Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The PhD: Grow Your Own Writing Practice

by Pat Thomson, Patter:

You often hear writing described as a skill. And a skill is the capacity to do something well, to use expertise built up through practice. Skills are often seen as merely technical, but a skill requires specialist knowledge and often years of training. However, it’s the capacity/ability to apply and use that knowledge that matters.
We often think that skills are only needed for working with things – but the term skill equally applies to areas such as the cognitive and interpersonal. However, I am not convinced that it is particularly helpful to think of writing as a skill. Yes, writing needs know-how and technique. But skills-talk about academic writing usually lapses into discussions of secretarial matters – the correct use of grammar and syntax for instance, or the ability to edit your own work. Reductive skills-talk in turn easily leads on to conversations about remedial support and better supervision.
When I start to talk with new PhDers about writing I usually avoid focusing on skills and talk instead about three important characteristics of academic writing…
1. Academic writing is a social practice
When writing researchers talk about writing as a social practice they/we mean that all forms of academic writing are produced in, and framed by, disciplinary, institutional and cultural relations, norms and rules. This is a bit of a mouthful. But essentially, for PhDers this means that what you write isn’t a matter of free choice. The university, where you are located and your discipline all shape the writing you do.
So part of the work of the PhD is to learn what these norms, rules and expectations are. Understanding the genres and codes that shape how academic texts are produced is part and parcel of the doctorate.
During the doctorate you will probably get to work on a range of academic texts – thesis, journal articles, conference papers, academic posters, blog posts, reports – as well as accompanying texts like bio-notes. You will also develop and build your own noting and recording system. And these all have their own conventions you’ll need to follow.
You do have some choice in how to write of course. You may decide to bend some academic writing conventions – for example you might engage with a range of narrative forms including fiction, performance, poetry and still and moving image. These are all now used as a means of presenting academic discussion and empirical research, so it’s not completely outlandish to stray into these text types.
2. Deep understandings about academic writing support you to write well
I think about writing as a craft that works from and with imagination and realised through connoisseur knowledges and artisan practices.The dictionary defines a connoisseur is someone who knows a lot about a particular topic – the arts, food, wine – and who can judge quality and skill in that particular area.
To be a connoisseur of academic writing means having a deep, and always growing, critical understanding of writing – genres, tools and techniques, histories, debates and traditions. A connoisseur builds a working knowledge of what they consider to be good/bad writing. They can explain to themselves and to others the criteria they use to make such judgements. A connoisseur of writing is able to use their understandings to evaluate their own work, to diagnose problems and to develop strategies that will help them to write ‘better’.
Becoming a connoisseur of any form of writing relies on lots of systematic reading, and on deliberate analysis of that reading. For PhDers, building depth of connoisseur knowledge means not simply reading for content, but also analysing what you are reading. Just as in other areas of your research, like methods, it’s helpful to read about writing. Writing research offers a language and theorised categories through which you can conduct your own analysis. You grow the habit of asking yourself why you think what you are reading is good or bad – what is it about the text that impresses or disappoints?
3. Writing muscles benefit from regular exercise
But why an artisan? The dictionary defines an artisan as someone who is highly skilled in a particular trade – they make by hand and with specialist tools. The artisan produces unique or a limited run of items, unlike a craftsperson who is generally engaged in a form of mass production. These days the artisan/craft distinction has been corrupted by advertising; it’s common to see signs about artisan bread, for example, when strictly speaking bread is produced by craftspeople – yeasty replicas made by hand every day. So if you prefer to think about writing as a craft, then focus on the commonality between the artisan and the craftsperson, that is, the development of highly refined and skilful processes.
Becoming a writing artisan takes continued practice. A writing artisan develops a rich repertoire of strategies for producing and refining writing. They build their writing muscles, and their flexibility, adaptability, dexterity and stamina. They equip themselves for the long research and writing journey ahead.
For the PhDer, learning to write means establishing routines for writing notes, summaries, journals and chunks for supervisors. It means taking time to try out writing in various styles, voices and forms. Working with description, quotations, with dialogue for instance benefit from experimentation. Testing out different approaches to anecdote, or writing with theory, means that you can choose which of your efforts seems to work best and why.
Sometimes you might get some help in building a writing practice. Perhaps the university might offer classes, writing workshops based around particular text types – journal articles and conference papers for instance. But more is required to build a sustainable routine and expertise. Generally, growing a writing practice is left to the individual PhDer. You have to design your own programme for acquiring expertise.
So what does this mean for you?
Well, if you take on board my three points – writing as a social practice, building connoisseur knowledge and an artisan repertoire of strategies – at the very start of the PhD, then you know you have to set aside regular time to work on your writing, as well as on your substantive topic. And given that the test of the PhD is the production of a persuasive, trustworthy well written and structured text, you also know this will be time well spent.
Photo by Clique Images on Unsplash

