What I wish I’d known before starting a PhD

When I started my PhD, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I knew very little about how academia worked, and I had no idea how to approach a long-term research project.

This blog is full of things I learned or figured out along the way (and after graduating), but I think the most important would be;

  1. Pick good people to work with (for me it was more luck than choice)
  2. Your habitual responses when things go wrong are key (checking email isn’t a good response to a problem)
  3. Start small
  4. Don’t worry about what the examiners might think—just do your best

If I had my time again, I’d also put more effort into getting to know what other people were working on (including in other research groups).

What do you wish you’d known before starting your PhD?

Obviously, there’s a lot more detail and context to the points above, but I’ve written and spoken a lot about these and other principles in the past. So I want to know what you wish you’d known before starting your PhD.

Did you have any misapprehensions before you started? Have you learned any valuable lessons, from experience or from others, that you think others should know?

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24 thoughts on “What I wish I’d known before starting a PhD

  1. In my opinion, you can save your life by not starting a PhD with a “wrong” supervisor. So it really worth spending 1-2 years looking for the ” right” person to do a phd with.
    Therefore, the first and most important thing in a research life is to choose the people you want to collaborate with. PhD is the first step in research and supervisor or advisor, firstly, plays the role of a collaborator. So the same rules that we apply for a person to work with or to collaborate with applies while choosing an advisor. It is very important to choose the supervisor by consulting his/her previous PhD students. Also investigating their recent work and publications and asking their collaborators is a very good chance to know the person you are targeting as an advisor. The role of an advisor can sometimes become even more critical than a collaborator when it comes to budget management for paper submission or attending conferences or summer schools. So i can say in addition to a good collaborator, an advisor should be a kind and reasonable person. Otherwise the PhD will become a hell and it is *really* better not to start it.

  2. Hi,
    I am in my first year of my PhD program. And like most new PhD students, I am a bit confused about what I am doing in my research project right now. What I wished I knew before starting my PhD, is the answer to the question “Do I really love doing research? Especially in my field?”. A year and a half ago I had convinced myself that getting a PhD would be much better than doing what I was doing then. But once I started it I have been having these thoughts that question me about how much I like doing research. They have been influenced by all the posts on internet that say you must really love what you are doing in order to get a PhD. Can you/someone tell me if that is true?

    • Nope, not true at all. A lot of people go through long periods where they don’t love their PhD. That said, if you consistently hate it then leaving may be an option

      I think the important thing is to figure out what you need to do- you won’t like it if you have no direction!

  3. Hi. I have a question. I am currently working part time at Uni as a research assistant. In highsight, I wish I never started as the workload very often exceed the official “work hours”. I have decided that I want to move on and actually do my PhD in a different field. Problem: The person who is an expert in an area I am genuinely interested in lives at a different city, so I would have to request distance supervision. I have never met her, but I agree with much of her views in the articles she has published/as well as speech videos. The downside is that she is a senior academic and very highranked, meaning she might be very pressed time. My two main Qs would be: 1) What are your thoughts on distance supervision for a PhD? Experiences by friends/stories you have heard from thousands of students in your tour, I am sure… 2) Would you recommend getting supervision from a very senior academic? To be honest, it is somewhat scary for me… However, I am torn as I genuinely respect and like the work she has done. Should I just pick someone else, but in a different field and not as senior? What are your thoughts..?? I don’t know who else to ask, to be 100% HONEST. My work department is small, so I am afraid people will talk if I share anything… I have been thinking about these 2 Qs for over 2 years now. Your views would be HUGELY appreciated. Thank you SO MUCH again for your great YT videos&for your wonderful book!!

    • the answer is very simple. Talk to the person you want as a supervisor.

      Some senior academics are great as supervisors, others aren’t. It has nothing to do with seniority but their personality and attitude.

