Welcome to the PhD Dojo!
This week, I’m starting a series on tools and strategies to make the best out of your PhD experience. Today – Things I would have loved to know when I started my PhD and that would have saved me a lot of headaches.
Below, you’ll find the full, edited to be read, transcript of the live taping of this episode.
[00:00:00] Today’s episode is: “First Year PhD – Avoiding the Pitfalls”.
[00:00:05] In a space mission, there is one countdown, one launch, one destination, and no place for error or that. Grad studies are less like a rocket launch and more like an expedition into uncharted territories. As such graduate studies are a forgiving endeavor where you have ample opportunity to reassess and reorient along the way. So what I’m seeing is, as a PhD student, you are an external. And what’s the first thing that an Explorer does when setting up for an expedition today, what they do is that they plan, they trace a plan for their expedition.
[00:00:56] And this is the tip that I’m going to share today. Tracing a plan for your PhD is a very important strategy from the outset, to help you have the best experience, at least for that first year where you’re going to be in a new environment, you’re going to meet new people. You’re going to be learning a new culture, depending on the, the lab you’re you’re in or the country you’re moving to. So having some sort of a plan is going to help you in the long term. So my first piece of advice there is: spend enough time at the beginning because you can fall into the trap of hitting the ground running and starting whatever experiments or projects that are proposed to you without sitting down and planning.
[00:01:52] What I’m asking you to do is to, to take all of that in, and then create a plan. And be as granular as possible. Write short, medium and long-term goals for yourself. One of the things that I know I didn’t do at the beginning of my PhD was to – first, put this down on paper and second, the long-term plans and, or long-term objectives or goals, I didn’t think of them. Why they are important is because they are going kind of to dictate the other decisions that you’re going to make along the way, versus if you don’t plan ahead, you can fall into different rabbit holes, lose time. And we all know that time is finite, funding is finite, and so, why the planning is important is because of all of these reasons. You need to optimize the time that you’re going to spend during your PhD and some, some places it’s three years and there, the time constraint is even, it’s even more critical, let’s say. Some, some places like here, here in Canada, for example, you can go to six years or even more, depending, and depending also on the domain you are, you are.
[00:03:10] But besides the time there’s the money issue. So, if you’re able to spend that first week, those first two weeks planning, setting goals, sitting with your supervisor and having them help you set goals, such as when, when an article could be published a book chapter, things like that, that is going to help you immensely. Of course, when you’re going to sit down and write down that first plan, it’s going to be the ideal. You’re going to learn and people who’ve gone through the process, know that things don’t go. Ideally there’s snacks. There’s a, there’s a different obstacles that you hit. There’s a hypothesis that simply don’t work and. The next thing after having a plan is backup plans. You need to have backup plans and nice suggest even if possible, because you might, and this is what happened to me.
[00:04:20] You might be attracted to from the outset to a higher risk, maybe higher gain, but higher risk project, but it’s high risk. And you want to have a lower risk projects, lower hanging fruit that you can fall back on, if there’s a problem with that project, which happens to a lot of us and we’re first year PhD students – it’s just normal.
[00:04:49] So having different backup plans, having different paths to those goals that you put on your on your map, on your little kind of PhD map that you’re tracing is very important because if you building only one road and then there, and then something happens, it’s going to be, it’s going to be a shock, it’s going to be harder to reorganize and to reorient, and it could even have a toll on your mental health, and we don’t want that.
[00:05:20] I mentioned funding before, and I think it’s really, really important. And also depending on where where you’re from, if you’re an international student if your funding comes from abroad, but also if your funding comes from an institution of the country or connected to the institution you’re at, to the research group you’re at, be very, careful to put any deadlines, any timelines related to funding that are pertinent to you. So your initial funding, when does it end, when are the deadlines to register or to submit, to get new funding. If you can get all of those on this map on this, on this plan that you’re writing, this is going to help you a lot because financial, the financial aspect of being a young researcher, a young PhD, is one is one that can, and that brings anxiety to a lot of us because it’s hard to be sometimes away not always or most, mostly away from home, but sometimes in another country. Anyway, there’s many, many reasons that can justify why it’s important to plan your finances. And again, why am I saying this? Because surprises on the financial side, it’s something you don’t want to have. So be very clear from day one how long you have until the funding ends, and discuss lining up funding transitions with your PI or with the department where you are, that deals with that.
[00:07:11] This map that you create at the beginning, it is very, very important, because it’s related to your PhD, that you orient it, that you have PhD oriented goals and that you validate it with your supervisor or with your mentor, with someone that has a bigger picture view, someone that’s been there, that’s done that and that can tell you “this is realistic, this needs to be an extra” et cetera, et cetera, because it’s as always, it’s important to set realistic goals.
[00:07:43] And the other important aspect and this may or may be right away at the beginning of the PhD, but maybe also later on, is to align those goals with your long-term life goals, be it having a family be it where you want to be in life in in five years, what you want to do after your PhD in or out of academia. If you include those in this planning, it’s going to make it even better, because again, these are going to inform decisions that you’re going to take versus taking decisions and then, later on, realizing that the decision wasn’t in alignment with your more medium to long-term goals.
[00:08:33] Then, the question of the discussing long-term life goals with your supervisor, that really depends on the person. It depends on you too, but it really depends a lot on the supervisor, on their philosophy, on the culture of where you are. I just had a conversation. The, the episode that came out today of the Papa PhD interviews with Krishna Kadiyala, where she talked about her experience. She wanted to have children during the PhD and finish her PhD already having, having her children and the, this was something that she had to put out there and discuss with, with their supervisor, but also choose the lab that she was going to accordingly, and the culture. So this is more of a sensitive question. I think if you can do it, if there is openness for you to have these conversations, they’re really, really good to have and it can bring you so much peace to know that this or that aspect of your plan is accepted and that you’ll have the support of your supervisor to say true with your plans. It’s it’s really, really good. It’s not possible in all situations, but it’s a case by case.
[00:09:49] The take home message is don’t do it like I did. Don’t go into the PhD without looking ahead, planning ahead and putting all of this information in a sort of map, in a sort of plan. It could be Post-its, it can be a kind of a journal something that helps you focus, because you can get scattered and you will get scattered depending on what goes on, but you will get scattered sometimes during your PhD and having this document, this kind of anchor that you can go back to and see, “okay, I had planned this, I had put this as an objective, I had put this as a priority”. It’s really, really a good, a good tool to stay, stay calm, stay focused, and not feel that you’re losing control of your life of of, of your PhD of your projects, et cetera.
[00:10:44] And of course, this PhD map and this life map is a living document. So I, I always recommend that when you go back to it, be open to changing things because your priorities will change. And and you will, you will learn as you go. And that can also inform what you do with the map.
[00:11:06] So this is what I wanted to share today– plan ahead, avoid pitfalls, be it finance, be it having projects that are too risky and that in the end, you’ll be short to finish your PhD. Plan ahead, think of all these possibilities and you will have a much smoother adventure. So that’s it for today’s episode of the PhD dojo. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope, you are going to do you your model of this, of this map and feel free to share any questions you might have, I’ll be happy to answer.
[00:11:48] Thanks for listening, and see you in two weeks.