Ten practical things I wish in knew in the first year of my PhD

So you’ve gone through the arduous process of deciding you need to do a PhD, applying and getting accepted. Maybe you’ve even got funding (Congratulations if you have – getting funding is huge!). And now you’re ready to start the process. A quick search will reveal a large number of articles with similar titles to this one, including a whole collection by Pat Thompson. It seems like almost everyone is writing about their PhD experience. There’ll be practical advice about finding the library, setting up your IT and emails, arranging meetings with your supervisor and more general suggestions about keeping your focus, finding your feet, being flexible and prepared, growing a thick skin, and discovering the resources available to help you. It’s all good advice, but general comments like ‘grow a thick skin’ and ‘be organised’ don’t always point you in the right direction. It’s easy to say ‘Oh yes I’ll be organised’ without really thinking about what that means.

This October will mark 11 years since I began my PhD research, and July 2021 marks six years since I graduated. During the process of completing my PhD, and even more so since I graduated, I learned a number of things I wish I had known in that first year. Things that turn general advice like ‘be organised’ into specifics, with links to places you can learn more about what ‘being organised’ might look like, and how you can organise yourself in a way that works for you. Your first year is an ideal time for moving from being a student to a professional researcher, learning new processes and exploring how you work best. Making these changes will also help you feel in control of your PhD during a time when many are overwhelmed and uncertain about how to tackle such a large project.

1. Academic research requires project management

Project management is not something we think of in the same terms as academia. But successful academic research, writing and publishing absolutely requires project management skills. If you start you PhD with a good project management system you’re much less likely to lose track of something important. Your project management system needs to allow you to plan, organise and control your research. It should involve breaking down your project into manageable tasks and setting realistic goals. With an effective project management system you will always know what project(s) you are working on, how far along they are, what needs to be done next and how long this current task will take you. This early in your research you probably aren’t going to be able to plan out your entire PhD research, but you can certainly experiment with organising your current tasks. Practicing your project management skills this early in your research career will give you an opportunity to hone them so they are ready when you really need them, and embedding your PhD project in your project management system from the beginning will make forward planning easier once you can do so in more detail.

It may be that you already have a project management system from a previous job that you can adapt, but if not there are a variety of online options and academic coaches with suggestions. It can be analogue or digital or a combination of both. Raul Pacheco-Vega has pages of advice about planning research and I have personally found Cathy Mazak‘s academic project management advice to be very helpful. Cathy is an academic writing coach whose work I discovered after having a baby in the middle of a research job. She helped me organise my work, keep researching and writing through the COVID-19 pandemic and feel more confident in my academic career and development. Cathy offers paid programmes, but there’s a ton of free advice that can get you going, including a podcast, blog and Facebook page. Cathy recommends using Trello for practical project management and has some sample boards to help you get started. Whether or not her personal system is for you, sorting yourself out with some form of project management system at the start of your PhD will help you get organised and feel more in control of your research.

Trello Kanban board showing five lists labelled 'Tasklist', 'To Do', 'Doing', 'Awaiting Response' and 'Done'. There are two cards in 'Tasklist', one in 'Doing' and multiple in 'Done'
My Trello kanban board for a recently completed article, showing remaining tasks in the ‘Tasklist’ column and ‘Doing’ column and completed tasks in the ‘Done’ column. I use Trello for most of my project management, ranging from preparing individual papers to long term planning.

2. Writing is everything and everything is writing

It may seem like you have years until you need to write up your PhD, but the sooner you start writing the quicker you will start developing your academic writing skills. Academic writing is what produces publications, grants and jobs. It really is the essential academic skill and you cannot start practicing it too early. You can think of it like practising a musical instrument or running. During undergraduate and taught post-graduate study your academic writing is short and limited to maybe 10,000 words, like learning to play a modest piece of music or run 5k. But a PhD is book-length. This is like playing an opera or running a marathon and you need to train your mind for it.

Writing will also help you to develop ideas. You don’t need to polish everything you write to publishable standard either. As Pat Thompson points out, we write much more than we publish. Writing is an intellectual workout. It can be done simply to exercise your writing muscles and develop your ideas, everything else is a bonus.

