#STEMSupport – How to Embrace the Challenges of Being a New PhD Student?

Welcome to #STEMSupport, a bi-monthly article that will tackle common questions and issues others may face within STEM.

In Today’s article will talk about managing your first year as a PhD student and how to beat first timer frustrations!

This morning, I walked into our research office to find a new face – apparently a new PhD student had joined our department this week. And the first question she asked was a question that I remember asking myself in this very same room, nearly two years ago…

“So…what’s next?” She was looking up-to me for helping her with her brand new set of challenges as a new PhD student!

I can’t speak from experience about the last year of the PhD (please don’t scare me yet, I still have a few years to go!), but it seems to be the general consensus among my fellow PhDs that the first year can be extremely difficult. I’d have to agree, too – I think the best way to describe my first year is that scene from The Neverending Story when that horse gets sucked into the Swamp of Sadness.

But what exactly is so hard about the first year?

For starters, the PhD is something most people have never experienced before and it can be a vast change of pace for many students coming from their previous degree. I went from an intense, one year MSc programme to a three year PhD programme and it felt like I had almost too much time when I first began (oh how wrong I was).

I also think it’s a strange transition period for most people – the PhD is basically your transition from student to professional expert within a few years, and it can feel very weird to be in this in-between space. This is especially true for the first couple of months of the PhD and can make anyone feel very lost!

So, for all of you PhD freshers out there, these tips are for you:

• Take a deep breath

The best advice my supervisor has ever given me was, “the PhD is not a race”. Before you throw yourself headfirst into your work (even if you’re really excited to start!), make sure you get prepared. Get the equipment you need, decorate your office space if you can…whatever you need to feel prepared and ready to work. I find that having everything I need in a space that is tailored to me helps with feeling comfortable and less anxious about my work. Start off slow and ease your way into the PhD lifestyle.

• Don’t compare yourself

When I first started, I was the only new PhD student in my research office. Everyone else was mostly in the last few months of their PhD, so there was quite a gap between us. Hearing everyone typing away on the last pages of their thesis made me feel like I was so behind as I started research for my literature review. Of course, this was ridiculous – I was only in my first week of the PhD! But it’s easy to compare yourselves to the people around you, especially when you’re already feeling insecure. Remind yourself that every PhD student is on their own individual journey – your progress will differ from the progress of the person next to you, so why compare at all?

• Every little step counts

With everyone else in the midst of writing their newest chapter, it was easy to feel like, I was doing absolutely nothing while I read yet another article and highlighting things. But spending hours reading is necessary for the final thesis – after all, how else will you write about anything?

Try and remember that even the smallest and most menial tasks are vital to the overall work – even the smallest brick matters to the resulting building!

• It’s a marathon not a sprint!

Yes, it bears repeating: the PhD is not a 100m sprint race! It is very easy to feel as though you have to prove yourself off the bat – I definitely tried to do as much work as possible in that first month. But, it turns out that trying to read 100 articles in a week isn’t the healthiest thing to do. Do good work, not a lot of work – you won’t impress anyone if you’re submitting rushed drafts in the first weeks of your PhD!

• You are not alone.

I made the mistake of not reaching out to my fellow PhDs in my department in my first year, which made me feel very alone and isolated. I spent most of my second year making friends and getting more involved with the department, including going out for post-lecture drinks and attending the weekly game night. Not only does getting involved with your colleagues give you more opportunities to blow off some steam, but they can also provide you with good advice! After all, they were once in your shoes and they know exactly how difficult things can be when you first start your PhD. This also extends to social media, as well – on Twitter, there is a fantastic community of PhDs who communicate using hashtags such as #PhDchat. Whether you find colleagues over the Internet or from the office across from yours, always remember that you are not alone!

You can do this!

Thanks for reading! If you have suggestions for topics you would like #STEMSupport to cover in the future, feel free to contact me on Twitter @ArchaeologyFitz. I also write at animalarchaeology.wordpress.com.

Read more about the author and our STEM support section at

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