Things I wish I had known at the start of my PhD

I am entering the final stretch of my PhD and this is a list of things that I wish I had known (or things I wish someone would have told me) when I started my PhD… I have also included somethings that people did tell me and I found incredibly useful. Please add yours in the comments!

  • Set out what your aims are at the start of your PhD (and let your supervisor know) for instance if you would like to spend time in a different lab or learn a specific technique.. TELL THEM. They aren’t mind readers
  • Plan, write plans (revisit and revise plans) and keep showing them to your supervisor (even if your supervisor appears uninterested)
  • Get to know your supervisor, learn how they work and how to get the most out of them
  • Learn to communicate what you are doing to someone outside of your field (and your parents/loved ones)
  • Adapt, learn that plans are not set in stone and things have to change and shift. Learn to live and love(if you can) this
  • Things will take longer than you plan them to
  • Read the PhD comic strips (
  • Join a select number of societies related to your field (when the time comes to present work at conferences most societies insist that you have been a member of their society for 12 months in order to apply for travel funds/grants – I wish I had known this!)
  • ‘The Unexpected’ WILL happen. You can’t plan for it. You don’t know when it will happen. But it WILL ARRIVE. Promise.
  • There will be additional courses, learning and support you can get from the university along the way (for example presenting, writing or computer skills courses). Identify where your weaknesses are and find out what courses will be able to help you
  • Learn to communicate with your supervisor and lab mates/others in your group
  • Gain a set of friends who are all at different stages of their PhDs, you can draw on their experiences, pass on your experiences and go for tea breaks with them when ‘the unexpected’ happens 
  • Politics will probably create more problems and stresses than your research
  • Not all research is ground breaking or exciting, but it all helps
  • Something you have to do will be incredibly dull
  • Something you have to do will be exciting
  • You will find yourself in a different world where only your PhD project exists (try not to spend too much time in this world, it helps to get out from time to time)
  • At some point someone will ask you to teach someone else
  • Blog it. Blogging the trials and tribulations of your PhD can help get you through it and you might make some friends along the way
  • Think about (and plan for) what you want to do when it ends. Although it may not feel like it eventually you will finish it!
  • You will not tick off everything on the plan you created at the start of your PhD
  • Your PhD is your project you need to OWN it, manage it and be responsible for it.

I probably need to add something about ‘being organised’ and ‘writing everything down and filing it properly’ these two will probably become more of a concern as I try to put all my work together in the thesis!


About Heather Doran

I am a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen. My PhD is Molecular Biology and Pharmacology based. I studied Molecular Biology and Biochemistry with a year in Industry at Durham University. I then went on to work in research and development in the consumer goods industry for 12 months. I decided for my long term career and for my own personal interests I wanted to pursue a PhD – so I went for it and I am enjoying (nearly) every minute! I am really passionate about science communication and I get involved in lots of different activities that are available through the University and through being a PhD student. I hope my blog will be useful for people who are thinking of doing a PhD in any subject and also for those that are studying for their PhDs at the moment.

19 Responses to Things I wish I had known at the start of my PhD

  1. Fili says:

    Good points, I agree and sympathize with most.

    Even though I’ve been told some of these before the PhD it’s not until you’re far into the journey that you realize how those happen, how they apply to you and how you can address those.

    Good luck with the PhD! ^_^

  2. Katie says:

    Thanks for sharing . I would like to add a few more comments to this:
    its not a very good idea to try and publish while you are still writing your theses. Of course its good to have a few publication by the time you give your defence (viva/oral), but beleive me, when your paper get the comments from the reviewers once too many , it can dent your self-confidence and interest in your theses. OF course these comments are helpful and can strengthen your own work as you look at from different angle and perspectives, but it is a downer as well. So my advice…. just concentrate on your theses and completing it….
    i am in my final year PhD……

    • Yes, it really is a balance of where you should put your time and effort!! Which one is worth more…

    • Mark says:

      I disagree entirely. In the world of academics you only have one currency and that is your record of publication. The sooner you have first author publications, the sooner you show that you can take a project from start to completion and that you are becoming an independent scientist. I’ll take a grad student that presents me with a PhD defense of several chapters already in press over one that is still figuring out how to write their first abstract in their last year any day of the week. This will also put you in a much better position when it comes time to apply for postdocs.

