standing at the base of the mountain


Hi! This is my first message here, so I'm bound to do something daft: post in the wrong place or suchlike.

I start my PhD at the beginning of September and I am so excited and scared. It's been 3 years since I finished my Masters and I've worked in the real world for all that time. It feels so weird to be going back to being a student again, I'd almost given up hope of research.

I have so many questions about becoming a student and completing a PhD -- first of all, my main supervisor seems absolutely amazing and has already been extremely encouraging. He has high expectations of me and I don't want to let him down.

Secondly, I'm most worried about all the practicalities -- what is the best way to keep track of references? How will I motivate myself through difficult patches? How can I avoid getting into debt? What if I fall behind? What if I just can't understand something that I should know about? What if the other PhD students don't like me?

Three years seems like such a long time, but more than the time I feel like I have such a huge task ahead of me, an absolutely enormous mountain to climb. How on earth will I get up to that peak, of having a completed thesis? It seems so high up and far away...

I'm scared!!!!


Hi Cornflower,

I think a lot of us remember being in your position.  Your feelings are entirely normal, and your questions are pretty understandable too, so here are my answers :)

References - there are a number of bibliographic programs - EndNote and RefManager are the most common two, and are pretty similar. I use EndNote, and have done from the very start.  I think that the sooner you get using it, the more time you'll save. Perhaps you could find out what other members of your group use - people tend to use what their colleagues use for ease of transferring information.

Debt - good question.  I suppose the main advice is the usual - keep a budget, make shopping lists etc. My best tip?  Don't drink too much! It costs a hell of a lot of money over time.

Falling behind - this shouldn't be a problem.  Your supervisor is there to monitor your progress, and most universities have regular "checkpoints" for you to get through. It's not uncommon for people to struggle, but it IS uncommon for them to struggle for the whole of their PhD without help from their supervisor/university.

Motivation - a very good question.  You'll have ups and downs, and there will be periods where you wonder why on earth you chose to do the PhD, but you'll get through these. Some would argue that this is part of the PhD process, and I'm often told that one of the key qualities you develop over a PhD is perseverance.

Other students - hopefully, you'll get on well with everyone you work with.  In reality, this may not be the case. As in all other areas of life, you meet people you like a lot and get on really well with, and others who you don't get on so well with.  It's not unknown for people to have problems, but the best thing is not to worry about this until it comes up - it may not happen! Universities do have procedures to try make sure that nothing untoward, such as bullying, can happen.

Three years does seem like a long time, but my first year (of four) has flown by.  And a thesis? Well, it's long, but probably less written work in total than you did over your entire undergrad degree!  When all's said and done, your thesis is a means to the end of showing that you can conduct novel research independently.

Good luck!



Hey cornflower, just some general and random thoughts here from me.

It's easy to be nervous and worried about it all, especially if you're coming from "the real world". One thing I would advise is getting involved with things outside of Uni - it's easy to get consumed by the PhD. Forcing yourself to do something else is a good way to take time out.

Also don't be afraid to ask and never think a question is a stupid question. I used to ask all sorts of random questions to my supervisors but they can lead to some really interesting directions. If you don't understand something, just keep asking and reading around about it, you can't possibly know everything and it's the best way to really learn.

THe time will fly by. I had graduation a few weeks ago and I started my PhD in Oct 2005 - it seemed like I had started yesterday. So enjoy it as much as you can (although you will hate your PhD several times over, just accept it, happens to everyone!). Motivation will feel really difficult at times, but just hang on in there - I say this as someone who at the end of my first year gave my supervisor a letter of resignation and was convinced I was leaving. I'm so glad he persuaded me to reconsider (DanB, PhD :P)

Make sure you go to as many conferences as you can, give as many presentations as you can at departmental seminars or journal clubs if they have them, it's great experience and you can meet some really interesting people.

Make friends with the department secretary as well - she (and it invariably will be a she!) will be the one who really knows how to get things done around the place if you have any problems.

And this place is great for advice and general fun - I've used it for many many years since I started my PhD and it's been a great source of useful advice, laughter and even friendship!


Hi Cornflower,

welcome to the forum. I think  DanB and 4Matt have provided some excellent advice.

Indeed I think it is important to get yourself used to the situation, read a lot and get a feel for the literature and your subject.

I think once you have deeper knowledge of the literature, yet still at a relative early stage, it may be important to think about the research question you are going to set. On hindsight I would have saved myself a lot of time and effort if I had done this properly! It is important to realise that the type of question will set the research method you can use. For example let's assume the following question: How many patients with high blood pressure do not use their medication? One should use a quantitative method, for example a survey using a questionnaire. If on the other hand the question is: Why do these patients not take their medication? It probably would be better to use a qualitative method, for example focus group interviews involving mentioned patients.

It is not my intention to be pedantic, just wanted to share this , it may be useful. :-)


Hi Cornflower,

I am in the same position as you - I start in October. I have a lot of the same 'fears' as you too, I've been out in the real world for seven years so hoping I adjust well to my new life.

The advice so far has been great - hopefully all us new un's can support each other on here.


yes good advice ok, just started on my PhD earlier this year, got advice from the group here about referencing and I am using Endnote now -dont know how I managed before, my collection of papers etc were all over the place now it is much easier to locate them.


Some really useful advice here. Thanks (even though it's not even my thread :-))

So when I was told about 3 months ago that I'd got the studentship, it was nothing but euphoria. I'd finally made it!

Now with 4/5 weeks to go until I move hundreds of miles away to start my PhD, reality has set in and I am bricking it. The subject area IS genuinely interesting but I ask myself whether I'm really getting the point when trying to review a paper or whether I should have a lit review ready before October. Sometimes I worry about whether I'll be creative enough to take this project in a particular direction independently (it's an advertised science PhD).