      Distance PhDs can be difficult though, and given the choice I think it’s better to be local, but lots of people do them successfully

  4. I am a phd student at a fairly prestigious university.
    I will finish my dissertation and do the viva in approximately a year. I actually get a little bit put down by some information I’ve read here, since it’s too late to correct the trajectory right now.
    But a few things I wish I would’ve known:
    -That my approach to the project of being a consultant just doing the work in my projects wasn’t gonna lead to as much satisfaction, as I believe an attitude that I was actually here to learn stuff. In my case I believe the learning has actually been minimal, and though I may actually scrape by and make it, I am not sure what I know now compared to when I was “just” a master.
    -That I REALLY should’ve taken the time to find a project that I would like. My entire period seems like somewhat of a waste of time where I could’ve made some money.
    -That I shouldn’t have isolated and hid myself. Talk about impostor syndrome… I barely built any sort of network during these years., to hude the fact that I don’t know my field.

    So, where was your book during my firat months? 🙂
    No, seriously, I hope not too many make the mistakes I did, and all the best to you!

    • Hi Nic,
      It sounds like your story is a common one – and there’s no comfort in that.
      May I assume that your program is only research-based – no course work?
      Would it have been more helpful to you, if there was a structured course work to support your learning?
      James – you’ve seen a lot of students . . . do you find that those students with course work + dissertation are better prepared? Or are those students that have 3 years to figure it all out, find what they need and write it up, are better in the long run? Thank you!!

      • I don’t think it makes much difference whether there is coursework involved- I’ve seen good and bad in either case, and I think it depends more on the implementation and environment than the structure

  5. Now at 3/4 of my due time to defend, I wish I would have known that a PhD. Is essentially a Mirror-Fight with the worst side of your ego. In my case, where psicological help has been neccesary, a lot of personal issues have been an obstacle (Supervisor relationship, extremely wide knowledge gap) and I would have liked to know that those absurd levels of stress are “common” in these courses. So if anyone at the beginning is reading this, DO NOT BE AFRAID/ASHAMED OF SEEKING PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP…
    The second advise would be DO NOT BE AFRAID/ASHAMED OF SEEKING PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP…

    And the Third, would be, discuss early and have in written form a “grand schedule” of your research approach. If your program is a 3-year course, be sure to check in the ending of the first year if you can stick to the plan. If any delays are not possible to overcome, start editing. Its better to get to defense day with something at least submitted to a journal than being waiting an editor response to see if you are aproved or not.

  6. Hi James,
    You often talk of surrounding yourself with others, discussing with others their research etc, but like Clara above, I have found that people are not helpful but very competitive.

    I considered myself lucky as I was surrounded by people at the top of their field. However there was no support, in fact, the reverse. It took me two years to finally realize why. Academia can be cut-throat competition but few people talk about this very real aspect. This was a shock. I realize now how incredibly naive I was at the beginning.

    Others I have spoken to who have gone through this, say they don’t want to rock the boat, be seen to be a failure or complaining, still need a reference, still need to work in the field, some say it was alright for them (unhelpful!), call it a rite of passage etc etc and so it continues.

    I wish I had known this at the beginning.

    You and others James have said that you were surrounded by great people. You, and others here, are lucky in this regard. Many have not been, and are still not so lucky, and so struggle on alone and isolated.

    • I know… Unfortunately there’s no easy way when you find yourself in that environment.

      Who you work with is one of the most important aspects of a PhD, but by far the hardest to fix.

    • Yes I was left with a group of senior researchers whom my supervisors reckoned would provide support- we are all working towards the same objectives. Help was not forthcoming and Trying to get information was like trying to get blood from a stone. I confided in my supervisors about it and remedial action was taken – the result was not good. Complete exclusion as I suppose I was seen as a ‘problem’. I guess we may compete for the same jobs in the future and this is why. In my third year of PhD now and I struggle on in isolation. On better days I say to myself I will continue on working in this area of research and will take younger personnel under my wing- fantasising about future scenarios is a good way to feel in control about my current situation!

  7. In my School we have a great little network of PhD students – cross discipline and at different stages, but often sharing the same supervisor, so there are some common threads. What I wish I’d known beforehand is how the thing works and the expectations in MY particular discipline (which is not a science) and a bit more on the theorists and philosophical positions, so I could better frame my research. It would have saved a lot of angst and self-doubt in the first 12 months. Otherwise, it has been a roller-coaster ride, but I haven’t felt I would fall off without someone catching me… so far.

