How should I start?


My PhD programme is starting in less than one month but I don't feel ready for it. I had a brief discussion with my supervisor about the topic I will be studying. However, as it is a novel idea, I can't find many relevant papers. The things I learnt during my undergrad all appear to be too simple and useless for this topic. Postdocs in the lab don't know much about this topic either.

Has anyone had similar problem before? How did you get through it?   


It's good to be a bit nervous, the most important thing is that your excited to start (despite this problem), which i assume you are?
what is your topic by the way?

I'm in a very similar situation, my undergraduate degree is is pharmaceutics and I'm starting a PhD in dentistry so quite different. I'm just looking it as a bigger challenge and that by the end I will be have more knowledge in a larger subject area.

Regarding there not being many papers, this is bound to be a problem to some people and I doubt your alone in that respect. There will be some relevant information you may just have to broaden your search so the papers are perhaps less relevant than your initial search.

It may also be the case that because you have not studied this topic as an undergraduate you may need to read in the topic area (some basic things) to be able to know what is relevant when you are searching, is this makes sense??? Just be calm and don't worry you are not alone and your knowledge will rapidly increase until in a few months you will be wondering why you were even bothered about this in the first place.

Hope this helps



I started my PhD about three weeks ago after a long break from academia. Not only had I been out of science for several years but I also changed from a rather qualitative to a heavily quantitative science. You won't know everything you need to know on your first day: if you did, why would you need three years? One thing that has helped me loads has been project planning, thinking about workflow and how to find the information that I need, how to structure my literature review, how to prioritise my background reading etc (especially with trying to learn a new way of thinking within a matter of weeks). The project management structure has helped me stay calm and feel that I know what I'm doing -- I might not know everything about my topic, but I feel like I understand what is expected of me, and I have a definite system for building up my background knowledge.

Keep calm and carry on :)


I remember when I started my PhD I had the exact same thought. After a few months, I wondered how I would get through all of the articles that had potential relevancy to my topic. Take it slow and plan it out. Start with a list of key words you know and find some sources on those. As you read through them, take note of the sources they use, especially if it was in a paragraph that you took some notes from. These will help you build you keyword searches up faster then you realize. Keep hacking away at the lists; remembering that some will be more useful than others.

As you focus, the list will get thin again because you know what you are looking for and can do so efficiently. But keep track of journals and authors that are repeated in your lists, that can help you find other hidden gems in those sources.
Good luck and enjoy the ride!


Hi Catcat,

I am the same, starting my Phd on the 1 October, and I have only had a brief discussion with my supervisor (a few days ago). He gave me some books about the bare bones of my subject so I have just started on them. But apart from that, I have just been getting my life as ready for it as possible, moving, sorting out childcare and now just setting up some good home office space. I have also bought myself some good notebooks, so I can jot down any ideas I have when reading, this makes me feel a little better!

I am really nervous about not being ready, but so looking forward to getting started. My subject is quite novel too, but there are components of it that have been well reviewed and researched.


This is my first post, having just registered as a member, after stalking for a few months! I'm also just to start my PhD (on 11 October) and I'm finding the waiting is sending me a little mad! I'm excited but also a little terrified. My PhD is, to a certain extent, a continuation of MA work so finding papers won't be a problem for me, in fact I'm concerned about the breadth of reading that I'm about to have to embark on.

Got my notebooks and journals sorted too, like Smartramp - beautiful stationary is crucially important for me!

I'm sure you'll find that when you have more than a brief chat with your supervisor, Catcat, there'll be more suggestions for your search. Good luck!


I'm another nervous newbie, about to reach Day One. My anxiety is a little different tho', as my PhD is a funded AHRC one, so my supervisor has had the structure mapped out for over a year. So, although I'm confident about making a strong start, I'm suppressing the inevitable worries about how much influence I'll be able to exert.


Hi Catcat,
I can totally sympathise - I'm theoretically 18 months in, Part-time, but I transferred from a professional doctorate so have done modules and have a PG cert Social Research Methods under my belt from the first year and am struggling through the NHS ethics process at the moment. I had a bit of a laid back summer and now feel like I have dropped the ball. My literature review is still totally lame and unstructured. I started out believing there was very little prior literature in my field, gradually my project developed and there was a wider literature base for me to draw from. I'm now slightly drowning in papers... getting a grip on this has taken priority from my ethics now (hence being sat in the library with my lap top this morning!). Things will sort as you get into it. Suggestions of topics to go away and consider will come from your sup meetings and other things you read.

My next problem - how to start writing!

Good luck