You got in and now here are five tips to survive the first year of your PhD.

Everyone starts at the same place. ZERO.

EVERYONE – this includes your fellow students to the professors you admire to Nobel laureates – all start at zero. 

So if you’re feeling unsure or even a little lost as you start, rest assured, you are not alone.

You are in the right place. You were accepted into the program and you deserve to be there.  

Choose your advisor wisely.

You will most likely choose your advisor some time between your first and second year of your program. Choosing who your advisor will be for the next five plus years is crucial.

There are a plethora of questions you could ask your advisor as you make your decision. Here are two that were important to me during my PhD.

Publication record. If you want to have a very productive PhD, with papers published by the time you’re done, you want to think about the publishing record of your advisor. In academia, advancement depends how many papers you’ve published.  If you intend on staying in academia, it’s important to have an advisor that regularly produces publications. This increases the possibility that  you will finish a PhD with at least one publication which will then make you a more competitive application.

During my PhD program, I got to work with a younger advisor who was early in her career and thus published regularly. At the time I did not even realize how this was beneficial but her drive to publish at least one paper a year meant that by the time I graduated, I had four papers – one first-author and three where I was the middle author. I published a second first-author paper after I graduated. Five papers in 5.5 years looked really impressive when I was applying for academic roles.

Another way to gauge this is to look at how long it’s been since that advisor has published. Has it been three or more years since they published?  This may be someone whose career is advanced enough where they do not care as much about publications.  I’m not saying they’re not good advisors. However, if you do plan on staying in academia and this is the advisor you want to work with, this is a discussion you may need to have.

What is important to you as you pursue your PhD? Are you starting a family? Do you already have a family?  How important are those things to your advisor? For instance, some advisors openly antagonize married women who may want to have children down the line. This is an important discussion to have with your potential advisor. Maybe you would like to get teaching experience or other experiences during your doctoral program.  Is your advisor okay with you taking time off to be part of career experiences your university offers?  This is about your career!  So, as much as your advisor is going to be your boss, you can take charge of things from the very beginning to make sure that your goals and future career are supported.

Start thinking about your future career now.

The first year isn’t too early for you to start thinking about your career path.

Even though most PhDs take four to seven years of work, the time really does move quickly!  The first year of your PhD is a great time to talk to your dean of students or the dean of graduate student affairs to learn about the career support programs that are within the program and the graduate school. 

During my PhD, we had a lot of seminars on research topics and we had a few career days but, to be honest, I never was asked to begin thinking about my career beyond my PhD. I think this happens because most grad schools assume most of us will remain in academia. I am beginning to see changes in how grad schools prepare their students for careers after school and that is exciting.

If such programs are not available to you, be a self starter and talk to leaders in your program and ask them to provide these opportunities.  Before I started my PhD, I didn’t know that there were options outside of academia. Fewer than 20 percent of current grad students will ever land a full time, tenured faculty position. So thinking about your career from day one will only serve you.

Create systems that work for you.

As a first year student, you’ll be reading and writing A LOT.  Create a system to file away things that you read and to keep the most important parts of those so that when you’re writing, you can use them.  It could be as simple as having a notebook or depending on tools like Google Docs or Evernote.

I had a composition notebook (old school!) and whenever I would read papers, I would summarize what I had read to the best of my understanding.  I would also print out hard copies of the articles and keep them by my desk so that when the time came for me to write my papers, I would pull the notebook and articles out to support my writing.  

And trust me, having such a system will be beneficial beyond your PhD.

Take care of yourself.

This might look like exercising for 30 minutes each day, reading a novel to wind down each day, or spending time with those who are special to you. Don’t neglect those things that make you a whole person.  Trust me, those things will make you far more successful than just focusing narrowly on the PhD.  

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