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The PhD Plan and the Eventual Reality

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Today our guest blogger is Katrien, a family studies researcher, picture book author and swimming teacher. She was raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i and now lives in Wagga Wagga, Australia. Katrien’s doctoral research is on family wellbeing and public playgrounds. Here she reflects on how to plan for the unexpected in research and writing.
When I began my PhD, I read a lot about being organised: how to set up an EndNote library; how to save the impossible amount of articles you will end up downloading; how to securely store your data; and, most importantly, how to manage your time. I created a Gantt chart, included clearly delineated writing time, and felt like a super-hero. Truly, you have no idea how big a deal that is. My husband was confused because the person he married had a deep hatred of Excel. I even colour-coded the months and tasks!
Throughout my experience in doing the PhD, two seemingly opposing themes have emerged: the planned ideal and the eventual reality. You can start out with high hopes, rooted in your ideal version of the research. Indeed, I feel you need to be optimistic – as optimistic as possible! But the stumbling ground is when you’re faced with the inevitable reality of doing the real work.
My first year was spent reviewing literature, designing the methodology, choosing the methods and drafting three chapters. The ideal plan was that I would engage with one stakeholder group at a time and write that data chapter before moving on to the next stakeholder group. I’d given myself about 3 months to conduct each research method, analyse the data and write a chapter draft. My supervisors would then give me feedback on these drafts and the final year would be spent polishing these drafts into a final thesis.
However, planning ahead gave me a false certainty. I spent hours upon hours in a theoretically ideal universe, applying for ethics and tidying up the four corners of my Excel world; yet I was still confronted with the mess of reality. Despite the ethics approvals and my prior relevant field experience, my chosen methods were not attracting the participant numbers I’d expected. The months I’d planned to be conducting research were spent chasing principals and teachers, then eventually chasing adult caregivers who needed to provide consent for their child/ren to participate. The writing sat on hold.
My impressively colour-coded Gantt chart had no answers to help me solve these problems that arose. It did, however, leave room to shimmy around my timeline, and those 3-month blocks were a breath of fresh air, where I submitted an ethics variation and hoped for the best. The summer school holidays of my second year, ideally dedicated to re-writing, were instead filled up with a research method I had to pursue when my original plans fell through.  The following summer holidays, also ideally dedicated to writing, was spent recovering from emergency surgery. You adapt, because you have to, but I could adapt only because I’d left myself chunks of unplanned time: time where I could be creative, rethink my approach, rest, and process. Without these chunks of unscheduled time and a clear destination in mind, I do not think I could be at this stage of a final draft.
In a book about how to write a thesis (which, I am slowly coming to learn, is a lot like how to live a creative life), Umberto Eco writes that a student should create a road map of their thesis. A way forward for when moving seems impossible. He writes that a student could think of this road map in the very practical terms of planning for an actual road trip:
Imagine that you have a week to take a 600-mile car trip. Even if you are on vacation, you will not leave your house and indiscriminately begin driving in a random direction. You will make a rough plan. You may decide to take the Milan-Naples highway, with slight detours through Florence, Siena, Arezzo, possibly a longer stop in Rome, and also a visit to Montecassino. If you realize along the way that Siena takes you longer than anticipated, or that it is also worth visiting San Gimignano, you may decide to eliminate Montecassino. Once you arrive in Arezzo, you may have the sudden, irrational, last-minute idea to turn east and visit Urbino, Perugia, Assisi, and Gubbio. This means that – for substantial reasons – you may change your itinerary in the middle of the voyage. But you will modify that itinerary, and not no itinerary.
                                                -How to write a thesis, Umberto Eco, p. 107
One of my supervisors would remind me that writing was about ‘rolling up the carpet’: you begin with a sentence, which eventually turns into a paragraph and grows into a chapter. In practical terms, I found the Pomodoro technique to be immensely useful to convince myself to pick up the carpet and keep rolling. I have found that you can set yourself writing deadlines, which are helpful in keeping up the momentum and avoiding falling into the trap of reading as procrastination, but your insights and creative processing cannot be scheduled. You can only make time for these moments by removing other tasks.
If I can offer some advice from where I sit in this journey, I would strongly urge you to give yourself the gift of time by leaving space for moments of messiness because this is where the deep thought and joy is found. A road map, or methodology, can help to scaffold your curiosity, and to adjust to the inevitable issues that will arise. But if you don’t leave time to get lost, you may not ever arrive at your destination.