  8. For me the biggest surprise was the nature of other PHD students. They are typically unfriendly, passive aggressive, competitive, deluded, self indulent, unrealistic, and lacked common sense. It’s frightening how some student go out of their way to make people feel insecure about where own research. Your PhD will be a lonely journey make sure you surround yourself with good supportive people outside of university would be my advice.

    • I have made some great friends through my study – right across the University. Plenty of respect and support or just a chat. Those I’ve met all seem to understand the pressure everyone is under and the challenges we all face, and bring support and a sense of humour to the situation. It’s been a great journey so far

      • Thank you for your thoughts on my post. It’s wonderful to hear that my experience is not the norm. But like Edward it’s a very real situation for me. The saving grace is I have a wonderful supervisor and we are working well together. In fact I have discussed this problem with her. I hope in time I will find some like minded students. I remain hopeful.

    • I can actually voice for Clara. This was precisely the case when I entered my PhD. It was just soul crushing and for an entire year, I thought I was stupid. Thankfully, my partner was always there to lend a supportive ear and kept pushing me to stick to the PhD.

  9. I just defended my master’s thesis two weeks ago , and since then I get flashbacks of what happened and what should I have done better .
    One of the main things that took me energy and time , self doubt . Am I good enough to get the degree ? am I even gonna get it ? If I won’t get it , why waste time and energy ?Why on earth I didn’t apply for MBA than computer science ? what am I gonna do if I finish ?
    now I know that doubt doesn’t help at all .
    thanks for the article 🙂

  10. Hi James,
    I started my PhD be being placed in the wrong department with a supervisor who had no prior experience, training, consulting or research in my field. On top of this his background was totally quantitative not qualitative. I had my doubts so after three months when is was clear that my supervisor and I would never see the research in the same light I approached the Director of Research and asked for his help in obtaining a new supervisor. He was difficult and stated that would present problems to me in that I would be seen as a difficult student and no one would take over the role of supervisor. He basically gave me the option of complaining and finding myself outside the PhD program or not rocking the boat and managing an impossible situation. So in answer to your question — what did I wish I had known before starting a PhD. I really felt that I could manage what was basically an impossible set of circumstances. In effect my thesis was doomed from the start. So my advice to anyone starting a PhD — if you find that the initial infrastructure will not support your research, pull out. Find another university. A thesis is difficult enough without having to carry a supervisor who is incompetent. You will probably find as I did that my supervisor’s ego got in the way and he started to make unrealistic demands just to make himself feel in control. An untenable situation. I lost so much time just explaining how the qualitative software worked. Something in the vicinity of 18 months worth of meetings went on educating my supervisor in the use of NVivo and he never accepted the validity of this program. So all I can say is ….. run. In the final analysis you will be glad you did. I never did finish my thesis. I was so close. But given all the loss of time I lapsed and with just six months of work left the University came down on me (and others) and stated that a new policy was in place and any lapsed students were immediately removed from the program.

    • Unfortunately I’ve heard this story so many times, and I think you’re right that the best option is to run.

      • This is good to know. I’m almost 2 months in and have realized there is no one in the program with experience/background my rough proposed area of research — which has been already noted as “needs lots of work” by profs without relevant knowledge. As well, I come from 20 years of business and professional market research so am starting to see how behind they are and their inability to consider proven newer (to them) methods. As there’s no one with my research area, we’ve no resources either. All the classic foundation theorist books – none. I’ve been told I can buy them myself or “pirate” them off the Internet. Really? That tells me where the ethics are and likely how my reviews and assessments will go. Last, I’m older, it’s a part time program and I’m not working. After completing my Masters years ago in a Professionsl program– while working — my goal is to complete in 3 years which all my employed friends with PhD said was do-able. Yet I’m already being told to “slow down,” absorb, “this will take you 4 years.” I’m fairly sure this is driven by a small underfunded program that, while highly ranked, needs my tuition payments and diversity for other reasons. Thus their 4 year muddle vs my 3 year get my letters and move bavk into business. I thought my non-academic goal meant I wouldn’t be a threat. Instead, I’m surrounded by those without a sense of the needs and speed of the real world. I’m looking for a new program and sharpening my criteria. Can you give input on if I’ll be seen as difficult or damaged goods by leaving a program for resource and lack of expertise reasons? (Not to mention I’ve found schools that will PAY PhDs to attend. (EU Universities).

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