Things I wish I had known when I started my PhD

I am entering the final stretch of my PhD and here is a list of things that I wish I had known (or things I wish someone would have told me) when I started my PhD...
Please add yours in the comments!
  • Set out what your aims are at the start of your PhD (and let your supervisor know) for instance if you would like to spend time in a different lab or learn a specific technique.. TELL THEM. They aren't mind readers
  • Plan, write plans (revisit and revise plans) and keep showing them to your supervisor (even if your supervisor appears uninterested)
  • Get to know your supervisor, learn how they work and how to get the most out of them
  • Learn to communicate what you are doing to someone outside of your field (and your parents/loved ones)
  • Adapt, learn that plans are not set in stone and things have to change and shift. Learn to live and love(if you can) this
  • Things will take longer than you plan them to
  • Read the PhD comic strips (
  • Join a select number of societies related to your field (when the time comes to present work at conferences most societies insist that you have been a member of their society for 12 months in order to apply for travel funds/grants - I wish I had known this!)
  • 'The Unexpected' WILL happen. You can't plan for it. You don't know when it will happen. But it WILL ARRIVE. Promise.
  • There will be additional courses, learning and support you can get from the university along the way (for example presenting, writing or computer skills courses). Identify where your weaknesses are and find out what courses will be able to help you
  • Learn to communicate with your supervisor and lab mates/others in your group
  • Gain a set of friends who are all at different stages of their PhDs, you can draw on their experiences, pass on your experiences and go for tea breaks with them when 'the unexpected' happens 
  • Politics will probably create more problems and stresses than your research
  • Not all research is ground breaking or exciting, but it all helps
  • Something you have to do will be incredibly dull
  • Something you have to do will be exciting
  • You will find yourself in a different world where only your PhD project exists (try not to spend too much time in this world, it helps to get out from time to time)
  • At some point someone will ask you to teach someone else
  • Blog it. Blogging the trials and tribulations of your PhD can help get you through it and you might make some friends along the way
  • Think about (and plan for) what you want to do when it ends. Although it may not feel like it eventually you will finish it!
  • You will not tick off everything on the plan you created at the start of your PhD
  • Your PhD is your project you need to OWN it, manage it and be responsible for it.

I probably need to add something about 'being organised' and 'writing everything down and filing it properly' these two will probably become more of a concern as I try to put all my work together in the thesis!

Some additions from twitter-

Be aware of admin that you need to complete (or probably more appropriately fill in)
@sinisteragent Might I suggest "Be nice, but firm, with admin staff"? You might be surprised how serious & complicated simple procedures can be.'

' @sinisteragent Admin stuff can scupper everything - get it done early whenever possible. Especially if you're international.

@richboden "Your lab book is the larval form of a paper or thesis. You should be able to write a paper from the lab book ALONE. Keep it well."

@richboden Oh yes and the controversial one "Don't go/do anything the uni tries to make you do unless it's assessed. You don't have time.".

@richboden The other one being "A Ph.D is not meant to be Hell. If you aren't enjoying it, only you have the power to improve your situation."

@richboden My main piece of advice to students is "three years today you will hand your thesis in. Extensions are for genuine mitigating need".

@MPPjournal supervisors are not mind readers. if there is a problem tell them. can only solve it, if we know about it

@elle__xx  back up, back up, and back up all of your data/writing/protocols and make use of reps - no PhD student should ever pay for a pen ;)


  1. Thanks for such a brilliant post- I will definitely listen to your advice :)

  2. Write down your thoughts on your work and keep a note if you change or omit some results or decide to do something a particular way. When it comes to writing it up in 2 years, you probably won't remember why you did it!

  3. Speaking as a PhD supervisor nowadays, don't believe everything your supervisor tells you! Challenge, debate and rebel where necessary, rather than blindly accepting every recommendation they make. They are there to advise you only - at the end of the day, it is your PhD.

  4. If you don't remember why you did it, maybe you can think of a cooler sounding reason...

  5. Save EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING. Save it in multiple places. I lost no less than three harddrives during my grad school years. It happens, don't let it be you.

    Take careful, careful notes. You might know what "group of cells +eleventy and drug x" means now, but 6 years on? You won't remember. Write down even information that seems irrelevant at the time. It may save your butt.

  6. If you work with large numbers of samples, particularly if they're nested subsamples from something else (ie- DNA samples from leaf samples from herbarium specimens...), BE INCREDIBLY, ANALLY ORGANIZED about it. Reference, cross-reference, make lists upon lists to keep it all straight. I messed this up during my MSc, but have been religious about it during my PhD, and it's been an absolute lifesaver. The data just snowballs on you...

  7. Think long and hard about the PhD you want to do and who you do it with - you are about to enter into a 3+ year long relationship with your supervisor and their research group, during which time you will see more of them than of your friends and family. So put as much thought (and effort) into establishing and maintaining this relationship as would for any other.

  8. I am just about to start my PhD at UCL so this is a super helpful post to find. Thanks for all the tips

    Sian x


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting Women into Science, EU Directive

How many papers should academics publish per year?

How to help someone that is writing up their thesis