Most of my best writing insights and ideas for how to bridge together paragraphs or chapters have been away from the desk. They’ve been in the shower, while walking my dog, while driving to work or while making dinner. They’ve been in the moments in-between – the moments that can easily feel harried because you feel you have ‘no time’. But they are really the golden moments, where your brain can string ideas together and connect the dots. Where you can playfully engage with your topic and imagine possibilities.
In planning your PhD, I highly recommend that you set yourself up to live affordably for at least three years, so there are pockets of time in between the Excel cells where you can daydream, where you can read (and even write) for pleasure, where you can rest and recover from the things life will inevitably throw your way. My advice then, is that if you can live on less, and you can afford the time to be curious and follow that curiosity, then you have just given yourself a truly valuable gift.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Vagueness Problem in Academic Writing
Dear Readers. Shaun Lehmann, Katherine Firth (of the Research Voodoo blog) and I are currently in the process of writing a new book for Open University Press called ‘Writing Trouble’.
The proposed book evolved out of our work on the Thesis Bootcamp programa writing intervention originally designed by Peta Freestone and Liam Connell
Over the years all of us have been running our own bootcamps we have met hundreds of students struggling to put their final thesis draft together. These students have supervisors who are clearly great researchers, but cannot give good feedback on writing. The book works backwards from the confusing feedback students have showed us. ‘Writing Trouble’ will help you diagnose and treat your thesis writing problems.
Part of our process with this new book is to test out some of our text on our audience – you. If you’d like to know more about the book before it’s published, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list. Here is the first post on ‘vagueness’ by Shaun – he’s interested to see if it’s too… vague. Take it away Shaun!
Research students often receive comments like these:
  • I’m not sure what you are trying to say here
  • Do you mean x, or y?
  • What is ‘it’?
  • Be more specific
Reading this feedback can be an incredibly frustrating experience. You thought had been crystal clear – why can’t your supervisor understand? Did they read it in the dark?
Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that your writing was suffering from ‘vagueness’ – a constant problem in English. English-speaking readers (especially in an academic context) will only do a very small amount of work to figure out what you mean before they respond with confusion. I’ve spent a lot of time with research students for whom English is a second/other language. Vagueness is an especially common for this group of PhD students, but it also plagues less experienced writers. Why does it happen?
When you level up to a research degree, there is increased scrutiny of your work. A big part of communicating successfully in academic English depends on your ability to identify and eliminate multiple meanings from your text. Surprisingly, once you learn how to do it, dealing with vagueness in your text can actually be very enjoyable, in addition to making you a better writer and editor.
Before I go on to explain some techniques to deal with vagueness, it is important to understand why the English language behaves the way it does when there is ambiguity. For this, I will turn to the work of the late anthropologist Edward T. Hall and his concept of high- and low-context cultures.
In essence, a high-context culture is one in which a listener/reader is comfortable making use of contextual information and applying their common sense in order to understand messages. These languages developed in tight knit communities who shared a lot of experiences in common. You can think about a high context language as being full of ‘insider speak’.
For instance, it’s likely that you understand cultural references and memes that completely mystify your parents. In a high context language you can take a lot for granted and don’t have to explain yourself. You may also see cultural communication styles like this referred to as listener/reader responsible. As it happens, some of the most common first languages of students writing in English are derived from high-context environments: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Thai, Arabic, and to some extent Spanish and French.
On the other hand, a low-context culture relies much more so on the content of the message. Low context languages developed in situations where people living next to each other were different – such as in trading ports and countries that have been repeatedly colonised – such as England was for thousands of years. Waves of invaders: Romans, Vikings, the Normans disrupted the close bonds of society and this meant people had to work hard to understand each other.
In a low context language the recipient of the communication brings very little to the table in terms of securing understanding. The onus is on you to make yourself understood. These cultures are also therefore referred to as speaker/writer responsible. This communication style is especially common to the Germanic cultures of Northern Europe, and therefore to English as well.
