Getting started

The first part of a PhD is exciting, but also often feels like you aren’t getting anywhere.

The main development early in your PhD should be your thinking. There may be not much to show for a long time.

It is likely that at this time you won’t be able to clearly describe what you’re researching. You may not even be able to describe the most recent of the many articles that you’ve read.

This is normal early on. Be concerned if this is you at Year 4.


Read. Read old stuff. Read (some) new stuff.

How has the research changed over time? Why has it changed this way?

What has been dropped? What has been added? Why has not been explored? How are things integrated?

Keep reading. Write a lot of notes. Read tangentially – it will come back and be useful in 5 years’ time.

Bring your notes together and summarise the literature. This document should constantly evolve. It will be useful in the future.

“The good papers”

A common problem when starting out is trying to find the research that defines your field.

Here are some basic solutions until you get more comfortable with your field

Look out for papers that are commonly cited in your field. Find them, read them, then trace back the main papers that they cited.

Read papers from the North America and the European research networks, as well as other countries.

Read past your advisers’ collaborators. By reading wider, you can often introduce new ideas to your adviser.

General tips:

Get a whiteboard. Use it. Think through things, unwrap ideas, draw lines. Then write it on paper. A whiteboard is one of the most important tools for an academic.

Do you have to take classes? Use your classes for skill and theory development. Take anything that can help to develop you as a researcher. Even if it is the hard subject.

Learn to code. Learn to code. Learn to code.

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The PhD is a golden time for thinking. Thinking thoroughly is a luxury. It is more difficult to find time to think when you're an academic


Materials for thinking:




Some knowledge to build off



Test a Theory

Develop a research agenda that aims to test a theory

Don’t aim to prove a theory

Be prepared for your results to either support or not support this theory. Before you begin a study, you should be able to describe what the expected and non-significant results might mean.


Find mentors

Other PhD students



Other faculty

People outside of academia


Be discerning about your mentors: they should be honest, supportive, and reflective.

But you don’t always have to follow their advice.