Starting my PhD I quite literally did not know what to expect. Am I just going to be thrown in and off I go, am I going to be guided each day as to what I need to do, or is it somewhere in between? Some of you reading this may be considering a PhD in the future, yet are a little fearful of what to expect. I cannot provide you with a detailed recount of the entire PhD journey as I am only in my first year, but what I can do is hopefully provide an insight into the first few months and possibly settle some anxiety you may have about the thought of starting a PhD journey. I moved over from the UK to start my PhD at Griffith early in 2020.
I am now 4 months into my PhD at Griffith University and I thought it would be nice to share my experience during these first few months, as it is probably a little different to what you may think if you are sitting there as a curious student contemplating the idea of a PhD.
Orientation and interaction
I am an international PhD student who arrived from the UK, so starting at Griffith was essentially like starting at a brand new school, with no friends or connections, so the first orientation week it was really important for me to try to meet new people, get involved in orientation events and activities, because 12 months down the line when I am snowed under with my PhD was not going to be the time to try to make these connections. This was hard for me as I felt like I should have been committing more time to my PhD but looking back this was the most valuable thing I could do in my first week, because social connections are quite literally fundamental to our health and happiness.
During this induction period there were also a lot of meetings and training which were compulsory for PhD students to understand what the PhD journey will look like over the next 3-4 years. Suffice to say I did feel quite anxious at the end of some of these sessions, but Griffith were brilliant at reminding us that despite at some stages there will be moments you want to throw the computer out the window, there will also be many high moments on this journey and it will be so worthwhile at the end of it, not only for the achievement of a PhD but the growth and development you will experience as an individual along the way.
This early phase also meant meeting my supervisory team and to make sure I understood their role and my role throughout this PhD. The journey I was about to take was described to me as me being the sailor of the ship and my supervisors are there to steer me in the right direction, but will never completely take hold of the sails for me.
What next………… reading, reading and more reading
I remember finishing the first couple of orientation weeks and being at my desk feeling like, ‘what next?’. At this stage we did not have a specific focus for my PhD and it was a time where I felt very uncomfortable. If you are a PhD student you have reached this stage most likely as someone who likes to always know you are working towards something, feeling like you are making progress with your work each day. So to be in a position where I was just reading different papers and not feeling like I had a focus was very unsettling, but I now appreciate I had to go through this phase for us to make sure we identified what it was we really wanted to focus on. This phase actually lasted about 2 months, so for the perfectionist student this was challenging in itself.
After the first 2 months, lots of reading and weekly meetings with my supervisory team we finally had a topic area we were going to focus on and we started planning what my first study would look like. In addition to this we also identified a framework we would use to guide the research project. For many PhD students the first piece of written work they will complete in the PhD will be a literature review, however in my case this was a new area so we were able to dive straight in with my first study and conduct a scoping review collecting interview data. It felt so nice to finally have a focus and I felt like I was starting to make progress.
As I approach my 4 month mark I am mid-way through data collection for my first study, which means I am making great headway on this PhD journey. But this post comes with an obvious caveat in that every PhD is different, every student’s journey will be unique and the experience I have had in my first few months may be completely different to others.
Take homes for the first few months of a PhD and lessons learnt
1) It’s a marathon not a sprint
o This is a research project that will run over 3-4 years (for full time candidates) so realise you do not have to try to race ahead. Pace yourself, you have time.
2) Read Read Read
o The first month or two is likely to involve lots of reading around, and may feel a very uncomfortable time, especially if you are not sure of your direction. Sit with that discomfort because it will pass.
3) Supervisory meetings
o Make sure you are meeting with your supervisors weekly, and express any concerns no matter how small, as they will be able to help.
4) Embrace the early phase for making connections
o Social connections and having friends is one of life’s greatest joys. If you are new like I was, make sure you use the first few weeks to embrace all the activities and events where you can interact and meet new people. Now is the time to do this, because 12 months in when you’re snowed under with work these connections and relationships will be fundamental.
5) Work will be there tomorrow
o Being new to Australia in addition to obtaining my PhD I want to make sure I embrace all the Gold Coast has to offer. So, if you take a day here and there to explore or go on an adventure, try to not feel guilty. I am bad at this one and beat myself up if I give myself some time away from my PhD but remember point 1, it is a marathon not a sprint. Work will always be there tomorrow and who doesn’t learn something new, even if it’s about yourself on an adventure.
6) Embrace uncertainty
o Even once a topic is finalised it will still remain unclear which direction the PhD will go. Try to embrace this with curiosity and excitement rather than worry and fear.
7) Enjoy it
o A PhD is something you do out of passion and love for research. It should not be 3-4 years of stress and unhappiness. Yes there will be challenging times, but it is an experience where you can have a real impact on the world of research, as well as watching yourself grow, evolve and develop. Take in every moment and enjoy what will be one crazy rollercoaster ride, twists and turns, ups and downs but hopefully a big smile at the end to say, wow what a ride that was!