  3. Dear Heather Doran,
    Well done with this blog and good luck as you reach the final stages of your PhD. I am sure you will gain your doctorate.
    I am currently devising / ‘designing’ a VLE (eBridge) intranet online course for our PGs at the University of Hull. I am delighted with this particular page and the retrospective advice you give to fellow PGs. I am still in the early stages of doing this work, but an initial thought is that I might link to this page (if it is OK with you). You highlight some very good points, especially about PLANNING.
    Yours is the second mention I have seen today to the PhD Comic, so I will check that out soon.
    Cheers for now, Alec Gill

    • Thanks Alec, I know at the University of Aberdeen someone is organising a PhD life conference (running in November 2012) that might be something you can hook up with too. They have made a PhD Comic movie, if no-one is screening at your university, you should! :-)

  4. Gary Bratchford says:

    Hey Heather,
    very sound advice and generally some very interesting and useful posts (I’ve just had a look through a few of them)

    I will particularly take heed of the following…

    “Join a select number of societies related to your field (when the time comes to present work at conferences most societies insist that you have been a member of their society for 12 months in order to apply for travel funds/grants – I wish I had known this!)”

    And the blogging tip i’m finding this very useful in terms of collecting my thoughts and gaining feedback

    I’m doing both and you’re right, it makes such a difference to network/get to know which societies work within your field and they are useful in terms of gaining information on presentations early etc.

    Good luck,

  5. Rashi says:

    hi Heather,
    These points are helpful and will be kept in mind, while our phd
    esp the ‘unexpected’ thing actually happens:)
    thanks for sharing such experience:)
    I am from India,working in IIT delhi on smart antennas in dept of electrical engineering.
    Also i have gain a friend by reading your blog,isnt it:)
    Good luck in your endeavors

  6. Mohd says:

    Hi Heather,

    Thanks for this wonderful work, I should have done all those in the list in my first year even though some of it I did. PhD comic is really cool,I feel PhD is fun now..some of the scenarios are really happened to me.

    I’m doing my PhD in Germany and now in the second year. I hope I can learn more from you through this blog.


  7. Pingback: Things I wish I had known « Newcastle Researchers' Blog

  8. Janine says:

    Thanks for the blog Heather

    Keep apply to do PhDs but I never seem to hear back. I have recently just done a MSc to haul up my ordinary degree. I am often in the IMS for seminars and will be in next month for one. (I am id able with the RSC I carry)

    How easy was it for you to get onto a PhD and I have been unable to get a job or gain experience?
    Thanks again


  9. kem says:

    Wow this is so helpful. when all US schools said no i tried UK and i have an offer, though yet to receive the official one. i am starting in september and i will sure use your tips. thanks a lot!

  10. Sonam says:

    Its always good to have practical advice.. :) I am in I year of my PhD and I know its very soon to comment anything about it as I just joined.. Still I would like to say that PhD is fun if the topic is of your interest, all you have to do is work hard and seek guidance wherever you need.. and use the resources available…

  11. astried says:

    I have plan to find Doctoral Scholarship next year after my master is finish.
    I have mixed feelings, worried, happy, scare, curious… and the i read your blog.
    Thank you for the blog, it really ignites my spirit.
    Keep writing

  12. Nazia Fathima says:

    You tips are really helpful and i will definitely use them. I’ll be starting off with my PhD from august, but before that I have to give a presentation based on the topic of research which i’ve chosen. It would be very helpful if You could help me with the format of the presentation.
    Thank You,
    Nazia Fathima

  13. Rachel says:

    I’m about to start my PhD and am quite scared and unsure of what to expect. However I’m glad I found this blog! Good luck to all.

  14. salimah says:

    Thanks heather for the tips, just got an admission for my PhD. Glad I found ur blog.

  15. Christos Nikolis MSc says:

    Hi Heather,

    I would like to start a PhD topic in Surveying Engineering this year (2016). I am not sure that I can have it. I currently study your friendly advice page, wish me luck…


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