The CareerDoctor: Starting Your Ph.D. on the Right Track


Dear CareerDoctor,

I started a Ph.D. in biochemistry 2 months ago, and it seems to me that I'll be pretty much left on my own with it. I do see my supervisor most days and get vague reassurances about my progress, but this is not sufficient to make me feel confident about how things are going.

I really expected to have more of an idea of what my Ph.D. would be about by now. Instead, I just seem to be in the library all the time and haven't got a chance to get to grips with my project yet.

Christmas is approaching, and my first-year report, which is scheduled for next summer, already seems to be a lot closer than is comfortable.

How can I get myself on track? I really want to finish my Ph.D. in 3 years and get a job in industrial research after that, but when I compare myself to my friends who've already gone into industry, I seem to be drifting.

Thanks for any advice,


Dear Tim,

First of all, I want to reassure you that you are probably experiencing the same uncertainty as most new Ph.D. researchers at this stage. The start of a Ph.D. can be a bit of a culture shock, compared to your undergraduate or master's degree, when everything was clearly laid out for you. A Ph.D. is a very different qualification; one of its main appeals to employers is the degree of autonomy it leads someone to develop. That isn't to say that you have to work out how to do everything by yourself, but it does mean that you have the responsibility of making sure your Ph.D. is on track.

I'll outline here some of my top tips for getting your Ph.D. off to a flying start and give you sources for further advice. I'll also suggest a few things that may keep you ahead of the crowd.

To start with, you need to view your Ph.D. as a personal project, not an exercise given to you by someone else. Therefore, you must realise that you have to take the main responsibility for it. That doesn't simply translate into doing the necessary reading and experimental work. You also need to actively manage your research project by developing a realistic but challenging plan, ensuring that the relationship with your supervisor and other stakeholders is effective, and monitoring your progress against clearly defined goals.

After being in a very structured academic setting, such project management may seem a little daunting, but it is a very logical process and a skill that will stand you in good stead in your future career. I recommend that you get hold of the Ph.D. planning chart that has just been launched by the United Kingdom's GRAD Programme. "Planning a doctorate: schedule for success" comes with advice on how to plan your Ph.D. from Day 1. You can e-mail GRAD to order a copy or find out where to get one at your institution. You'll also find some general tips on project management that have been published on Next Wave and the Business Balls Web site.

If you want your Ph.D. to be a success, you need to ensure that you get appropriate help and feedback from your supervisor. Seeing your supervisor every day may seem like a positive start, but you need to make sure that this supervision is sufficiently structured to allow you to discuss your research in depth. You should arrange a dedicated, uninterrupted meeting with your supervisor about once a month, and I'd suggest that you set an agenda for these meetings (perhaps outlining this in an e-mail a few days beforehand) and write up a record of what was discussed. The discipline of doing this will help you manage your project and ensure that if there are any slippages or problems, they can be identified and discussed early.

Although you will be expected to develop as an independent researcher throughout the time of your research project, most Ph.D.s start under the careful direction of the supervisor. If you feel this is not so in your case, make sure in your first meetings that your supervisor gives you a clear outline of the project and sets realistic milestones. This should help you appreciate what kinds of techniques and research experience will be required and the long-term goals of the project. However, be aware that the majority of Ph.D. projects evolve naturally, so you may well not stick closely to your initial plan.

You should also be discussing your respective responsibilities. To help you plan for this type of discussion, look at your postgraduate handbook, which should include the institutional Code of Practice for Research Supervision. If you cannot find one for your own university, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has recently produced recommendations, which should give you a clearer view of what you should expect from your supervisor, department, and university.

As your Ph.D. project moves forward, your meetings with your supervisor should focus on discussing your scientific progress, but you should also take responsibility for seeking feedback about the development of your personal skills as a researcher. Your supervisor may not be familiar with giving feedback along these lines, so you can help by being aware of the skills needed to do research most effectively. The Research Councils' Joint Skills Statement gives an excellent outline. Alternatively, the Postgraduate Skills Record, produced by the Royal Society of Chemistry, will help you manage your professional development.

Your supervisor isn't the only source of advice and information. You are probably working with other researchers who have more experience than you do, other Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers, or technicians. You should consider them part of your support network; they can help you learn the ropes of doing research by showing you how they keep their research records, explaining procedures for ordering materials or interlibrary loans, and discussing your research ideas informally before you present them to your supervisor. Some research groups have a strong culture of support, but it isn't uncommon for a group to operate as a set of individuals who rarely share ideas or help one another. Don't assume that your fellow researchers aren't willing to help; they may simply never have been asked before. Obviously, you need to respect their time and not become a nuisance, but do ask for their advice.

If you are planning to move into industry after you graduate, you'll need to have more to offer than laboratory expertise and understanding of your research project. Most industrial research is done in multidisciplinary teams, so you'll also need to be able to work in teams and communicate with people from a range of disciplines. Maintain your contact with friends who have gone into industry and talk to them about the skills they need to be effective in their workplace. Make sure you build into your project plan the time to go onto GRADschool and look into initiatives such as Researchers in Residence or Biology 4 All to build your communication skills.

Alternatively, most universities now have researcher-training programmes, so you should be able to attend workshops focusing on, for example, communication and team-playing skills. Your university's graduate school, faculty, and career-services offices should all be able to advise you on the content and scheduling of their training programme.

Looking beyond your Ph.D., your career success will depend on your impact on the wider scientific community. So, I'd recommend that you join relevant professional bodies to broaden your awareness of your field and to start building your professional network. Some of the research councils pay membership fees for their funded students to join a professional body, and most societies offer students greatly reduced fees. During your Ph.D., you also need to make the most of the conferences you will attend. There are articles elsewhere on Next Wave (see box below) giving tactics for maximising their benefits.

To make the most of your conference experience, read on.

An extended literature review is a logical starting point for a Ph.D., as it should give you an appreciation of the field to which you will be contributing. As you carry out your first piece of research, you will be learning the technical skills as much as anything, so your progress may be slow in the beginning. With time, your confidence and independence will grow. As they do, the nature of your responsibility for the Ph.D. will change. You will begin to develop ideas and suggest new lines of work. All of this is the natural development of the skills you'll need to be an effective researcher.

Be reassured: It sounds as though your Ph.D. is on track, but you need to take responsibility for your progress.

I wish you all the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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