‘Tis the season – starting a PhD

It’s October, and the internet is full of tips for people embarking on their PhDs. I’ve seen some excellent advice over the last few days, and I wanted to gather some of this wisdom here. Everyone’s PhD experiences and circumstances are different, but hearing from those who have been through the same process before is really important. (This why I’m very very glad I did a PhD in the internet age.)

Over on Res Gerendae, the Cambridge Classics graduate blog, Tom Nelson has put together a list of highly practical tips for starting out on your PhD journey. The advice about using bibliographical software (Zotero is my favourite) and backing things up regularly is particularly important. I set up Zotero a term into my PhD, and I really wished I’d done it sooner. Having a system for how you name your files is also a great idea – I always label them “yyyy.mm.dd Title”, so that they display in chronological order, a geeky tip taught to me by an older student when I was an undergrad. There are also some great perspectives in this article “So, you’re starting a PhD?“, especially in the comments. (And I would add regular reading of the Thesis Whisperer blog to “things I wish I’d known to do when I started my PhD.”)

On twitter, this thread from earlier in the week on what people wish they had known before their PhD makes excellent reading. Maria Kneafsey really nailed it for me:


I think I knew all of these on some level before I started my PhD, but acting on them is another matter. “Getting distracted” can, of course, be a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t want to undo some of the side-paths my research has taken me on. But it’s good to know your overall aims and have a clear plan for how you want to get there.

A life outside your PhD is also really important, whether that’s family or friends or a job or other interests or all of the above, not just because it gives you the down-time that is hugely important for thinking new thoughts, but also because it gives you an identity outside work. When the PhD is not going so well (or not going so well in your own mind, anyway), it’s important to have time to step back a bit and think about something else for a while. Schedule yourself some time away from your PhD. For me, the real breakthrough was not thinking of other activities (exercise, seeing a film, having Sunday completely free) as distractions from my to-do list, but as items on my to-do list.

As for faking your way through impostor syndrome, all I can say is (a) you can do it and (b) you’re not alone in feeling that you can’t. Some of the most interesting conversations you’ll have with senior academics you respect are those when they reveal their deep insecurities about not knowing enough about Ovid, or Greek burial practices, or Late Antiquity. We all have our gaps, and we all have our worries about those gaps – but your PhD will make you the world expert in one tiny thing. Enjoy that feeling whenever you can!

Nibble away at your PhD like a Roman mouse nibbling at a walnut… or something


2 thoughts on “‘Tis the season – starting a PhD

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  1. Very enjoyable blog about PhD writing — I’m sure it will be very useful. Can you give any information about the lovely mosaic: I had to enlarge it to be sure the mouse wasn’t real!


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