Image shows the author working at her GIS in Olynthos in 2015.
Everything is writing – even working with the GIS

What can you write about when you’ve barely started? Writing may refer the process of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard or mouth to microphone, but as Cathy Mazak reminded me three years ago writing is everything you do from grant writing to proof-reading. Everything you do from the outset of your PhD contributes to that final written product – so everything is writing.

And everything should involve writing. Whatever research task you are undertaking you should be writing about it. Fieldwork involves recording; archival research and reading involves note-taking. Learning a new piece of technology, organise your thoughts by writing a blog post about it. Undertaking a piece of GIS research, write down what you’re doing; the data, the methods, the outputs, the errors, the logic. Record everything. In my experience that one map that I georeferenced without writing down the RMSE, will be the one I need to include in the paper (or in your case thesis/dissertation)!

So whatever you are doing and at whatever stage of your research remember that everything your are doing contributes to your thesis (yes even the dead-ends). Everything is writing. And write about everything, in the old fashioned pen-to-paper, fingers-to-keyboard sense, to exercise your intellectual muscles and to record what you’ve done. In 3 years time when you’re ‘writing up’ your thesis, those records will save you time and energy.

3. Learn how you like to write (and research)

As PhD student you’re either going to have a lot of unstructured time for research (if you’re full -time) or highly specific time constraints (if you are part-time and writing your PhD around work and/or family). Either way, you need to make the best use of your time and the first thing you need to know is when you write best. Research writing is hard intellectual work and there will be times it feels easy and times it feels hard. Cathy Mazak calls those easy times your ‘soar state’ (formerly ‘Tiger Time’). Maybe you write best first thing in the morning, or perhaps you’re an evening person. It doesn’t matter when you do your best work, but if possible try to schedule your most intellectually taxing writing and research for those times.

You should also consider what props, rewards and rituals set you up for success in your writing. The rituals we use vary hugely but their purpose is to get us ‘in the mood’ for writing, demonstrate what we’ve achieved and reward us for reaching our goals. Pat Thompson has a collection of blogposts about this type of ‘Writing stuff‘. It may seem inconsequential during the excitement at the outset of your project, but when you’re struggling with theory, getting frustrated with tech or surviving a crisis, simple rewards, rituals and props suddenly mean so much more. During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown I had a nearly 2-year-old entirely at home for almost 3 months, with nowhere to take her (apart from a daily walk) and my husband working full-time at the dining-room table. There was no way I could undertake ‘research as usual’. Instead when she went to sleep for her daily nap I would sit down at my computer. I consciously told myself it didn’t matter how long I worked for, only that I sat down and began. As soon as I sat down I put a bronze or silver star on the calendar. Some days I only worked for 10 minutes. Other days it was two or three hours. And sometimes I would nap too, or rest. It didn’t matter because over time those little stars accumulated. I felt good. I was exercising my brain despite the crisis and making steady progress on my research. By the time I reached August I had submitted a paper begun during COVID-19 nap time.

A calendar from July 2020 with bronze, silver and gold stars overlying the dates.
Calendar from July 2020 (after nurseries reopened) showing the days I worked during nap time (bronze stars), the days I worked longer while the toddler was at nursery (silver stars), and the days I submitted something (gold stars).

You also need to understand when to stop writing. You wouldn’t train for a marathon or practice for an opera every working minute – your body would rapidly become exhausted. In the same way writing is hard intellectual work, Deep Work as Cal Newport has it in his book of the same name. Like a muscle or skill it must be developed and like a muscle or skill it must also be rested. How long you can sustain fluid, soaring writing will depend on your energy levels and past experience but you need to learn to stop when it becomes a slog and rest regularly.

4. Develop a writing system

Once you understand when and how you write best you can start to create a ‘writing system‘ or routine. This should be a method that allows you to maintain momentum, writing regularly and exercising your intellectual muscles. The most important thing about a writing system is that it needs to suit your personality and situation and ensure you keep writing. Your writing system also needs to be encouraging and adaptable, particularly if you have work or family commitments. You don’t want to end up feeling guilty about ‘not writing’ when circumstances prevent it and you want to be able to pick it back up after a pause. It should also work with your project management system so you are always in control.

