Unsolicited advice for new PhD students

John D. Martin III
August 25, 2017

I used this Tweet as my morning writing prompt a few weeks ago:

My tweet thread on this topic is located here: https://twitter.com/jdmar3/status/896063276726886400

Earned a PhD?

Pay it forward & help the next generation.

What is your most important advice for a new PhD student?#phdtips

— Prof Dynarski (@dynarski) August 10, 2017

What follows is my advice for new PhD students. Some of these are things that I did and benefited me. Others are things that I wish I had done or wish I had figured out earlier. They are obviously not intended to be universal, but maybe someone else will benefit from the distillation of my experience.

  1. Find a reference manager that you like and stick with it. I recommend Paperpile.

  2. Learn to write in Markdown and TEX / LATEX, and stop using M$Word.Charlie Stross. 2013. Why Microsoft Word must Die. Charlie’s Diary. Retrieved from http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/10/why-microsoft-word-must-die.html Right now. Just stop using it.

  3. Write every single day. Write something, anything every morning and just squirrel it away for later.Alison Miller. 2007. The 15-Minute Rule. The Dissertation Coach. Retrieved from https://www.thedissertationcoach.com/learn/read/the-15-minute-rule/

  4. Find friends/colleagues to write/work with on a regular basis. It helps to have people around.Travis Grandy. 2015. Making a Writing Group that Works. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/gradhacker/making-writing-group-works

  5. Write seminar papers with the aim of publishing them.Stacey Patton. 2013. How Grad Students and Junior Professors Can Publish, Not Perish. ChronicleVitae. Retrieved from https://chroniclevitae.com/news/187-how-grad-students-and-junior-professors-can-publish-not-perish Think about a venue when you start out: journal, newsletter, conference, etc.

  6. Don't compare your progress to that of your compatriots and cohort.Deborah Carr. 2015. 3 Reasons to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/bouncing-back/201508/3-reasons-stop-comparing-yourself-others Everyone moves at a different pace.

  7. Learn to use version control software and a remote repository to manage your work. GitHub or Bitbucket are both awesome.

  8. Use something like Overleaf to write. It is good for collaboration, versioning, and safe.

  9. DO NOT STORE DATA OR WRITING ON YOUR LAPTOP. Keep it multiply backed up, in a cloud app, and/or a remote server.Gabe Tippery. 2014. Backing Up. Hacking the Thesis. Retrieved from https://u.osu.edu/hackingthethesis/about/backing-up/

  10. Automate things.Al Sweigart. 2015. Automate the Boring Stuff with Python: Practical Programming for Total Beginners. No Starch Press, San Francisco. https://automatetheboringstuff.com/ Automate your backups. Automate your data-processing. Learn to program enough to do this. You'll regret not doing so.

  11. Find a therapist (and maybe a Psych MD) early on. Your stress levels will be higher than they ever have before.Elisabeth Pain. 2017. Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges. Science. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.a1700028 This is not normal, but it is a reality for most PhD students. Do not allow it to go untreated. Talk therapy can help. Do not be averse to medication. Caring for your mental health is not a sign of weakness. [Extending this advice: if you suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental illness, talk to your university's disabled student services office. These offices exist in order to ensure that the university is at least complying with ADA rules. They can and will help you a great deal.]

  12. Go outside for an extended period every day. Just sit outside and read or take a walk. Listen to the sounds of birds and cicadas and running water. It will make you feel more human and reduce your stress levels.University of Sussex. 2017. It’s true: The sound of nature helps us relax. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170330132354.htm

  13. I feel like I need a baker's dozen here, so I'll leave this as the last one: do something nice for yourself every day. It doesn't have to be a big thing. Buy yourself a coffee and pastry; cook something you really like; take yourself out for lunch or a cocktail (like my dog, I am really food-motivated); read a trashy sci-fi novel; watch an episode (ONE EPISODE, not 10 episodes) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Star Trek; etc. It helps you get away from your dissertation or coursework, and it can remind you that you are more than your PhD.Laura Harrison. 2015. You Are More Than A PhD Student. Pubs and Publications. Retrieved from http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/pubs-and-publications/2015/09/30/you-are-more-than-a-phd-student/

There are a million such things that I could write. I am missing a lot here. Here is a piece of advice from @savasavasava that I found to be very good:

(find a person or persons outside your department/school who will give you straight, no nonsense encouragement/advice.)

— dr. sava (@savasavasava) August 25, 2017

This was particularly important for me. I have leaned heavily on the advice and encouragement given to me by several mentors outside of my university/department/field throughout the PhD. Without them, I would not be able to do this. So, make friends and find mentors outside. It helps give you a more expansive view of the world and reminds you that there is more out there than just you, alone, slogging away at your dissertation.

Unsolicited advice for new PhD students - August 25, 2017 - John D. Martin III