Unsolicited advice from a Ph.D. student…

As I am approaching the final stages of my PhD, I have been thinking about the things I wish I had done and those that worked for me during this period. I thought that it would be good to share them, as they may help some other students in their first years to make the most out of their PhD process.

I will update this post as more ideas come to my mind, and as you will see, this list doesn’t have any hierarchical order. It is just an advice compilation 😉

Take advantage of the career development resources offered by your university. These include seminars on how to build your CV, networking opportunities, workshops on useful tools, etc. I regret that I just started taking advantage of these tools in my last year, so just look around and I am sure you will find something of interest.

If there are talks and seminars happening in your university (which I am sure there are), take advantage of those opportunities as well. Sometimes these will be related to your research area, but other times, these are general knowledge, interesting topics that you may not have access to outside of the university. Also, you can learn about the topics that are of interest outside of the academic world, which means that you can get an idea of what awaits you when you graduate. Last but not least, you never know where you will find inspirational ideas for your own research.

When you are preparing for your milestones, for a paper presentation or your defense, other (senior) graduate students are a wonderful source of feedback. Sometimes your advisor may not have time to go over your presentations with you and chances are higher that you will find a group of Grad Students who can find time to help you prepare. I have done this a few days before my major presentations and I cannot stress enough how valuable it has been to practice with them.

Additionally, senior students are a wonderful source of knowledge on Ph.D. everyday life. They can help you with info regarding how to sort out your administrative processes, but, more importantly, they have been already through many of graduation requirements. Rely on their experience to learn about the guidelines, what to expect and how to prepare for the Ph.D. examinations. Talking to fellow Ph.D. students and learning about their experiences can certainly make your own a little bit less daunting.

Look for internship opportunities (nationally and internationally). I think you can always learn from an internship experience. These types of opportunities allow you to grow your network, develop skills and practice for what will be your professional future; but if your internship experience can directly benefit your PhD work, then you found the gold pot. The most difficult part is finding economic resources for these internships, given that there are lots of opportunities out there but only a few involve a salary. In order to find your match, it is important to look for the advice of your mentor. He/she will have a broader perspective on what may work best for you.

Write! Yes, a PhD involves a lot of writing which I think is even harder when you’re not doing so in your mother language. However, we should not wait for doing all our writing only when we have publications or dissertation deadlines. Writing exercises such as keeping a journal or a blog count toward developing this academically vital skill.

Read! and by reading I don’t mean only scientific publications related to your research topic. Reading will help you improve your vocabulary, learn from other writing styles and some grammar as well. Aaand, when you read papers related to your research, keep track of what you are reading, what is interesting about those papers, what are the limitations and what can be improved. This will be of invaluable help when you are preparing literature reviews for papers as well as for your dissertation.

Keep logs of the progress you make in your own work. For instance, if you develop code for your work, don’t forget to write down your assumptions, how it works, what are the outputs available. The work that you do during your first year may be useful later on, and trust me, you will be so thankful to your “previous years self” if you have something that guides you through the work you archived.

Take care of yourself. The PhD process is a demanding one. Sometimes formulating and solving problems can be as exhausting as going through your HIIT routine. So, as with every exercise routine, part of the success is to fuel properly and rest. Give yourself time to not only see the world through the glass of your lab, but to actually take a breath of fresh air and get your workout done.

Get involved in your school activities as these allow you to get to know the people in the the place where you will be spending a whole lot of time for a few years. This means that you can get to know who to contact for what and you to ask which questions. It makes your administrative processes easier.

PhD is a lot of hard work and you are investing some of your best years in it. So my biggest advice is to enjoy the ride, with its ups and downs, the acceptance notifications and the rejections. The final outcome will be the sum of all our small/big victories and defeats, so count them all in. And hopefully, the degree will also be accompanied by your personal growth and rewards, which go well beyond academic and professional achievements.


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