Writing systems boil down to three different types that can also be combined: write every day; write regularly but not every day; write in intensive bursts. Cathy Mazak teaches a system combining regular writing with intensive bursts. You can also try the write every day approach like Raul Pacheco-Vega. I recommend you try a variety of different systems and see which one works for you.

5. Learn time management

You’re ready to write regularly, have discovered when you work best, and are experimenting with project management and writing systems. Now you can start managing your time, corralling your PhD work into the time your have or structuring all those unstructured days. As with almost anything else there are multiple methods of approaching time management. Raul Pacheco-Vega has a lot of helpful posts ranging from semester planning to thesis planning. For managing your everyday life I like Cathy Mazak’s ideal week approach that helps you plan out how you would ideally spend your week, beginning with necessary rest and recuperation (such as lunch or regular exercise) and professional and personal commitments, before planning research and writing time at those hours that you do you best work. You can then use your ideal week in concert with your project management data to plan your weekly workload by allotting project tasks to specific time periods. Alternative approaches could include planning your research tasks on web-based calendar or in a physical planner, like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Everything Notebook.

Trello Kanban board showing 5 columns with the days of the working week and cards below detailing activities between 9.00-5.30.
My current ideal week

In my current ideal week Monday is mostly devoted to childcare because I have my toddler at home on Mondays. Tuesday I allot time for catching up on email and social media and committee work, with teaching, my freelance work and CPD also possibilities. On Wednesday the morning is devoted to research writing. On Thursday and Friday I spend my mornings doing teaching prep, freelance work or CPD depending on what is more urgent. Afternoons include what I call ‘environment maintenance’ which means household chores I can’t do with a toddler around, plus emails.

As you become better at project and time management and get further into your PhD research you will become better at breaking your work into manageable tasks, estimating their length, and planning when they will be completed. Combining this with a better grasp of how your research is going to develop should make it easier for you to plan out your PhD project and thesis write-up. Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pat Thompson both have blogs on planning and structuring your thesis. Any type of long-term planning becomes easier once you are proficient at small-scale time and project management and your first year is an ideal point to start developing those skills.

6. Develop your literature review skills

The ‘literature review’ is something you will come across in academic discussions, but it isn’t a major topic of conversation amongst archaeologists or Egyptologists. In our disciplines it seems to be simply expected that we will engage thoroughly with the literature surrounding our subject and somehow be able to express that suitably in academic writing. This is a shame because explicit discussion of the literature review and how to do it can be liberating. Learning how to efficiently read, record and regurgitate the literature is both encouraging and a huge time-saver.

Succinctly, the purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate how your research fits in with the current state of your discipline. You will use it to show which ‘gap’ in the pre-existing research you are filling (and therefore reminding everyone that yours is truly ‘original’ research) and which other authors you are in a dialogue with: who do you admire, who inspired your research and (just as importantly) who’s work do you despise. You won’t need to read or cite every single piece of literature ever written on your discipline, but you do need to demonstrate you have a good grasp of it and be certain you haven’t missed anyone or anything really important.

A quarried face with traces of red paint from multiple First Intermediate Period graffitos.
Literature review involves entering into a dialogue with others in your discipline, much like the interleaving graffiti of the First Intermediate Period expeditions in Quarry P at Hatnub.

In order to complete your literature review you will need to develop a method of academic reading, and your first year is the ideal time to do so. There’s no right method of reading academic literature, but whatever method you choose needs to enable you to efficiently:

  • Understand what any given academic paper is about;
  • Summarise the paper
  • Identify any specifics of relevance to your research
  • Identify any interactions with other academic papers
  • Retain this information for the future.

What this boils down to in practice is typically a method for reading the paper, a method of summarising the paper and a method for storing the summary and bibliographic information where you can easily retrieve it. What methods you use will depend on how you read, summarise and store. Personally I like Raul Pacheco-Vega’s and Pat Thompson (Patter’s) advice on reading literature and undertaking literature reviews. I also like the Zettelkasten concept of recording ideas singly and linking them to each other and you can use Trello for it. I am slowly working on recording the common concepts I need to reference again and again, but after so many years of research, building something like a Zettel archive is difficult. The first year of your PhD is an ideal time for investigating literature review methods and developing something that will work for you.

