Random thoughts / The Common Room

Some PhD Tips

Another academic year begins, and with it comes a new cohort of first year PhDs. The start of a doctorate can be both exciting and disorientating, so I thought I’d offer a few tips that I wish I’d read when I started out on my own PhD ‘journey’.  Everybody’s PhD experience is different, and there are countless help sites and blogs out there (I’ve included a few links at the bottom of this post). But below is my own list of largely practical points which should hopefully make your postgrad life a little easier:

Keep on top of all that data

Over the course of 3 or 4 years, you will accumulate lots of ‘stuff’ which it can be difficult to keep track of – pdfs of articles and book chapters, research notes, plans, references, website links, your own writing and so on. You need to try to store this data effectively so that you can easily re-find it, especially in a year or two’s time. Some simple ways of doing this include:

  1. Bibliographic software: I would highly recommend using some referencing management software like Endnote, Mendeley or Zotero. Even if you don’t use their features to sync with the bibliographies and footnotes of your own written work, they are a great way of storing your references and associated pdfs/notes in an easily-accessible and searchable database. Whichever programme you choose, make sure you set it up and structure it properly from the start – use folders to group references on certain topics together; use ‘tags’ to mark references in various ways (e.g. ‘must read’, ‘finished’, ‘important’ – which you can also often colour-code).
  2. Establish and follow your own document naming conventions: I only started doing this in the summer of my second year, but it has been revolutionary: it means your documents are readily sorted by type and date, and you can more easily avoid working on an old version of a document. For a detailed example of such a convention, see http://www.data.cam.ac.uk/files/gdl_tilsdocnaming_v1_20090612.pdf. I now have various categories like PhD_Introduction_V1_20160627.doc, or PhD_Notes_Homer_Burgess2006_20160715doc. I also now ask my undergrad students to name their submitted work in a similar manner (e.g. 1A_YEAR_TERM_WEEK_SURNAME_TRANSLATED AUTHOR) – the uniformity makes keeping track of their submissions far easier.
  3. Actually back up your data: A common bit of advice, but one I never followed to the letter until my laptop hard drive crashed with 2 minutes’ notice during my 2nd year! If your laptop suddenly died forever right now, how much data would you lose? Don’t let that happen! The trick with backing up data is never to rely on only one back-up method. Use cloud storage AND an external hard drive AND a USB stick, and also don’t keep all the physical back-up devices in the same place (a fire could easily wipe out your laptop, external hard drive and USB stick!). For cloud storage, the University of Cambridge has a subscription with Microsoft Onedrive, so sign up to that for a free 1TB of storage (I wish I’d known that before paying for a larger dropbox account!). Also make sure your bibliographical software is backed up somewhere sensible – some programmes store all their data in an obscure place in the depths of your laptop, so I would recommend moving it to somewhere more findable (desktop/onedrive), to ensure it’s properly and regularly backed-up: see https://www.zotero.org/support/zotero_data for how to do this with Zotero. However, even if you’re on top of your digital data, you’ve also got to think about backing up any paper/physical notes you accumulate. In my supervisors’ day, this involved ‘making Xeroxes and placing them in a safety deposit in the bank’. Nowadays, it might make more sense to scan important hand-written notes, or take a photo of them on your phone to integrate them into your electronic back-up systems.
  4. Sync your data on the go: Try out something like OneNote, a Microsoft note-taking programme which you can sync across your laptop, phone and tablet and also ‘share’ with others – useful for any collaborative work. I find it very helpful for making a list of book references to look up in the University library, and then I only need to take my phone along with me, rather than carrying my laptop around all the shelves!

Working on the thesis

It may be a cliché, but the PhD is very much a marathon, rather than a sprint. You have to pace yourself and not get overwhelmed by an unending to-do list.

  1. Writing: Don’t worry about getting lots written down in one go, but I think it’s important to keep writing things fairly regularly over the course of your PhD – whether that’s a summary of a key debate on a specific subject (which you’ll thank yourself for when you return to the topic two years down the line), a draft argument for a chapter, a blog post for res gerendae, or anything else – it needn’t be much, but just something to keep those writing juices flowing. Don’t sweat about word counts, or force yourself to write when you don’t have anything to say. But I often find that the very process of writing is extremely useful for developing and clarifying ideas.
  2. Working with you Supervisor: Every supervisor-supervisee relationship is different and various supervisors have differing approaches to the supervision system, but you can still have a large say in how the relationship works, how often you meet and how much you get out of the relationship. I found it useful to see my supervisor more regularly at the start of the PhD, while I was still finding my feet, and have since seen him less frequently. Yet however regularly we meet, I find I work better when I have a deadline to work to, so I try to arrange a future meeting date as an incentive to get some work done!

Beyond the thesis

However much you love your thesis area, three or four years is a long time to spend on a specific topic, so do get involved in other things beyond the thesis, both intellectually and socially.

  1. Find another hobby: Most people find it useful to have another passion beyond Classics, be it gardening and birdwatching or rowing and music. I’ve spent many evenings of my graduate life involved in ballroom and latin dancing, a sport which is both intellectually and physically demanding – after sitting at a desk all day, some physical exercise is no bad thing. Spending time away from the thesis can also help you to return to it with renewed vigour.
  2. Take on some teaching in later years (but not too much!): Teaching undergraduates is not only a great way to earn a little more money, but it also helps you approach topics from a new perspective. I’ve found it both a rewarding and challenging experience, and teaching specific topics forces you to improve your own understanding of them. But be wary of taking on too much – you’re here as a student, not a full-time teacher!
  3. Get involved in the Grad community: Be it regularly coming along to the Graduate-Interdisciplinary Seminar each week and the ensuing pub trip, or getting involved in the Faculty Football/Caucus Cup, or even just spending time in the Common room for a tea-break/lunch, do take advantage of the larger graduate community in the Faculty (as well as in your College). We’re all going through the same process, so we can bounce ideas off each other and support each other when the going gets tough. I was told during my induction to Cambridge that doing a PhD is the loneliest time of your life, but with this community around us, it certainly doesn’t have to be!

For further PhD advice, check out some of the below sites:


4 thoughts on “Some PhD Tips

  1. Great post Tom! I would add one more tip, which is something it took me about a year to figure out but improved my quality of life immesurably: schedule regular time off from work (that means thesis, teaching, everything), and STICK TO THAT SCHEDULE. In my case, it was (is) Sundays, but it doesn’t matter when – the important thing is to have some time that a) you are not working and b) you are not feeling guilty for not working!

  2. Thanks Anna! Yes, another good tip, and one I’m certainly not great at sticking to – often the dancing is the scheduled time off, but it’s not proper chill/down time! I know others who take Sundays off as well, and one or two who at least spend Sundays reading an author or topic completely unrelated to their PhD – another way of avoiding spending all the time thinking about the thesis!

  3. Pingback: Some start-of-term news – It's All Greek To Me

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