My First Month as a PhD Candidate
The first day of my PhD had come with a lot of anticipation. Having received my offer to study at Royal Holloway, University of London some months prior, I had been waiting for my start date with nervous excitement. For those who haven’t visited (which I highly recommend) the University campus is situated on Egham Hill, surrounded by greenery and overlooked by the impressive Founder’s building.
I arrived with time to spare before I was due to meet with my supervisory team. So, after a walk around campus and a leisurely lunch I decided to head into the PhD office to meet my new peers (some of whom I had met at the PsyPAG annual conference earlier that year). The welcome I received as I walked into the office was nothing short of warm, and this has only continued during my short time there. I will take this opportunity to give a shout out to the entire Royal Holloway PhD cohort whose support has already been invaluable at the early stages of the studentship. I was shown to my desk, which has since become populated with various teas and post-it notes, and settled into my new workplace.
Shortly after, it was time for my first meeting with my supervisory team where we discussed plans for the first academic year. My research examines adolescents risk taking, specifically looking at the role of situational ambiguity and whether teenagers take risks in order to explore their environment. During this initial meeting, it was noted that the proposal we submitted in the initial funding stages would have to be altered due to a series of papers that had been published between the time of my application and the start of the studentship. While this wasn’t unexpected, it was my first challenge on the PhD journey and gave me a direction with which to move forward in those early days.
However, even with this new challenge to guide my reading, the first days and weeks of the PhD felt overwhelming. Here I was with 3 years, a mountain of time to complete this research project, how could I possibly take my first step towards climbing that mountain? Fortunately, I came to realise that I wasn’t alone in feeling this – speaking to my fellow first year peers there were similar worries and solutions that were shared between us. Having a space to share those concerns with peers at a similar stage to you is necessary; I would advise any incoming PhD student to surround themselves with a supportive group of peers because chances are any concern or question you have will be shared by others. Friday night drinks are very conducive to this share and care philosophy!
I began to structure my days around a timetable which I now adhere to religiously. Splitting my time into smaller chunks helped me to focus my time efficiently and direct myself to one specific task rather than being distracted by three different things at once. Through planning my week around this timetable, that journey up the mountain began to take shape in the form of my first piece of research (which is still on its way to becoming a fully fleshed out study!). This came about iteratively through feedback from my supervisors on the material I had been reading. Through this period, I also came to realise that your supervisory team can also advise on more than just research design, but can also provide guidance on wider academic life. Previously (and as I now know, mistakenly) I thought you would only approach supervisors with queries specifically related to the studies you intend to carry out. But, a PhD is so much more than that – for example, my studentship contract requires that I also teach and attend training, alongside managing additional commitments outside of Royal Holloway, such as Editing for the Quarterly. Balancing commitments is a key aspect of academic life and as senior academics, your supervisors can help identify commitments that can be productive, and those that can detract from your progress. Along these lines, within the first few weeks I was given the sage advice: ‘just say no!’.
Slowly, but surely, my understanding of the PhD journey is beginning to take shape. The first month has been a busy, exciting learning curve and one that has given me the assurance that I made the correct choice to pursue a PhD. While I know from peers that there will be highs and lows during the three years, with the network of friends and colleagues both within the department and elsewhere, it is a challenge I am excited to tackle one day at a time.
Alex Lloyd is a PhD student within the Emotion, Development & Brain Lab at Royal Holloway, University of London.