By Maxine Branagh |

A couple of months ago I was asked by my supervisor to give a talk to the new first year PhDs about ‘what I wish I had known this time last year’. I’m a little suspicious of ‘click-baity’ listicles. Particularly those that give PhD students a selection of dos and don’ts that they must follow otherwise they will surely fail (such as this one from Times Higher Education back in August which faced a backlash from PhD students on my Twitter feed). So with that in mind, I’m going to give you some of my reflections from the first year of my PhD with the caveat that you should absolutely feel free to ignore every single one of them.

1. Get a hobby! Have something else to focus on, that isn’t your PhD. I’ve found that when doing a PhD it’s really easy to let your self-esteem get so wrapped up in your work that when something goes wrong it can feel like the worst thing in the world has happened. Having something else that I can succeed at gives me a sense of perspective and reminds me that I am good at things that aren’t necessarily linked to academia. Ideally this hobby should be totally removed from what you do on a day-to-day basis (I would say as an English Literature student that running a reading group probably doesn’t count!). Last year I got really into running and did a number of races up to half-marathon distance. This year I’m learning Gaelic and have a 6-month-old puppy to look after. It’s good to mix things up.

puppy picture (Mollie)

2. Set a working routine that works for you. I spent the first few months of first year forcing myself to work a strict 9-5 and feeling guilty if I didn’t absolutely stick to it. I realised that most days working 5am-2pm works better for me (weird I know!) and some days I want to lie in and work a little later into the evening. Allowing myself to do that makes me much more productive and a lot less guilty.

3. Take holidays and weekends. It helps you keep a healthy work-life balance and it’s good for maintaining relationships with your friends and family who aren’t in academia.

lonely road

4. Don’t compare yourself to others. This is good general life advice but particularly in the PhD process it can be really damaging to constantly compare yourself to people. Everyone’s project, experiences and priorities are different.

5. Going back to what I said earlier, don’t take all the advice you hear! I sent myself a little mad in first year (and took on a lot of extra things!) by trying to follow everyone’s (often conflicting) advice. Stick with your gut instinct and have a good group of down-to-earth friends who will be honest with you when you’re overstretching yourself or engaging in ‘productive procrastination’ (an excellent term my supervisor uses when I want to do something totally irrelevant to my PhD).


I think every stage of the PhD comes with its own challenges in striking a balance between the thesis itself and pressures to publish, present and teach. Remembering to keep self-care at the heart of my decisions with juggling different things helps to maintain a sense of perspective in the whole process and will hopefully mean that I finish the PhD in one piece!

Maxine Branagh is a second year PhD student in English Literature at the University of Stirling. Her research focuses on childhood reading habits in eighteenth-century Scotland. She blogs pretty much anything that comes into her head at and tweets @maxinebranagh

(Images (c) Maxine Branagh)

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