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Words of wisdom for new postgraduate researchers: Part one

18 September 2019

Are you just starting out on your PhD? It’s likely to be an exciting but also daunting time for you. Rest assured that nerves are totally normal! In this mini blog series, Kaisa Pankakoski, a postgraduate researcher at the School of Welsh, shares her top tips for a smoother research journey.

Completing a PhD is a huge learning curve. I asked other research students – full-timers, part-timers, recent graduates, home and international students, distance learners, parents, mature students, the younger generation – what they wish they’d known when they first started. I’m really pleased to be able to share their wisdom here, and I hope some of these great tips will help you along the way!

1. Choose your supervisors, school and group carefully. This is going to be a long relationship. Be respectful, honest and professional.

2. Prepare yourself. Maybe read a book or two about completing a postgraduate research degree. There are also some fantastic blogs which may be worth a look. Attend the Doctoral Academy’s Starting Out induction events and other courses such as time management.

3. Read PhD research by other students to understand the structure and requirements.

4. Get organised. Keep records, have a diary or a bullet journal, make lists and charts, organise your workspace, use Evernote or other apps.

5. Write early and often. Set a working title for your thesis to help you focus. It will need tweaking towards the end.

Write early and often

6. Take your time over the literature review. This will form the basis of your argument.

7. Start using a reference manager such as Mendeley, EndNote or Zotero. Ensure your referencing has URLs, and all the relevant PDFs, screen shots or comments available for when you edit the thesis.

8. Agree on clear rules with your supervisors. How often will you meet? How will meetings be run? How long do your supervisors need to produce feedback?

9. Try to accept imperfection. Do not miss a deadline because you think something has to be perfect first. A good thesis is a completed thesis.

10. Set a timeline with writing deadlines to complete the thesis in time. Reward yourself for reaching little milestones.

Set a timeline

11. Look for courses to build up your skillset and learn the required software. Attending the Doctoral Academy courses is an easy way of learning new skills and meeting people from different departments.

12. Start reading early – not every article is going to be gold standard for your topic. Speed reading is a useful tool to get the gist of an article.

13. Take notes of articles you’ve read. Write down useful quotations, findings, limitations, key ideas and relevance for future use. Set up a system to locate them later.

14. If you do field work, go into the field to explore and for inspiration.

15. Make sure you have your finances in place if you are not completing a funded research degree. Ask about teaching opportunities at your department or register with the Jobshop. Take a look at the Alternative Funding Guide.

Make sure you have your finances in place

16. Remember, this is not a race. Completing a PhD can feel like a surprisingly long process.

17. I’m not going to deny it – there will be stressful times. Look after your mental health. Do what works for you to recharge: rest, spend time with family, do gardening, attend a place of worship, watch TV, have a bath, sleep, take days off studying, practise yoga or meditation, talk to friends, walk in nature. The Cardiff University counselling and wellbeing service provides excellent workshops, courses, counselling and groups.

18. It is also important to look after your physical health. Sitting in front of a computer for long hours will put a strain on your body. The University has fantastic facilities for exercise at an affordable price and the Students’ Union sports clubs offer a variety of options from aerial fitness to windsurfing.

19. Remember, lots of people have imposter syndrome. Doing a PhD is a learning process – you are here to learn and develop. You would not have been accepted if you were not qualified to complete a research degree.

20. Supervisors, librarians and the university staff are there to support you. If you are stuck, ask for advice.

Ask for advice

Enjoyed this PhD wisdom? Check out the second part of this helpful mini blog series.

Are you on Twitter? Let me know what you think of these tips! @Kaisapan