Tips for the new academic AKA what I’ve learnt

by e_e_evans PhD student

A lot of people write “tips for the future generation” type posts and I am nothing if not willing to try a tested formula. But here are a few things I did, do, or forced myself to do as a new PhD student.

Smile

A bit touchy feely perhaps? Granted you don’t always feel like smiling and certainly I’m not suggesting hiding under a façade of cheer all the time. Instead think of it as sharing humanity. Chances are 90% of the people you meet in the first week you will forget the name of and some of those you may forget entirely. I make a concerted effort to smile as I pass members of staff in the corridors if only to be friendly. No one has ever gossiped or complained about someone who smiles and says hello in the corridor.

Acknowledge that you deserve your job

Impostor syndrome is common among academics, I’ve also heard it said that it’s worse for women (perhaps we have more fragile egos?) Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you are out of the grade pecking order of undergraduate, you are the best person for your PhD otherwise you wouldn’t have got the job. (For everyone else, read the above but replace PhD with job. You got your job because you were the best candidate).

9 to 5 is your friend

I always said (after a summer of doing paperwork filing full time) I never wanted an office job but I wouldn’t mind a job with an office. Working office hours suddenly gives you the luxury of weekends. This is a pro tip I picked up from a Durham friend of mine and he’s a fab geophysicist so who I am to argue?!

Be brave

When I came to Swansea I was several hours drive away from anyone I knew. I was staying in a hotel room near campus. I got invited to the monthly science café one evening when the only person I knew was my engineering supervisor and I only vaguely knew where the venue was. But I decided to be brave and I’m so glad I did because the next time an opportunity came up it was easier to be brave.

Outreach, volunteering and saying “yes”

Relating to “be brave” is saying yes. So agree to help out with an open day or an outreach event because you’ll be able to spend most of the time talking to genuinely interested (and interesting!) people about why you love your subject. And that’s a nice reminder once in a while! You also get to meet like-minded people for other departments or even the same department that you wouldn’t have interacted with before and if you’re new to the University one more friendly face around the place can be a boost.

Teach if you can

I always wanted to give demonstrating a go but even if you don’t think it will be your thing try it anyway. You might discover you really like it! Even if you don’t it reminds you of the key, basic concepts of your subject and cements them in your brain by forcing you to explain them clearly, step by step, to someone who is new to the subject.

An aside: A word of caution about the above three pointers; don’t take on too much, don’t let other things (that may be great fun) dominate your time and know that if you are busy you can indeed say “No”.

Be honest

Ok, one final, serious point. Chances are starting your PhD will be a big change. It will most likely take you away from family and friends and it will put pressures on you in all sorts of ways. If you’re struggling, for whatever reason, don’t struggle alone. Talk to someone, be it a friend, a family member or a third party like a chaplain, a doctor or even your supervisor. Bottling things up just hurts you and if you are new to the area the likelihood is no one will know your “backstory” so they won’t be able to infer from vague comments you make what’s up.
A hypothetical example: every student ever has uttered the words “I’m poor” or some variation on the same. If you are genuinely having financial troubles be explicit. Say “I am unable to pay my rent this month because I maxed out my overdraft after the washing machine broke, I booked the train home for Christmas and I had to pay the gas, electric and water bills for this quarter.” (A note: Universities have hardship funds for exactly that “oh my goodness everything has broken and it’s 3 weeks and five days until my next stipend payment comes in” situation).
As I mentioned in the very first section of this blog about smiling I said you shouldn’t feel the need to put on a façade. Everyone has off days and everyone expresses it differently. As long as your off day doesn’t turn into someone else’s off day because you took things out on them be honest about things. And drink tea, because tea always helps.

And finally, enjoy! You’re on the cutting edge of knowledge with the world of academic literature at your fingertips and three years to explore it!

Now do excuse me, I have an esoteric sedimentology textbook to get back to and it won’t continue to confuse me if I don’t read it!

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