Tips for First-Year PhD students

In this post, Chris Featherstone, a final year PhD student in the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS), shares his advice for new PGRs. For more, see Chris’s personal blog about being a PGR.

Historical Map of Cornwall (decorative)Everyone who starts a PhD comes into it with expectations; as is the way with expectations, some are correct, and some are way off. This post gives a few tips for people in their first year of the PhD, helping with work, and surviving the process. I am two weeks from submitting my own thesis, and so I thought this was a good point to pass on tips that I have picked up in the process.


Friends are probably the only reason I have made it this far. There are two parts to this tip. Firstly, you need to have friends who are also studying a PhD. No one else really understands what you experience, and the stresses you go through. The mental health challenges that PhD students face has received more and more attention in recent years, but support from colleagues who can really relate is very valuable. You will also receive more advice, support, and sounding board help from other PhD students. Secondly, you need an out from the PhD. You need to be able to talk to people outside the PhD group. Friends who are in the “real” world who can chat to you about other topics will be very helpful as an “escape”. It’s also helpful to be able to laugh at the ridiculousness of your experiences as a PhD student. The COVID-19 crisis has also meant that a PhD is an even more lonely process than it ordinarily can be, support networks are even more important.

Get involved in the Department

Speak to staff members, go to discussion groups, attend guest seminars/lectures. This gets your name about in the department and lets people know who you are. Zoom sessions have meant that this is even easier, we can now attend sessions with a cup of tea on our sofa. Being someone who people in your department can readily identify helps with applying for teaching or research positions, getting people to review your chapters or potential articles you are working on, advice, and conference invitations. It also makes CV development easier too. If you are interested in broadening your experience on the CV, for an academic or non-academic career, opportunities can arise whilst being involved in the department. Personally, I was able to be on my School’s Athena SWAN committee, working towards better policies for gender equality in the School as a workplace.

Don’t listen to other PhD students

This is a risky tip to put here, as it does risk that you will not bother reading further. However, this is the best advice I have had from my Supervisor. Comparing yourself to people around you is natural and almost second nature, but really risky! When you are a PhD student it is arguably worse – they are not doing the same project, they are using different methods, they want to get different things out of the PhD, they write and work at different speeds. So, listen to people around you, talk to them, get advice, but always look at that advice and consider if it really fits your project and you. I’m not saying don’t listen, but filter the advice and be careful what you follow. That obviously also goes for this blog, your department might not be one where the involvement of PhDs is encouraged in the same way it was in my own at times.

I hope this helps you navigate your PhD journey. Steering your way through a PhD is bizarre, you have a map, but you have to colour it in as you go.

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