Welcome, new student,

To the (often surreal) life of a doctoral researcher. Through The Thriving Researcher and my work at the University of Oxford, I meet many hundreds of new students every year, and here are six nudges I come back to time and again that will help you settle in your new life. 

  1. Filter hard, to handle information overwhelm

You’re likely feeling very busy right now, as your university takes you through the induction process for new students. This usually contains really important information; it’s usually too much to absorb at once. Don’t worry about remembering it all; just note the key themes and where to look for more information on that topic when you need it. 

  1. Set strong foundations

If you’re a researcher, chances are that asking questions is a super-power you already have, yet it’s surprising how often researchers don’t use that power to their own benefit. For a quick start, try this list of 39 questions I’ve created to help you find your feet as quickly as possible. 

3. Defuse research frustration

You’ve probably got loads of energy and a burning desire to get on with your research project – after all, you’ve been waiting a year or longer to get to this point, why wait another day? And if you’ve come to a PhD from work, you’ll likely be feeling this change of pace even more acutely. 

Lots of first-year research students find they’re asked to take a taught programme or training; if this happens to you, don’t panic, it’s not going to take time away from your research. Your institution has determined this is what students are most likely to need to succeed, and has rigorously reviewed the time commitment it will take from you, so you can (intellectually) relax into it and see what you can get out of it.

4. Connect, connect, connect

This is something that would happen quite organically in non-Covid times, but these days we need to be more intentional about it, which can sound a little weird when written down! Map out the different circles and networks you are, or would like to be, a member of. Here are some for starters:

  • Your supervisory circle (supervisor[s], Director of Graduate or Doctoral studies)
  • Your academic peer-group (other students in your department and further afield)
  • Your research support network (librarians, personal mentor, IT support, pastoral support etc.) 
  • Your local area 
  • Your family 
  • Your pre-doctorate friends
  • Your faith community 
  • Your running group

Think about who sits in which group, and how you’re going to form, develop and maintain connections with them. Think about the way(s) in which you’re able to communicate, and those you prefer. Be strategic when you think about taking on new commitments, or making a commitment to be in regular contact: technically, it may be possible to be on Zoom all day, but I don’t know anyone who feels their best self after more than a couple of hours of it.

5. Write. Every. Day.

  • Some people keep a research journal
  • Some people write daily pages
  • Immensely prolific academic Raul Pacheco has an Everything Notebook

If you’ve got nothing to say, try setting a timer for 30 minutes and free-writing about how little you’ve got to say. It’s surprising how often something useful sneaks in there.

The idea is to establish the practice now, so the act of writing becomes just something you do, rather than being deferred and deferred until it’s freighted with immense baggage

6. Pace yourself

Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint, pace yourself and set steady foundations for the next few years!

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