7. Hone your writing

I have mentioned that writing is a skill and one that needs practice. But just like our marathon runner’s muscles, getting the right kind of help can dramatically improve your abilities. If you’re anything like me you came through academia with a certain innate ability to write academic prose (in my case its because I’m a stylistic mimic – my written thoughts start to fall into the same style as the last things I read). If you were never consciously taught to write, why would you think of honing that skill and actively improving? But however good your academic prose is, it can always be better, and happily there are many resources out there to help train your academic writing muscle. Both Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pat Thompson have resources on improving your academic writing. Pat Thompson has a many posts about writing the different parts of your thesis as well as collections of posts on writing a journal article or book. You may also find additional sources like the Explorations of Academic Style blog and advice on social media using the twitter hashtag #AcWri. The hastag #AcademicChatter and handles @WriteThatPhD @ThesisWhisperer and @AcademicsWrite also contain incredibly useful advice and links to other hashtags and handles. Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion Facebook group also has a lot of useful advice and tips. If vocabulary is an issue you can try the University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank. There are also many books on the subject, including:

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein 2018. They Say / I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W. W. Norton & Company.

Eric Hayot 2014. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. Columbia University Press.

Inger Mewburn, Katherine Firth and Shawn Lehmann 2018. How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble. Open University Press

Rowena Murray 2011. How To Write A Thesis (Open Up Study Skills). 3rd Edition. Open University Press.

John M. Swales and Christine Feak 2012. Academic Writing for Graduate Students. 23rd edition. The University of Michigan Press.

Helen Sword 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press.


Eric Hayot’s book merits a particular mention as it includes one of the most useful pieces of advice I have ever read: The Uneven U, which is a method for arranging your sentences, paragraphs or chapters in a format that clarifies your argument and ties your evidence clearly to the statements it supports.

A statue of an Old Kingdom Egyptian official in scribal pose
Limestone statue of the Priest Ptahshepses as a scribe, reading. 5th Dynasty, from Saqqara. Now in the Cairo Museum.

Learning new ways of improving your academic writing will help you train your mind more rapidly and reduce the chances of getting negative or frustrating criticism about your writing style from supervisors or reviewers.

8. Learn the basics of your word processing and spreadsheet software

This sounds obvious but its amazing how many people don’t know basic tricks that will make their word processing software so much more ergonomic. You’re practicing your writing and beginning your research. Now is the ideal time to start checking out the functionality of your word processing software and change it if necessary. You’d be surprised how much you can do with Microsoft Word as I found reading a list of hacks in a Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks Discussion Facebook group (this is a private group so if you want to read the list I recommend you join – it also has a lot of other useful academic writing resources). You could do an online course, see if your University runs one or just start searching for solutions to the features of your word processor that have most annoyed you in the past. Over the years I have found that at lot of my annoyance with Word resulted from me not understanding how to get what I needed to from the programme.

9. Explore Reference Managers

Reference Managers promise to end those frustrating hours compiling a bibliography, checking every comma and parenthesis is in the right place and whether you’ve included the publisher and place of publication in the right order. Whether its Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley Paperpile, or another type of bibliographic software they all allow you to construct a database of references. These references can be inserted as citations into your document and those citations are then used to compile your bibliography in the format you specify. Theoretically its brilliant, but there are some caveats. Different reference managers have slightly different functionalities, as this comparison table from Oxford University shows. Some are proprietary and others are open source. Proprietary types are generally slicker, but can be expensive and may prompt ethical concerns. You may get a reference manager free from your University, but may need to pay or export your references elsewhere when you leave. Different reference managers also have different integration with tablets and phones, which may be a consideration depending on how you like to work.

