Welcome to the first steps of your journey! You are not alone. When I started my Ph.D. program, I met with my advisor’s research group every week. In addition to the sudden immersion into academia, I am indebted to those senior students who gave me such sound advice during those meetings. I want to share this advice with you, with the hopes that at some of it may help you, too!
1. Find a good reference management program, and learn to use it.
By the time you have finished your comprehensive exam stage, you will have hundreds of journal articles and references in your collection. Although I have slaughtered many forests in printing some of these articles (I read faster in print than computer, and it’s easier on the eyes), a reference management program will be able to help you organize that overwhelming mess of information. You can tag your stuff, search for it, categorize it, and file it for later. Furthermore, if you are adept at embedding codes, your reference program can compile the bibliography for you!
Personally, I use Sente, but our university gives students Endnote for free. Another good program that my colleagues have used is Refworks.
2. Keep ALL the references and books that are given to you in your classes. Or, if you’re short on space, keep the references electronically, scan what you need from the books.
I admit that I do not remember everything I learned from my classes. However, some of the first classes you will take as a PhD student will immerse you into the theories and methodologies of your field. Your instructors will give you foundational literature that you will draw from when you do your comprehensive exams and thesis. Keep all of it in your electronic files. When you start your examinations, go back to some of that work – it’s amazing how differently you will read and view the same paper after a year or two of being in your program. Even now in my fourth year, I go back to Boote and Biel’s classic “Scholars Before Researchers” paper quite often to remind myself about how to write a proper lit review.
3. Learn to balance your life. Take care of your body and your mind.
PhD students are workaholics. It’s in our nature to work and to think constantly. However, we must remind ourselves that we need balance – and exercise! There have been many times when I’ve spent days trying to understand a concept, only to have things naturally fall into place during a workout. If you need to, program exercise and relaxation into your calendar. Your mind cannot work efficiently if you ignore your body. Not only that, but your studies will take an incredible amount of will power, perseverance, and belief in yourself – you need to take care of the physical and emotional aspects of yourself, too.
4. Working on a PhD is a social process. Get out of your bubble once in a while, and stay connected.
I’m an introvert by nature. However, I am very fortunate enough to have family, friends, and colleagues who quickly remind me that it’s important to get away from my desk once in a while, and to talk to living, breathing, in-the-flesh people….on a regular basis! Not only can conversations help to extend and form new ideas, but you’re going to go through a lot of emotional turmoil and self doubt. Friends, colleagues, classmates, and family pets will be there to help support you along that path, and they will remind you of two important things: (a) that you are not the only one that goes through this – everyone in the PhD program will go through what may feel like academic hazing at some point in their journey, and (b) you can do this. A PhD is part brainwork, but the other part is about building your indomitable spirit!
I have more advice, but I think that these four things helped me immensely when I started, and hopefully they will be useful to you, as well. For those of you who have been through, or are going through the process, did I miss anything? I’d love to hear your advice and stories, so please feel free to add in the comments.