Starting a Ph.D. program is an exciting journey filled with new challenges and opportunities. If you’re starting one soon, a hearty congratulations!

That said, I will say that there are a number of things I wish someone would have told me when I started my Ph.D. in 2009. I feel it would have made my journey smoother.

Anyway, I don’t want you to live in oblivion. So here are 11 things I wish I knew when I started my Ph.D.

(Like videos instead? Watch the video version of this post below.)

Learn how to simplify complex ideas

It’s a given: you will encounter complex ideas as you go on your PhD journey.

When you encounter complex ideas, don’t dive straight into hefty (and often, wordy) textbooks with complex language to describe the complex idea. Instead, seek resources that break down these ideas into simpler forms. Once you understand the basics, then you can build on it with the more complex material that you often find in textbooks and papers. You will retain the information better this way.

Establish a routine

While I am not the kind of person who timeblocks everything in my life, I found that having some kind of routine in graduate school was helpful. Setting a routine will increase your productivity and efficiency. It helps you manage your time efficiently, balance work and life, and stay on top of your tasks.

Have crucial conversations with your advisors

During the initial stages of your program, don’t be afraid to engage in meaningful discussions with potential advisors. Clarify your research interests, goals, and even lifestyle preferences like vacation time. Having conversations while in lab rotation with students under each advisor will give you a sense of the advisor’s expectations. These conversations will help you find the right advisor for your journey.

Recognize learning opportunities

PhDs are the bosses of learning so it is no wonder that you will have a crazy amount of opportunity to learn beyond your classroom and dissertation work. Please recognize these learning opportunities for what they are. Journal clubs, seminars, and symposiums abound in grad school. They may seem boring and mundane (at least I thought they were, in the beginning). But recognizing and taking advantage of these learning opportunities will broaden your horizons and, help you gain insights into problem-solving from different perspectives.

Start writing early

I had a great advisor who encouraged me to start writing early and organizing the data I had into formats that would be presentable for publications.

I want to pass on the advice: don’t wait until the end of your program to start writing. This practice will not only make you more productive but, it will also ease the dissertation-writing process.

Schedule regular meetings with your advisor

Whether your advisor is readily available or busier, initiate regular meetings to discuss your progress and seek their guidance. Their input in your work will make your writing and research better, so the more frequently you can meet with your advisor, the better. This helps them stay informed about your work and provides you with valuable feedback.


This is my BIGGEST mistake. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely did not take networking very seriously and it was to my detriment. Don’t underestimate the power of networking. Building a strong professional network can open doors to job opportunities and collaborations. So be on the lookout for networking opportunities within your program cohort, when you attend conferences and on online platforms like LinkedIn.

Look for teaching opportunities (if you want to teach)

Look for teaching opportunities (if you want to teach)

Not every graduate student will have the opportunity to teach during their graduate program. I did my PhD in a medical school and we were not allowed to teach the medical students. If you encounter a situation like this and you’re interested in teaching, look for opportunities to gain teaching experience early on. This experience can be invaluable when you start looking for teaching positions after you graduate. It may look like teaching at a community college or within your university to teach undergraduates.

Leverage University resources

Universities offer a wealth of resources beyond your academic program. Gyms, libraries, subscriptions to journals, and training platforms like LinkedIn Learning are all paid for by the university. You may find that your university also has research centers of excellence, career development services, and mental health support. Take advantage of it all while you’re in school!

Build a social support system

You’re going to be successful as a graduate student if you also take care of your life outside of your program. Surround yourself with a supportive social network, whether it’s friends, family, or like-minded individuals. A strong support system can help you navigate the challenges of your PhD journey more effectively.

Your mental health matters

Don’t neglect your mental health. Seek help when you need it. Mental well-being is just as important as physical health.

Starting your PhD is a remarkable step in your academic journey, and it’s crucial to equip yourself with the right tools and mindset. And I have no doubt that this PhD first year advice will help you navigate your new journey better!

Join 2300+ PhDs and academics who receive my weekly newsletter full of career development tips designed for us & receive 34 non-academic career ideas. Click here to join:

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Share This