Top Tips For Starting A PhD

So close, yet so far. I’m currently in the third and final year* of my PhD here at the University of Essex and it’s been a long and troublesome journey.

Some people ask me if I went back to 3 years ago, would I have started my PhD. The answer is yes, but not just because my PhD will enable me to further my career in science. But because in the past three years I have grown as a person, developed a tonne of new skills and seen a small glimpse of the real world of science. The time has also allowed me to decide what I actually want to do with my life.

However this post is not to discuss that, but rather to disclose the things I wish I’d known which would have made my life and PhD a hell of a lot easier.

The Title – Some PhD’s are more fixed then others. If the title is connected to a consortium or a specific project then it will be much less flexible. However others you may be given much greater say over your focus and able to turn it in other directions such as cellular biology or genetics. Think about what your interests are; you don’t want to be stuck with a fixed lab project if you just want to be in the field and vice versa, don’t pick a field project if you’re not prepared to get your hands dirty!

Supervisors – Before you apply for PhDs get the low down on the supervisor. How much are they publishing, are they a researching or an overseer, are they pulling in lots of funding and research grants. You want to make sure they are up to date on new research techniques and able to give advice on analysis, it will make your life much easier! You need to get on with your supervisor, so make a trip to the university to grab a coffee and see if you gel. If they don’t fit the bill don’t rule them out, just make sure you identify someone you can turn to early on and make it known to them what you’re trying to achieve so they can help you in the future. If you have good questions, people will give you the time and good answers, but you can expect anyone to read your mind or do it for you.



The Field Trips – Yes you might be overjoyed at the prospect of working in the field, but is there the money to pay for it? You may end up exhausting your budget and then left short in your final year, unable to attend conferences or other meetings. To tie in with above, apply for grants as early as possible! Even if you have some funding, apply for conference and travel grants so that you can use your research money for other things, such as research. Be aware that some grants must be applied for many months in advance. The Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) for example accepts applications 4 times a year and your proposed travel must take place a month after the committee meets to divvy out the funds. Therefore if you want to go to a conference mid July, the June deadline is too late and you would have to submit by the March deadline! Plan ahead!

Research Assistants – Recruit them. Remember your doing them a favour by boosting their CV and giving them lab skills. Find someone you can trust or just give them tasks that don’t count directly to your data. We have a band of volunteers to help with the daily running’s of the aquarium and I have a few former dissertation students wanting to boost their CV’s for PhD applications willing to help with experiment labour. All the academics do it,  why shouldn’t you! You can even set up citizen science programs. If you have ten thousand photos to analyse why not recruit budding scientists. Zooniverse is a scheme where you can set up your own projects that anyone can join. The internet is a playground, and everybody wants to play!

Social Life – a PhD should be treated as a 9-5 job with overtime, forget your student days of partying on weeknights you need to put in regular hours. I was told that a PhD has to represent 3 years of work…. that’s full time work… not a couple of yearly late night crams. However many of your friends will not understand this. But you need to maintain a social balance to stop you going mad. I’ve focused on the core group; I promise two visits a year, any more is a bonus. Many of my friends live abroad, so twice yearly is do-able, remember if they reciprocate then that’s 4 times a year. Time goes fast so it might seem like a long time but it’s really not. By the end of it you will know who your real friends are.

Experiments – Don’t make any plans during experiments. When you’re in the field working long hours is easy. You drop off the face of the earth and don’t have to worry about cleaning, cooking, family, friends. However an experiment at home is very different. It’s very difficult to pull 18 hour days when you live far away, your fridge is empty, the house filthy and all your friend and family think you are just making excuses. Therefore now I just tell people to call me in a month. If I have no plans I’m less stressed, anything I get free I can breathe and if I have time to see my friends, then it’s a bonus!

Back Up! – I have heard horror stories of student losing all their data. There is no excuse back up on dropbox active files, have several hard drives to back up your work on. You put it off but it’s so important, even if you only do a full back up every month its better than nothing! Everything that can go wrong probably will so safeguard yourself. Establish system of saving documents early on, make sure the file names make sense and always label all your columns and axis. Its a nightmare to go back later and try to make sense of it all, even worse if your supervisor wants a surprise look over your data. The same with references save them as author, year and title, you will thank me later.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

If you want to join dropbox and use me as a referrer giving me extra storage at the same time (you lovely person you) use this link.

The Future – Everyone starts a PhD thinking ‘Yes, I’m going to be an academic’, when in reality very few actually choose that career path in the end. Don’t feel a PhD is setting you up for a life of academia and limiting your options. A PhD will teach you a tonne of transferable skills that you can apply to almost any job you please: writer, consultant, baker!



Opportunities – A PhD is not just your project, it’s the whole experience. Take every opportunity, don’t kid yourself that you’re to busy, you need the extras to boost your CV afterwards and your entitled to do so. So sign up for all the courses, open days and conferences you can.

Network, Network, Network – I can’t stress enough how helpful this will be to meet as many people as you can. The contacts I made in my first few months have saved me hours of trawling for methods and papers! A good tip is to find a friend with a rich library and access to a lot of papers! Me and my friends set up a DropBox paper library and every time I meet new students I ask for their papers and any pdf books they may have. An additional note, in our library I can request books to be bought, but takes a while so request them early as soon as they come out to get them during your PhD.

Societies – Join societies, no not football or music, academic societies. You will gain access you funding, receive conference calls and it looks good on your CV. Student memberships can be as cheap as £10 a year. I’m currently a postgraduate fellow of the royal geographical society, a member of the international society for reef studies, a part of the society of experimental biology and a member of the British ecological society.

Final note – This list is not exhaustive, it’s not all from my experience, some is from those who I work closely with. I don’t want to put anyone off, I just want to make your life that little bit easier from the start. At the end of the day, it’s only a PhD. If you remember that when it all gets to tough it makes all those problems seem a lot less significant. You can still get a PhD with rubbish results, it’s all about how you communicate them that counts*. I have had some incredible opportunities during my 3 years and like I say it’s changed my life, however, i still gotta write the damn thing……

*In the UK PhDs tend to be 3 years with a 4th completion year. As a recipient of one of the research council funded PhD’s, I have 3 and a half years of funding. That gives me till March 2014. I’m aiming for December 2013 to leave me some paid time for corrections and the viva which may take several months.

* And if that fails check out Piled Higher and Deeper Comics to remind you were all in the same boat, or just google cute baby animals!


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