Getting started tips?


Hi everyone, a newbie here 😊
I started my PhD 4 weeks ago and was just wondering if anyone had any tips on getting started? My supervisors seem quite happy with my spending the next few months ‘background reading’ without coming up with any kind of research question.

Having come from a very output focused background, I’m having difficulties accepting that all I have to do is reading (and motivating myself to do it). Any suggestions? I seem to have spent most of today procrastinating!

Avatar for Pjlu

You are reading with a purpose. While it may initially seem like you are reading a range of material that is quite broad and diffuse in relation to your general topic, you are essentially surveying the field and ascertaining where there are gaps and where these gaps may feed your into your curiosity and potentially help frame your research questions. It is a very difficult task you are undertaking even though you may feel you are just bumbling along and not doing much.

The other thing of course is that, once you do sniff the elusive gap and start honing in on your question, you rarely get the same opportunity to read so broadly as you have to narrow down your focus into the specific topic-going from macro into micro. So, while it seems a bit ironic, try to savour this part as it soon passes and there is a point on the horizon that will be upon you soon, whereby your reading will be notably focused and quite narrow in range. Best luck and best wishes, P.


Thanks, I'm still struggling a bit - With motivation mainly, keeping going is proving difficult!

I think my problem is that I'm being advised to read stuff that's not even related to my field in order to familiarise myself with the issues - The "elusive gap" is so big in my field of research I could drive a tank through it! And if you'd seen me drive, you'd know that is no mean feat!

I think essentially, I'm just really impatient and so desperate to actually get started on my research! I think it possibly doesn't help that two people I know who started at the same time already seem to be required to do so much more.

I'm just trying to break things down into small chunks so it doesn't seem so big and black hole like!

Avatar for Pjlu

When I first put my proposal in, it was based on an extension of my Master's thesis. After about 2 months of vague reading, I realised I had 'finished' with my Masters thesis, even if there were potentially a few fields to mine yet. I went back into my supervisor (we had meetings every 8 weeks-was part time student) on my second meeting, so it was two months or so since I had first met her and begun the thing and said, "I don't think I can bear to do the topic I proposed but I am really interested in this other area instead-what do you think?". We had a conversation and she asked a couple of questions and then suddenly it was there-the broad question and we both went "oh, that's it" and that broad question, that came out of a rambling conversation, after reading about other matters entirely (but still in the same general area) became the basis of the now completed thesis.

While parts of the thesis journey are very much a logical or empirical process, especially the methods, other parts seem to just come after a great deal of reading, thinking and sort of following vague hunches. Small chunks definitely help you progress and also to manage the anxiety of not seeming to do a lot at times and so do lists that you tick off-provided you actually do follow them.

The thesis seems to work in peaks and troughs...sometimes you are just working round the clock and other times drifting along seemingly doing very little and getting frustrated with yourself, your supervisors and the whole process. I think quite a few of us go through this process; its not unusual. It can be a real pig to go through though ( apologies to all members of the pig species out there-just a figure of speech-pigs are awesome animals and so too is the Phd).


The first year is notoriously bad/hard to cope with/feels without clear direction... it is hard advice to take but I think the best thing to do is chill out and make the most of it. You could spend some time setting up reference software and organising things if you haven't done this already. It sounds like you're doing fine! It won't stay like that forever - promise!