Let me give you a small example of how this difference in context-reliance plays out in everyday speech, taking Japanese (high-context) and English (low-context) as our languages of comparison. Let us imagine two people stepping outside on a cold day. In Japanese, you can express that you feel cold by simply saying ‘cold’ – the listener will look at the situation at hand, understand that the weather is cold, and then guess that what you mean is that you feel cold.
In English, you need to do much more work. If you just say ‘cold’, your listener will probably respond with ‘what’s cold?’. This is because the listener in this case is not as comfortable with guessing what you mean based on context and common sense. For this listener, it is not possible to know whether you meant ‘I feel cold because the weather is cold’ or whether you meant ‘I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that the weather is cold, though I myself am not bothered by it’. Further, it actually isn’t even completely clear whether you are talking about yourself, as you haven’t said ‘I’. This is why in English we must say ‘I’m cold’ or ‘it’s cold’, if we hope to be reliably understood.
Stay with me – I will give a more academic example later.
As we can see, the English speaking listener (and by extension reader), is likely to be confused if there is more than one meaning implied in any statement. A useful way of thinking of this is that English speakers interpret communications on a possibility basis and not on a probability basis. Being 80% sure that you meant xis not acceptable, as there is still a possibility that you meant yA successful English-language communication is one that has only one possible meaning.
So returning to the common (annoying) feedback at the top of this post, if you are being told that you are being vague, it means that you are writing in a higher-context mode than the reader and asking them to be probabilistic where they want more certainty.
How to Deal with Vagueness
Forget your supervisor or examiner, this is your reader!
Dealing with vagueness is about learning to ‘get out of your own head’. As I have implied, context-dependency issues can arise for writers with English as a second/other language, but they can also occur for native speakers who are simply too close to their work (a common problem for thesis students).
A useful technique is to learn to read your work through the eyes of a kind of caricature of the low-context communication mode. You need to imagine a reader who is highly intelligent and logical, but who has no common sense and will fail to interpret any multiple meaning in the way you had intended.
I call my version of this the Commander Data Meditation  based on the robotic Star Trek character of the same name, but it works just as well to imagine Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory or any other hyper-logical character.
This technique is best used in combination with what I call the 48-Hour Rule. After you have finished writing, put aside your work for 48 hours. This is long enough to forget the exact words you chose, but to recall exactly what you meant to say. Sit down with your work, close your eyes, and put yourself into the mode of the character that works for you.
First warm yourself up with some simpler (and more humorous) examples. For each of the below, identify the multiple meanings, and then re-write them to make these multiple meanings clear.
Here’s an example:
  • During the incident, the defendant struck the man with a walking stick.
    • During the incident, the defendant used a walking stick to strike the man.
    • During the incident, the defendant struck the man who was holding a walking stick.
Now try the following:
  • The star was observed with a telescope.
  • I saw the tree coming around the hill.
  • It is widely acknowledged that flying planes can be dangerous.
  • I shot an elephant in my pyjamas.
Here is an example based on a real thesis:
“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of the recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”
In this case, two sets of recommendations are identified in the first sentence, 1) all recommendations, and 2) the recommendations that are relevant to be implemented. While it may have been perfectly clear to the writer that they were referring to 2) when they said ‘Most of the recommendations …’ in the second sentence, in my low-context mode it becomes clear that the writer could actually be pointing to either set of recommendations. I would then edit the text as such to remove this second meaning:
“Some recommendations are still relevant and can be implemented. Most of thesestill relevant recommendations were related to project management, public debt management, budgetary reforms and financial sector reforms.”
Now, go back to your thesis. As you read, try to identify where anything you are saying might be interpreted as having more than one meaning. Treat for vagueness as you have above.
While it can be frustrating to be told that you have vagueness issues, I think you can see how the fix is quite simple. The key is to remember that you aren’t writing for a clone of yourself, with all of your knowledge and experiences. Nor are you writing for someone who can be relied upon to ‘fill in the gaps’ in what you have said.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Three Thesis Writing Modes

