First Month: PhDebrief

It’s been a couple of months since I started my PhD at the University of Sussex and, as expected, it has been a busy and exciting start.

It’s been productive and unproductive, exciting and anxiety provoking, busy and quiet, fun and overwhelming, you get the idea. It’s been a month of two halves. There have been up days and down days and days with both a bit of up and down all rolled into one.

However, I’m pleased to say that it has now started to settle down. I’ve developed a routine for the most part; have overcome some challenges, submitted my ethics and got to grips with my research plan.

To help others starting their PhD journey and to give myself a debrief of sorts, this post will review some of the things that I have been up to for the past two months and what you may expect upon starting your own PhD.

First week

I will just put this straight out there – I found the first week, not the one filled with induction and social events, the first real week, hard, overwhelming and exhausting! I don’t think anyone mentioned that before I started, so I was somewhat surprised. Having spoken to others, it appears this is quite normal.

There’s been such a long wait before you get there, you’ve tried to muddle together some preparation and reading, read all that you can about what you might expect and then there you are, still not knowing what to expect, what you really should be doing and feeling quite out of place!

Rest assured it will pass; you will bumble through and find your feet, hopefully with some guidance from your supervisor and by talking to your peers.

Induction events

I attended literally everything that I could. Considering that I did my Masters at Sussex, you may think this is slight overkill (I’m talking library tours and general University wide talks as well as doctoral events). However, the bits that weren’t new to me were a good recap. It also helped to fill my time with seemingly useful talks and events when, to start with, I really wasn’t sure what else I should be doing, apart from reading obviously.

Researcher Development Programme

This has been a really useful resource; for anyone at Sussex, I urge you to check out the workshops on offer through the development programme. For those at other Universities, I hope you have something similar – check through your library.

The researcher development programme offers a range of skills workshops, aimed at researchers at different stages of their PhD or career. There are several that are useful to the new researcher, many of which run within the first couple of months. Again, not only is it a useful way to break up your day from all of your reading but it is a good idea to get some of these workshops under your belt now before the work piles on and they are no longer seen as a necessity.

Some of these workshops will also shed light on your journey, how to manage your time and what you should be doing during the early stages. For me, these included ‘becoming and effective researcher’, ‘undertaking a literature review’ and ‘finding dissertations and theses for your research’, to name a few.

There were some great tips of planning and time management, which I will disseminate in future posts!

Back when my desk was nice and tidy!

Office environment

The office environment was a funny one to start; I was lucky enough to have my office straight away, whereas others had to wait for some current PhD students to finish the following week. However, for that week I was at a temporary desk and didn’t feel wholly settled.

Once I was able to move into my permanent place, things became much better – I am lucky enough to have a big desk in a bright office with some great office mates, who are focused but will have a chat as well.Some say that sharing an office can be tricky, which indeed it can if you need silence. However, I have discovered the joy of headphones with some relaxing music on, which really helps me focus.

Some people share an office with up to 8 people, which I imagine would be a difficult place to be. If this ends up being you, the best advice I was given was to find other places that you can be productive. Some people use the doctoral section of the library first thing in the morning to get some reading/writing done (at Sussex, this is called the research hive and is another great resource).

Peers/ the social side

Others have described the social side of a PhD to be a pleasant surprise in the first few months and I would whole-heartedly agree. I am not usually much of a ‘joiner’ but I found my peers to be like-minded and easy to get along with. In the early stages, the reps arranged some social events and I was certainly a regular visitor to postgrad Fridays at the student bar (something I didn’t think I would ever say)!

It can be like a community; I would urge you to join in, even if like me you have a tendency to shy away from such things. These are the only people who will be able to reflect with you about your experiences and really know what is going on for you. It can be very comforting to hear that others are experiencing the same struggles as you. Also, I would say that you would likely form some great, hopefully lasting, friendships.


So, that’s all the ‘fun’ stuff but what about when you have to get your head down and do some work? Initially, this will likely be in between various other talks and workshops but it will, naturally, become your day to day and there should be some things that you should be focusing on up until Christmas.

