Emily is a first-year PhD student from Wales, UK. Her research focuses on surface processes on Mars using remote sensing and analogue field sites on Earth.
Starting a PhD is a daunting prospect. It’s a looooooooong time, dedicated to the study a very specific topic. It’s made even more daunting when moving to a new university, a new city, or new country! I didn’t really know what to expect when I started, and I’m still not sure what to expect next. I hope this reflection on my (recent!) experience will help inform anyone considering grad school, decidedly going in the fall, or even reflecting on their own experience.
You’re going to hate it but….
The first part of starting is a lot of admin. And if that sentence put you right off applying for a PhD, I get you. I really get you. It’s not been fun. Sorting everything out from how you’ll get paid, to where your office is, to registering for classes, getting keys, navigating the maze-like corridors to find your office again, figuring out where to go when you lose your keys for the first time.I was fortunate to get to know plenty of the other grad students as they helped me along my way! The flux of admin tasks hasn’t quite ended for me yet, but it has slowed so I can actually do.
If you didn’t already have a of knowledge about your particular field, you will soon(ish). This doesn’t mean reading everything but it also won’t be over in the first week, or month (trust me). It never ends. I hear honing this skill for efficiency early on can be of great advantage. I’ve found it very useful to try and synthesize my understanding into a bullet-pointed review. This has helped me understand how the research in my field has developed over time, where it’s currently headed, and what I could possibly do to contribute to that (to be decided, many months in the future).
Set some Goals
As far as I can tell, there’s no due date for doing anything in this I like to set my daily goals based on things I need to get achieved in a week and the free time I have each day, but everyone works differently.
*socialize* (too much).
Friends > Science [Bamber, 2020]. Grad school is (so I’ve heard) a long, often difficult, stressful, complicated process. There are going to be times you’d like to burn down the lab and run away to a far-off remote island and run a dog rescue centre [anon, 2020]. You probably will have already received support from other grad students when you got lost on the 3rd floor and locked yourself out of the office. So, you should appreciate just how important these connections are! Most of the grads and postdocs around you will probably become your colleagues and contemporaries one day, and they have a wealth of knowledge you can tap into. You also need people to hang out with and explore the new city/country you found yourself in. This may sound like one of the most daunting parts of the first few weeks, but honestly, it seems to me like most grad students are always looking for an excuse to procrastinate or after work. You should find yourself with no shortage of things to do and make the most of it! I bet grad school isn’t all this rosy!
Get Homesick, Decide to Quit, Find out your office-mate has a dog and pledge to stay forever. Moving across the Atlantic Ocean may be a bit of an extreme example, but I guess transitioning to “gradulthood” is still a change, whether you’re coming straight from college, industry or family life. Change is always challenging, often in unexpected ways. This first month I’ve had to navigate making friendships and professional connections, rent and furnish an apartment, figure out visas and health insurance, open a new bank account, and figure out a budget, far far away from my usual support network.. In my home country of Wales (UK) we have a word “Hiraeth” which loosely translates to missing home, but more than that, to missing an era or missing a thing or person that may not even exist anymore, without wishing for it to return to how it was. I have hiraeth for simpler times, and I miss home, but I’m also so excited to get on with cool science. My homesickness won’t stop me doing my PhD, but I feel it is more challenging now than it will be a few months down the line. As I discover more amazing and exciting things about science, about this new city, and about the amazingly supportive people around me with dogs, that feeling is becoming more and more manageable as I settle into this fantastic new stage of my life!
Start some Science!!!!!!!!!!!!! Science. That’s why I’m here, right? Everyone comes into a PhD with a different level of experience. By my second week the excited rose-tint on the admin + reading combo quickly started to wear off. I’m excited to announce that on my official 1 month anniversary at UT Austin, I began to zoom around potential study sites in ArcMap software and that excitement is still buzzing today, but I think it illustrates that getting your teeth into some science early on, helps remind you of your reasons for being at grad school. But science isn’t my only reason. I also got involved in other aspects of academia that are important to me, such as outreach (e.g., writing this blog post and helping out at public events). The impression I get from my, albeit limited, experience, is that those motivations will be frequently called upon when faced with the mountains of admin, arduous reading, day-to-day monotony and homesickness/hiraeth that, unfortunately, accompany the science-y stuff.