It’s pretty common to hear academic writing described in three stages – (1) thinking and preparation or pre-writing, (2) writing, and (3) post writing revision. In the doctorate you do pre-writing until you get to ‘writing up’. And that’s when you write and revise.
But it’s not really like that – lots of thinking goes on as the thesis is being written and polished. And there’s been lots of writing in order to get to the point of thesis writing. The reality is that you think and write all the way through the doctorate, and most of that thinking and writing is directed to the final thesis text.
I’ve often wondered if there was a better way to describe the way that writing happens during the doctorate. Something better than pre-writing, writing and post writing revision. I think I’ve finally come across it in one of the many books about creative writing I’ve been accumulating.
Graeme Harper tackles the problem of the three stages writing model in his book Critical Approaches to Creative Writing. (2019).
The problem with the very idea of three stages, Harper says, is that it’s linear. The writing process is represented as the writer moving through each stage in turn. One after the other. First of all you prepare, then you write and then you revise.
But this is not what actually happens in practice, he says. While you might do a lot of preparatory work at the start of writing a novel, you may not actually stop doing that kind of work for quite a while – you may well find that you have to go and search for additional information or do some additional plotting as you are writing. And you may find you are revising some parts of the text as the same time as you are writing new sections. It’s not a question of a neat sequence of steps, each distinct and separate from the other, but something much more messy.
Harper’s description of the creative writing process rang bells for me. His description of overlapping processes seemed a lot like thesis writing where there are often various types of writing happening at once.
Harper doesn’t stop with debunking the three stages approach. He offers an alternative framework for thinking about creative writing. Rather than serial stages, he proposes three modes of writing which are blended throughout a project. He calls these three modes foundation, generation and response.
  • Foundation is all of the work that underpins the actual writing – think of it as architecture or infrastructure, Harper says. Foundational work grounds and holds writing together.
  • Generation is writing new text. Generating text involves drafting and some redrafting until you get to the point where you have a whole working text. Harper says generation is best thought of as a process of initiation and creation.
  • Response is when you come at your text anew, reflect on it in its entirety and refine it. Response takes something which is not yet fully fashioned and fashions it. Response is the writer reflecting on their own text, but could also include other readers’ responses too. Harper argues that response also encompasses thinking about how the final text will be published and distributed for wider public response.
Now the key to Harper’s argument is that these three are not linear stages. They operate as a kind of plait. While foundation might be dominant at the start of writing, the other two are also often involved.
I reckon Harper’s three modes of writing are helpful in thinking about writing a thesis too.
In the doctorate we can therefore think of:
  • Foundation as – reading and noting, keeping a research journal, field notes, transcripts, data files, records of analysis, mind maps, plans, spread sheets, storyboards, emails, blog posts, writing for supervision purposes, annual reports and reviews, chunks about specific aspects of research …
  • Generation as – producing a research proposal, writing a confirmation or upgrade paper, writing a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, writing the thesis text …
  • Response as – getting feedback on and refining the research proposal, a confirmation or upgrade text, a conference paper, journal article or book chapter, and the thesis text. Developing a publication plan from the thesis …
We can see that these three modes helps us to see the writing going all the way through the doctorate. And to see that each mode of writing is important and can’t be ignored. Failing to do enough foundational work means that both the generation and response writing stages will be stymied. They won’t have the necessary strength to stand up. And failing to spend enough time on response, thinking that generation of text is sufficient, means that the writing will be incomplete and unrefined.
And an added bonus. The three writing modes can be used to begin to (re)think how writing gets done in the doctorate. Harper’s three modes shows time marked not by linear stages but by the various kind of texts that need to be produced at different times.
I imagine a doctorate might go a little like this.
OK, so I’m not the best at illustrating but I’m sure you get the idea.
But perhaps you might like to play with your own doctoral timeline, thinking about the ways in which the three modes of writing might occupy your week and year variously, depending where you are up to in the path to the final doctoral thesis.
And perhaps you too will find Harper’s three modes of writing a more helpful way to think about the writing that has to be done – all the way through the candidature – in order to produce a good thesis.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The 20 Most Influential Academic Books of All Time: No Spoilers