Then there're the normal social fears of whether I'll make friends or find a decent place to live (I probably sound like a 4 year old right now lol).

I suppose only time (and effort) will tell.


Yay - best of luck to all the PhD newbies starting in the next couple of months :-x

I've just had my final interview (and rejection!) today to start this year - so that's me for now :-( I may well be back again next year for another go - we shall see!

In the meantime, I have an MSc dissertation to finish :p - onwards and upwards!


Cornflower- I am standing at the base of that mountain too- you are not alone! Stick with us on this forum!


Yes, some good advice here - especially about referencing as you go. This is really important - I didn't reference properly as I went through, and had to spend a full two weeks at the end doing nothing but references - tedious. Also grab every opportunity you can - for publishing papers, speaking at conferences, networking etc. You'll have a lot of work to do, but try to do as much as you can - it will help you get a job afterwards.

Enjoy it! I hated the writing up part of the process, but loved everything else - learning, being on campus, and loved the field work. Good luck!


Thank you everyone!! And a great big hello to the other newbies here, if the rest of you are as worried as I am then we'll all have a great three years ;)

Doctor Soul -- I have most of the same worries as you. My subject is amazing but I'm worried that I don't have the skills needed to get good results with my research, and right now I don't know how I'm going to catch up with all the literature and training. I would say don't stress too much about having a lit review ready before you start, I was aiming for that too but I think I'm putting too much pressure on myself (especially as I start in two days!).

I suppose the main thing to remember is that I do have three whole years in which to learn my subject, that's not much of a comfort to me because I tend to need to understand things BEFORE I start.

Right now I just need tips on organisation. I'm going to find out about what referencing software to use because I want to get that going right from the start (I already have 35 papers and two books and I haven't even started yet).

Are there any good ideas for personal organisation? I plan to set up a calendar with daily, weekly and monthly goals (I had the procrastination bug badly in University but I've picked up some good habits in the "real world."), but I'm always on the look-out for other tips, especially from those who wish they'd been more organised from the start...

My subject means a lot to me and I really want to do well. I have a great supervisor but I don't want to let anyone down. Coming from a difference science (and being out of academia for three years) I think I'm going to have quite a steep learning curve in probably three key areas, so I feel like I'm going to have to work very hard from the start. I'm already worried about using my time productively (is it better to spend that spare hour on organisation skills, software training or reading key papers?), and not learning / developing fast enough.

...not that I'm prone to over-thinking, or anything...

Thanks everyone for the great advice you've given :D


Hi Cornflower.

I am also a newbie like you and I pretty much have the same concerns like you. I've downloaded loads of articles, read some of them, some methodology but seems like I can't really start to focus before my first day, which will be in October.

Like Doctor Soul, I will do an advertised science PhD and will also move hundreds of miles to do it...and I'm also stressing if I will be capable of being creative and taking the project independently into a new level or direction!

I'm glad I can see most of my fears and feeling in some of you, which gives me the idea that I'm not the odd one... and that we will help each other and motivate one another over the next 3 years!!

I wish you all the best and good luck.


I felt exactly as you did, facing that task from the foothills. I thought exactly that: at the base of the mountain. Well, I climbed it. Took me five years. But it is done, and has been frankly the most worthwhile achievement of my whole life so far. I am a different person in many ways, and at least a few of them for the better. Don't overpressure yourself. Believe in yourself. Go.


Hi Cornflower! I have just read your post and immediately joined the forum so I could post a reply. I am starting my PhD in October and like you, I am both excited and scared. It's good to know there are others out there who are/have gone through the same feelings. I suppose it is always worth reaffirming to yourself that if you could not do it, you would not have come this far and been offered a place (that's my current trick - it works - sometimes).

Unfortunately for me, I do not have a lot of support at the moment. Having been in full time employment for the past three years with a well paying job in engineering, everyone I know seems to NOT be wishing me well and are hell bent on playing on some of my fears such as money and future career options (my PhD is going to be in an interdisciplinary field not directly related to what I have been doing). I too am worried about it being a new way for me to apply my skills and also in a "new" field. I am worried about people not liking me - about feeling isolated. I am worried about where I am going to live - university accommodation or private? If I go private does this cut me off from others too much? Would I even be able to live in private accommodation? Could I afford a place of my own (still maintaining the "independence" I had got used to these last 3 years)? Should I house share? Can I house share? How novel an idea can I come up with? .....

I just wanted to say I'm scared too.


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Teek is going to attempt to get all old and wise on your ass here, so bear with me....

Right now you're doubting yourself because you're going into a new situation. That is completely normal.
Once you get into the PhD you may have (fairly frequent) crises of confidence. There will be times when the mountain seems vastly too high, when you feel an utter imbecile, and when you cannot believe that the professors/postdocs around you were ever half as fallible and human as you are yourself. This is also entirely normal and everyone else feels the same, so don't let it freak you out :-). Imposter syndrome will become a well known gremlin whatever your discipline (unless you're an egoist or a narcissist, but clearly that's not the issue here).

Above all the advice about referencing, writing as you go or communicating honestly with your supervisor, I would say this; you really aren't as thick/lazy/inept as you think! Guilt comes with the territory, but don't let it consume you. You'll never feel you've done "enough" work, so when the light's go off in your building for God's sake go home, get some proper food and rest. Keep contact with lots of other postgrads; no one else will be able to understand or reassure you that you're not going mad (or failing that, that at least you're going mad in good company). Lastly, motivation will come and go, if you can accept this rather than being terrified by it, you'll be fine.

Ps - this postgrad forum and have pretty much saved my will to live, use them wisely ;-)