Preparing for a PhD

So, you have written a winning research proposal, prepared and got through your interview and have been offered a place to start your PhD in September.

Excellent! Congratulations.

At this point, we think, ‘great, I have 6 months to prepare’, ‘imagine all of the reading I can have done in 6 months’. This is until you realise that work, current study, life, moving house and various other commitments get in the way of your good intentions.

Whilst reading is all good and well, you may feel a bit lost. You may also feel that you have loads to do before you actually start. This is particularly the case if you are changing discipline or topic area as you may feel that you have a wealth of ‘catching up’ to do before you’ve even started.

I found it difficult to find advice for how to prepare effectively before I was able to attend a ‘pre-induction’ event at my University.

The best advice that I have received about this preparation phase came from the Director of Doctoral studies, Sarah King, at the University of Sussex (thank you Sarah). This was: ‘don’t get lost in the literature’, which I something I was certainly doing at the time.

‘Don’t get lost in the literature.’

Here, I will list the suggestions that Sarah gave for directing your reading and for preparing by creating things that will be of use later on. I will also add some of my own, more practical, preparation suggestions.

If you don’t have the opportunity to go to a pre-induction, I hope this information helps you to set the groundwork for your research and thesis.

1. Write an annotated bibliography

You may well have done this in your undergraduate or postgraduate studies when reading around your topic area for your research projects. It is a useful strategy to help you direct your reading and ensure that you remember the key points about the article in question. You can later review your summaries without having to re-read the article and your annotations.

The idea is that you make brief notes on the articles or chapters that you have been reading. You can write an overview of the study and the key findings, note some criticisms and link this to your own research ideas.

Be sure to include the full reference, you will be very grateful for this when putting together your bibliography for your thesis.

2. Write a Meta-analysis

This may be more appropriate for some topics than others; however, if it does apply to you then this can be a valuable way of kick-starting your research. With some editing, you may be able to include this in the first part of your thesis.

Why conduct a meta-analysis?

  • It will allow to you analyse the utility of previous interventions by synthesising findings from a multitude of studies to give an indication of the interventions validity. It may also allow you to see gaps in the reporting of certain elements or a weakness in the literature.
  • You may then use your findings to justify and lead on to your own interventions or study design, which can address the issues that you have found in the current literature base.
  • It can help you summarise the current body of research surrounding a particular element of your research.
  • This will allow you to recognise which questions have already been effectively addressed and those that require further investigation, or are yet to be addressed at all.

3. Critique a current study

You may also choose one particular study, perhaps one that has been influential for your own ideas so far, and write a critique on this.

You could then go on to generate some ideas/ suggestions as to how the study could be improved upon. This may form a key part of your own idea and study development and could also be condensed to be included in a literature review or introduction section for an article.

4. Decide on an essay question to answer

This suggestion did not ring on welcome ears to start with. However, if an essay topic were to be discussed with your supervisor, you may well be onto something that could be used in the first year of your PhD.

Alongside your annual review paperwork in June, you will be required to submit a piece of high quality writing, known together as your ‘progression documents’. Writing an essay now could not only be useful in clarifying your current knowledge and allow you to direct your reading but you may even have something that you could develop further for your submission in June.

5. Get organised on a practical level

I’m not sure about any of you, but my laptop currently has numerous files within files and duplicates of a variety of articles or folders. At one stage (2 years ago whilst completing my MSc.), this all made sense and everything was organised nicely.

However, over time and with a lack of care, this has descended into something that takes me forever to find one document. It is these things that will lead you to feel confused, muddled and stressed when you want to be able to crack on and just work.

  • Organise your laptop files and documents. Find those things that will be useful for your PhD, create shortcuts or copy into the files that you will use regularly for your PhD work.
  • Organise your hard copy files – sort out that pile of filing, get rid of that other pile of shredding and get yourself organised with a file and some nice stationary that you can use in September.

Just don’t splurge on too much in Paperchase yet, you want to know that you are going to need those fancy dividers, most things are online now after all.

6. Get set up with key software programmes

I’m not talking about Microsoft Office here; however, it should at least be a bare essential – also get yourself some antivirus software while your there.

What I’m talking about is the online services you use for file storage, research the best ones, those that are recommended by other researchers or students and get set up with them in advance.

Also, look into your referencing managers; Mendeley is key here but you may also look into using a note-taking software alongside, such as Evernote or Microsoft Endnote.

Start using these now – there’s nothing worse than navigating new software when you want to get your teeth stuck into some work.

7. Find and read or purchase some key texts

You may have a host of Psychology textbooks related to your topic area or you may have sold everything after your last bout of studies. If you don’t have some core statistics/ SPSS textbooks, I would certainly ensure these, at least, are on your book shelf.

You may also want some key texts that are recommended in the subjects related to your own topic area. They may well come in handy at a later date for your own thesis or to recap on the things taught at undergraduate level, which you may well teach at a later date.

However, don’t limit yourself to your topic area, read around your subject – read magazines such as The Psychologist or New Scientist to keep up to date on current debates and the broader goings on in and around your field.

Some key books that I have been recommended to read particularly before starting (although I may not have read these all yet myself) are:

  • The 4 hour work week by Timothy Ferriss.
  • The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
  • The unwritten rules of PhD research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg.

N.B. more details and further texts to follow when I have developed a little further in my PhD journey!

Best of luck in your preparation, is there anything that has worked for you that I haven’t covered here?


4 thoughts on “Preparing for a PhD

Add yours

  1. Thanks again, I'll happily look at your blog if this is what you mean? Otherwise, referencing in APA format is something that I may post about in future. Best wishes.


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