By Fraser Raeburn |

It’s that time of year again, with a host of bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked young things preparing to saddle up and get started on their PhDs. None of them know what they’re in for. Not in the cynical, ‘abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here’ sense, but because the first year of a PhD is a curiously undefined, mysterious thing. Once the dust settles from the orientation activities, the welcome speeches have been made and you’ve worked out where your workspace is, what next?

There is of course no single answer. Your PhD is unique, just like everyone else’s. But in the humanities at least, there tends to be a natural rhythm to the first year. It goes something like this:

  1. Being politely ignored

The first steps are the hardest, and the point at which you need the most guidance. Fortunately, guidance is built into the PhD through the oversight of one or more supervisors. Less fortunately, the beginning of the academic year is the most difficult time to get the attention of any moderately senior academic. They have classes to plan and teach, have to deal with dozens of mildly clueless new undergrads and a backlog of admin work that they have carefully ignored over the summer. Meeting with you – and more to the point, meeting with their brain functions fully engaged – is not at the top of their to-do list. This is not because they don’t like you, or aren’t interested (for most academics, PhD supervision is the most interesting and rewarding part of their job), but they know that you have plenty of time and can wait a little, unlike all their other problems. Be patient. Get to know the other PhDs. It shouldn’t be more than a week or two.

  1. Reading

The literature review is a constant in most disciplines, and a fair chunk of your time will be spent explaining how other people have previously understood/explained/been blatantly wrong about your topic. Don’t be surprised if the first thing your supervisor asks you to do is to read everything of relevance to your proposed research, digest it and write about it. This is almost universally considered to be tedious, maybe even pointless. There’s no way you can include everything that will be relevant to the final project, not to mention that there will be new publications by the time you are writing up the actual thesis, potentially rendering your early analysis obsolete. You signed up to a PhD in order to do research, and this won’t feel like it.

It’s more useful to think of the literature review as insurance, for both you and your supervisor. From your supervisor’s perspective, they probably aren’t completely up to date with your specific topic, so you handily summarising the state of the field is a useful starting point for them to engage with your future work. Moreover, it’s not that hard to come up with a research proposal – especially as it may not have been looked over by an actual expert in the topic during the application process. Engaging with current research forces you to think about how your own project will fit in, and will give your supervisor some added faith that your research is well-directed and meaningful. From their – and your – perspective, it’s much better to discover whether your proposed approach has any holes in it before you actually start the research.

  1. Popping cherries

first year phd

There’s a few aspects of academic life that you may not have encountered yet. That’s not to say that you need to start doing everything at once – this isn’t a box-ticking exercise – but it’s a good idea to be on the look out for new things to try. You may have never attended a conference or given a paper: your first year is often a great time to find a safe space to experiment, float new ideas and try out new techniques. You may embark on your first research trip. You might also look into ways to get involved in the academic community. Making yourself a Twitter account and following your academic idols is a good first step. There will also be plenty of people looking to exploit your free time give you opportunities, offering the chance to do things like organising conferences and seminar series, getting involved in blogging projects or help running research networks. Not only do these opportunities let you develop skills and make contacts, it’s also never too early to think about what your CV will look like at the end of the PhD. Someone, at some point, will tell you exactly how hard it is to land an academic job. They’re not wrong. Get started early.

  1. Gearing up to be reviewed

Most PhD programmes require passing a review after your first year in order to confirm that you’re making satisfactory progress, and much of your first year will be spent working towards fulfilling these requirements. Technically, you are only a PhD ‘candidate’ after passing this review, before then you’re on probation and can’t aspire to such lofty titles. These reviews vary a great deal depending on your progression, your supervisors and your project. Usually, you will submit a portfolio of work: the aforementioned lit review, a provisional chapter draft, conference papers, plans for the future – whatever makes sense for your project. For most, this will be a relatively useful exercise in dealing with and responding to criticism. It is also useful to make sure that Stockholm Syndrome isn’t setting in between you and your supervisor, with someone outside the supervision team there to offer a fresh perspective. For some, however, the review can be problematic. If so, remember that you aren’t alone, and that the review is an opportunity to uncover issues and fix them before they prove fatal to your PhD.

first year phdNot, like, literally.

Your first year may or may not look like this – if it doesn’t, it’s important to remember that there’s no one blueprint for PhD success. In fact, one of the most important habits to lose is the constant need to compare yourself to others that many of us develop in the competitive world of taught degrees. Never, ever feel inadequate because someone has done something you haven’t, finds something easier than you do or seems to have progressed further than you. If you can manage that, you’re already halfway to surviving your PhD.

Fraser has just entered the third year of his History PhD at the University of Edinburgh, a source of considerable angst. If anyone out there has a guide to your third year, please get in touch. You can find him in dark corners of the internet like Twitter and

Pubs and Publications is recruiting! If you have what it takes* you can read more and apply here.

*a moderate amount of free time

(Cover image, (cc); Image 1, (cc); Image 2 (cc)