  • Getting up and running

I spent some time getting my working practices and software up and running smoothly, including having a process for backing up my work, deciding on a reference manager and how I will make notes etc. This is worth doing early on, if not before you start, so that you can hit the ground running. I did have this set up mostly before I started but I found it useful to hear what other resources my peers and supervisor were using. Many people say it is helpful to use the same reference manager as your supervisor but I really think it comes down to personal preference.

  • Admin

All of those little forms that you need to fill in and get everyone (it seems) in the department to sign. Do them early. Get yourself a rail card, NUS card etc. otherwise you won’t do it. Trust me its useful – money off trains and 10% off at Co-op!Also, if you struggle with sitting for long periods of time or are not used to it, get a DSE assessment done. It is most definitely worth it; our lovely admin assistant managed to procure me a new chair with awesome lumbar support in a matter of hours.

  • Familiarise with the lab

You may have a lab and you may need to use equipment. If so, find out what there is and where things are. This may help when deciding what materials to use in your experiments and the processes you will use.
My supervisor suggested that I go through the inventory and check if there was anything missing – a boring but useful task! I also created a new database of schools in the local counties that will assist me when I come to approach schools for research participation.

  • Research Outline

Finalising your research plan. Some people have a fairly prescriptive PhD, in which case this may be a quick exercise that you can submit within the first few weeks. For others, like me, your research ideas may have changed somewhat from your initial proposal; there may have been publications in that time that have looked at your intended area that will inform a change in your plans.

So, it may take a little longer, which is fine. We need to submit our research outline within the first 3 months, at most. It may seem like a box ticking exercise but it is useful to finalise your plans, figure out what you are doing and think about contingencies.

  • Annotated bibliography

Again, something you can begin before you start. Don’t just read; write alongside as well. You won’t remember all of the papers that you read, so a document with a summary in your own words is very useful. Start this early when you have the time, it will also help you to get a better picture of the literature in your area.Initially, I aimed to read at least 1 article a day, which helped me to build up a good basis for my annotated bibliography. This has most certainly slowed but I will continue to add to this and ensure that I keep up my reading.

  • Literature review

Ah this old chestnut. Get writing!

Again, a little each day helps to chip away. Hugh Kearns, author of ithinkwell, recommends ‘snack writing’. This is blocking out an hour or so two – three times a week to dedicate to writing. It is supposedly a productive method. I am currently trying it and will review soon!

You will write a lot and not use it, edit it to within an inch of its life, or start again altogether but it is all good practice and something that you can submit later for your annual review. Submitting to your supervisor by Christmas will allow them to see what level your writing is at and give you constructive feedback. It will also help form the introduction to your first paper (if this is the thesis structure that you are going for) or you will use it directly as your first chapter (for arts and humanities).

  • Ethics

This is another big hurdle, which really should be submitted as soon as possible, particularly if your study is high risk. Having said that, don’t stress about time (I withhold the right to retract this statement later). You want to have it right and it naturally follows on from your background reading/ research outline.You’ve likely done many ethics forms before if you are coming from a Psychology Undergraduate/ Masters. They’re not scary and really, once you know what you’re doing, they don’t take long. The time consuming part is the materials section but flyers/ posters/ letters are all things that you can draft ahead of time and there may be templates that your lab/supervisor has already.

  • Presenting your research plan

A final key hurdle, which should take place before Christmas, is the presentation of your research plan. This will likely be at a lab or research interests group meeting. If you don’t have a lab that meets regularly, find one linked to your topic and ask to go along. Presenting your plans allows you to get critical feedback from others about your research ideas, theoretically and practically. It also means that you write your ideas out in a different format; ensuring that you can verbalise this to others is an important step in clarifying your ideas.It should be informal and supportive – not a scary experience!

Other opportunities

This is my no means an exhaustive overview of the first few months and many

 things will depend on your research area, interests and department. There are so many other things that you can get involved in. I have had the opportunity to attend meetings with the local authority, attend lab meetings in different areas, play with robots at a Maker Space event, attend talks and colloquia and even teach a number of seminars.

Ozobots at the Maker Space event in the University of Sussex’s library

It’s been busy and overwhelming at times but also flexible and enjoyable. Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, the University environment is an inspiring place to be and to develop as a researcher.

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