At the start of your PhD you have the opportunity to test out reference managers. Your best option is to begin with the version preferred by your University and seek assistance from your library in getting any necessary training. If your University offers a choice you should probably check with your supervisors, mentors or peers which reference manager they prefer. However, you may find they don’t use one. In a poll I put up on a Facebook page frequented by many Egyptologists 62 didn’t use a reference manager, 27 used Zotero, 10 used Endnote and 5 used Mendeley. Quigga, Bookends, Ibidem and Refworks all got one vote each. I suspect for those of us who have a lot of analogue references, finding the time to input them all into a reference manager proves rather off-putting. Using a reference manager from the very start of your PhD should prevent you ever ending up in the same position, ensuring your references are consistently imported into the reference manager, ideally during the literature review and reading process. It will also provide an opportunity to learn how to make best use of your reference manager in concert with the rest of your reading and literature review process.

10. Go social

Social media have something of a mixed reputation, but whatever you think about the social media fandoms, twitter trolls or Mark Zuckerberg, social media represent a huge resource and intensely valuable community. Almost everything I have discussed or linked to in this blog I originally found on social media and I’ve discussed before my engagement in various Facebook Egyptology groups. You do not need to engage with toxicity or trolling if you chose not to. You can lock down your profiles, restrict your interests to academic subjects and limit the information you provide about yourself. By all means be cautious, but avoiding social media entirely cuts off an important resource and community.

A scene from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing various guests at a party.
Engaging with your community is important. Party scene, tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum (BM EA 37986)

Twitter is extremely popular amongst academics and you can find and follow mentors, supervisors, fieldwork and research projects of interest to you. It’s often the first place to locate the newest research in your field and catch up with recent discoveries on site. The wide range of twitter hashtags and tweeps in the academic writing, PhD, research and post-doc communities also provide up-to-date information on job postings, research opportunities and grants, as well as more general advice and encouragement on getting through a PhD. In addition to the academic writing hashtags above try #PhDChat #AcademicTwitter #PhDAdvice #PhdLife @AcademicChatter @Homo_Academicus @PhDSpeaks @PhD_Connect. Your favourite academic coaches are also on twitter including @ProfessorIsIn @ThesisWhisperer @MurrayRowena @RaulPacheco and @ThompsonPat. @RaulPacheco also has a lot of advice on how to manage your social media, and particularly you Twitter presence.

Facebook also offers opportunities, primarily in the form of groups to join. If you’re a woman, trans or non-binary person, groups like Cathy Mazak’s I Should Be Writing and the Women in Academia Support Network offer a supportive community for academics. BAJR Archaeology is open to everyone with archaeological leanings and its offshoot Mentoring Womxn in Archaelogy and Heritage is suitable for women, trans and non-binary archaeologists. On the Egyptology side there are a plethora of Egyptology groups on Facebook. The best ones are strictly supervised, with ruthlessly enforced rules about advertising, trolling, politics, pseudo-science and rudeness. Here you can find information on new discoveries, queries about objects, links to interesting pages and resources, information about exhibitions, lectures, study days and meetings. Try Em Hotep, Petrie Museum Friends, Sussex Egyptology, Essex Egyptology and various other local group pages you will find frequently link to these. For those with a specific interest there are also more targeted pages PrEgypt, Old Kingdom Egyptology, The Coffin Club, Hatshepsut Project, Not Just Another Akhenaten and Amarna Group, New Kingdom Egyptology Group, Egyptian Third Intermediate Period, Egypt in the First Millennium BC.

How you make use of social media during your PhD and throughout your research career is likely to be highly personal to you. There is no one single method because this technology is so new, so as with everything else here it’s worth experimenting to see what works and what you like. The first year of your PhD is the ideal time for such experimentation.

Bibliography

Mark Carrington 2019 Social Media for Academics. 2nd Edition. Sage.

Cal Newport 2016, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus.

Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber 2016 Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. University of Toronto Press.

Jon Acuff 2019. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Portfolio.

About hannahpethen

Having completed my PhD in archaeology at the University of Liverpool, I am now a freelance archaeologists working with landscape and topographic survey and satellite imagery. I specialise in GIS, GPS, desk-based assessment and landscape projects and have a particular interest in Egyptian archaeology.
This entry was posted in Academic life, Traditional and Social Media and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.