Advice from a PhD skills share session

As part of my ongoing doctoral development (think continuing professional development but for PhD students) I organised a “skill share” session between our first years (NGN members and standard PhD intakes) and some final year and new postdocs. Admittedly I had to bribe participants with food but that ensured a good turn out and questions for our skill share panel were collated in advance so they chance to think of some good answers.

While it sounds fluffy and very soft skills, it proved very useful and I thought I would share some of the insight as it may prove useful for others!

The project and the thesis

Most of the advice offered pertained to these two really important things. It was stressed to us that we should remember our projects belong to us and while supervisors are there to guide and advise, they should be a reflection of our particular niche interests within our respective fields of science. We were very strongly advised to have a general idea of our thesis chapter headings, as this would make planning experimental work easier and focus our efforts.

In terms of actually writing the thesis, starting early is key! However it should be noted that any conference proceedings, papers or interim reports we have to write can quite easily be edited to just slot into the overall thesis document, particularly where that first piece of advice has been taken on board and the work relates well to chapters of the thesis. First year literature reviews also come into this category. It’s worth doing things once but well, rather than having to repeat all your efforts in third year as the clock runs down

Management (data, time and supervisors)

To make our use of time more effective, we should be looking to set up habitual systems to make the process more automatic. This means getting into a good habit of organising data into experiment related folders containing all the related data and analysis documents. Bonus points for relating that back into a lab book for faster retrieval of complete information in the future. It’s a good idea to spend some time now getting the data into a useful and publishable format so that when it needs to be used it’s formatted and ready. Choosing a consistent format now makes thesis editing much less strenuous too. Our research group is particularly fond of Origin software, so we should be getting familiar and competent using it sooner rather than later (other graphing software is available).

In terms of time management, we were told to expect our second year to be the most productive for results and that in the mean time, we should not be afraid to make mistakes and most importantly, learn from them. We should be particular in how we use our time (ie. not writing blog posts for procrastination. Ahem.) and should be flexible. Perhaps more suited to lab based experimental work, we have to be prepared for slumps in the progress and use this time to do something productive, like writing things with the thesis in mind. Those of us with industrial supervisors were reminded that we are doing PhDs not EngDs so most our focus should really be on the science side and less so the industrial application, although this may come down to supervisors.

Speaking of supervisors, we were advised to manage them, in line with taking charge of the project. The best tactic for meetings is to go with a summary of results and things accomplished, using the opportunity to ask questions and for advise and clarification. How often to meet your supervisor resulted in varying advice, but it seems once a fortnight to once a month is most suitable.

Don’t panic!

While there were a few horror stories, we were reassured that most people do finish their PhDs and that it just takes a little forward planning. Start saving money now in the event you overshoot your deadline, make use of the services available if you need to take a leave of absence for short or long term illness etc. and ask for help from the others in your department who have already been through it all. Perhaps most importantly, enjoy it as best you can!

Special thanks go out to our volunteer post docs and 3rd year PhDs who took time out of their schedules to share their wisdom with us. It was much appreciated by the first years and we left feeling quietly confident about moving our projects on! While I did organise this motivated by ticking a box on some side project, I’m tempted to keep organising sessions with each new intake given the success and feedback of this first one and I would certainly recommend doing something similar in other departments/research groups. The best advice is always that most relevant and specific to your situation.

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