesis will evolve.
  2. Make  friends  with  your  peers  –  use  and abuse, ask  their  advice, to  read  chapters  and for directions as to what papers to read.
  3. Don’t be afraid to push your supervisors, if you need money for something or are waiting to get something back, it pays to be pushy (see also number 12).
  4. Keep an eye out for scholarships and conferences – get out there, be seen and heard. The more contacts you can make the better (see also number 11).
  5. Make time for yourself or your health may suffer.
  6. Try and finish in 3 years, a PhD is just the beginning (see also number 13).
  7. Work harder in your first year…and in fact, in every subsequent year. Don’t spend so much time in  the pub thinking you have forever, because  time will run out so much  faster  than you could possibly imagine.
  8. Set up an email alert system thing right from the start, so that journals you’re interested in email you  when  a  relevant paper  is  out. This also means  that you  don’t miss  something important and look like an idiot at meetings.
  9. When  you  read  the  papers, make notes  on the front. Gradually  these  will morph into papers/chapters.
  10. Learn how to use and (more importantly)  fix all of the lab equipment you use, even if you have a great technician. That way when  the  technician isn’t in or when  the  recession hits and your institution fires all of the technical staff in an ill advised cost‐cutting exercise, you can still run and maintain all of  the kit you need  to complete your PhD. Plus it makes you much more employable and, dare I say it, indispensable.
  11. If  you  don’t have  the  equipment you  need make connections  with  places  where  there IS suitable equipment and try to get some time on them.
  12. Buy your supervisor a drink from time to time. That way when you are scratching at his door at 6.30pm  on a  Friday  with  yet  another  draft of  your  awful paper  for him  to  read  over  the weekend, he will be more kindly disposed towards you.
  13. Budget. Budget. Budget. You don’t want to  be  running  out of  cash  in  your  third  year  and then having to make awful choices between important conferences and experiments, or beans on toast.

REMEMBER – it’s YOUR thesis, not your supervisor’s

Here are a few “We wish we knew this when we started!” from previous PhD students to make your life a little easier! (http://www.victoria.ac.nz/postgradlife/pages/pages_current_pg/advice.html)

  1. Set manageable goals: the end may be a long way off, but every step counts…
  2. Keep a journal or blog : capture ideas, record your thoughts, see how far you’ve come.
  3. It’s not finished till it’s finished. Don’t spent too much time on any one aspect, especially if you get stuck. Move on to another task: you can always come back to it later.
  4. Begin writing early. Even if you’re not sure of your direction, writing ideas down will help you clarify your thinking, and may provide material for later sections.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  6. Reward yourself: postgrads often dwell on what they haven’t done, rather than acknowledging how far they have come. Celebrate achievements along the way. Take time off; treat yourself: You’re worth it!

And if you want more info here are some good places to start!


  • How often should I be meeting my supervisor?

Again this largely depends on your specific supervisor, although a good MINIMUM to keep in mind is roughly once per month. Many supervisors/students also organise quarterly/biannual meetings for you, your supervisor and your co-supervisor to get together and discuss your progress specifically. If your supervisor doesn’t organise these meetings (or stick to the organised times), DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! (see independent research section above) Also, keeping a written record of your meetings and what you discuss can be invaluable later on when your are trying to remember why you performed certain experiments – keep good records to save yourself grief in the long run.

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