by Colin Marshall, Open Culture:
Sometimes I'll meet someone who mentions having written a book, and who then adds, "... well, an academic book, anyway," as if that didn't really count. True, academic books don't tend to debut at the heights of the bestseller lists amid all the eating, praying, and loving, but sometimes lightning strikes; sometimes the subject of the author's research happens to align with what the public believes they need to know. 

Other times, academic books succeed at a slower burn, and it takes readers generations to come around to the insights contained in them — a less favorable royalty situation for the long-dead writer, but at least they can take some satisfaction in the possibility.

History has shown, in any case, that academic books can become influential. "After a list of the top 20 academic books was pulled together by expert academic booksellers, librarians and publishers to mark the inaugural Academic Book Week," writes The Guardian's Alison Flood, "the public was asked to vote on what they believed to be the most influential." 

The shortlist of these most important academic books of all time runs as follows (and you can read many of them free by following the links from our meta list of Free eBooks):
The top spot went to Darwin's On the Origin of Species, which Flood quotes the University of Glasgow's Andrew Prescott as calling "the supreme demonstration of why academic books matter," one that "changed the way we think about everything – not only the natural world, but religion, history and society. Every researcher, no matter whether they are writing books, creating digital products or producing artworks, aspires to produce something as significant in the history of thought as Origin of Species.”
Kant's Critique of Pure Reason placed a still impressive fifth, given its status, in the words of philosopher Roger Scruton, as "one of the most difficult works of philosophy ever written," — but one which aims to "show the limits of human reasoning, and at the same time to justify the use of our intellectual powers within those limits. The resulting vision, of self-conscious beings enfolded within a one-sided boundary, but always pressing against it, hungry for the inaccessible beyond, has haunted me, as it has haunted many others since Kant first expressed it."
So you want to write an academic book this influential? You may have a tough time doing it deliberately, but it couldn't hurt to steep yourself in the materials we've previously featured related to the creation of this top twenty, including  16,000 pages of Darwin's writing on evolution (as well as the man's personal library), Orwell's letter revealing why he would write 1984, as well as Marx and Kant's rigorous work habits — and Kant's even more rigorous coffee habit, though if there exists any 21st-century academic in need of encouragement to drink more coffee, I have yet to meet them.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Onwards and Upwards: Preparing to Start Your PhD

At this time of year, many of you might be starting to think about the next stage in your career, whether that be moving to a new university or starting a new research endeavour. Here, Amy discusses some of the challenges that come with moving to a new city to start a PhD, and some tips for how to deal with them.
Opening the next chapter of any stage of your life can be daunting as well as exciting, and starting your PhD is no exception. I’m currently preparing to start a PhD in the new year, and it’s opened my eyes to the variety of things one needs to consider when making a big life change! From finding housing to organising paperwork and managing nerves, there are so many things to think about, and this can be overwhelming. However, I’ve learned a couple of things along the way to make the whole process a lot smoother – hopefully, they will help you too if you’re in a similar position!

The early bird catches the worm!

For me, there’s nothing worse than the blind panic I get when I realise something I left to the last minute is going to be much more time-intensive than I originally thought. So, when preparing to move to a new city for my PhD, I knew I was going to start early so there would be no danger of this happening! The amount of preparation needed can seem daunting, but taking the first step early on can make even the largest task seem more manageable and give you sufficient time to fix any issues that may arise. On a more serious note, if you are moving abroad for your PhD, things like visas, tuition fees and health insurance will take more time to be processed, so you really do need to sort these out further in advance.

Talk to people who understand your situation

A support network can be invaluable when making any big life change, so having people around you when you’re preparing to start your PhD can be extremely reassuring. Whether this is your family, friends or research group, these people who understand what you’re going through can give advice, help you think of anything you might have missed in your planning, or simply be there to listen while you rant about how stressed you are! Personally, having my research group to give me advice has been especially useful since they have all have the first-hand experience of starting a PhD and know tips and tricks to help make the transition easier.
It might also be worth trying to get in contact with some of the people you’ll be working with throughout your PhD for advice. While your supervisor will be your first port of call for guidance, they may be able to pass your details onto some other members of your new research group, who can give you an insight into the university you’re moving to, details of the local area, and some more concrete ideas on how to prepare for the big move.

Lists are your best friend!

I love a good list, and personally find them to be the best way of keeping organised and managing each task you have to complete. When preparing for a PhD where you will likely be moving to a new city (or even a new country!) there are plenty of things to think about and making lists can really help keep things in perspective. I find it helpful to keep lists that rank tasks by priority, as it allows you to clearly see which jobs need completing first or require more preparation. For example, sorting any paperwork you might be required to submit before you start your PhD is a high priority, so should be completed first. Actually packing for the big move is a lower priority since you won’t need to do this far in advance, but getting together a packing list might be a slightly higher priority as it may take some planning to narrow your choices down, especially if you’re limited on the amount you can transport.

Do your research, but don’t be afraid to ask questions

While it’s probably best not to bombard your PhD supervisor with every question that pops into your head, I’ve found that they are happy to support your move and answer queries to put your mind at ease. That being said, doing your background research when it comes to starting a PhD is vital. Little things like looking into the surrounding areas and places you may like to live, or the average cost of living so you can start to manage your money, can go a long way when trying to calm nerves. University websites also have a plethora of information for new students, which often covers a wide range of topics, from the course itself to finding housing, to giving guidance when registering with a GP.  This can help answer any initial questions before you contact your supervisor for more specific guidance.

It’s okay to panic every once in a while!

Lastly, don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed by starting a PhD. After all, it’s a big lifestyle change, so while hopefully, you’ll be most excited for a new adventure, it’s also normal to be a bit scared too! I’ve found parts of preparing for my PhD to be a logistical nightmare, but I always remember that all the stress and planning will be worth it in the end.

Are you starting your PhD soon? Or perhaps you are an experienced PhD researcher who has valuable tips for new doctoral candidates? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.
Amy Kynman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Warwick in 2018. She is currently working towards a Masters by Research in chemistry, also at the University of Warwick. Her research focusses on the chemical reactivity of rhodium complexes, with the aim of utilising them for carbon-carbon bond forming reaction. Alongside her studies, she is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the University of Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar and aims to eventually undertake a PhD in organometallic chemistry.