Your lessons learnt - what and how?


As I'm heading toward submission and reflecting on the journey thus far, I'm thinking of all the lessons I have learnt about conducting research and writing a thesis. I can't help but feel embarrassed with the realisation of how hopelessly underprepared I think I was when I started the PhD. I really hope it's not just me who feels this way (and to this extent!) when looking back?? Honestly right now i feel really inadequate and I'm hoping that it's in fact mostly generic-type mistakes that most students make. Under a cloak of anonymity (most people never openly talk about their mistakes) I would dearly love to hear of the lessons that you learned along the way - what did you find you hadn't done well enough, or what mistakes did you make, how did you realise it, how did you change your methods to fix it ?

I'll go first:
Literature review - I had no idea on my topic and how it was researched, and the lit review i created (mainly in the first year) was more about learning how others did the work and talked about it, than me being able to be critical about their work.
I didn't keep a research journal - I kept ongoing notebooks, but these were probably not as 'thoughtful' and reflective as they should have been, and didn't help me with a line of questioning.
Planning - I seem to continuously underestimate how long it will take me to write and make revisions. I don't know why after three years I'm not better at this?!
I didn't keep a specific data notebook - again, I kept notes in my notebooks, and consolidated these every so often, but there are still gaps in labelling variables (ie when done in haste and i didn't revisit them).
After all this time, there are questions related to the scope - these were clarified earlier, but still are resurfacing as still a bit grey - is this even normal? i think not.
In general, I think all my methods of operating were underdeveloped...although I thought at the time (when first starting) that it was adequate. How could I have been so wrong?!

In a positive step, right now I'm building my 'lessons' into personal research notes so that I will never make the same mistakes again.

I would love it if others would be willing to share their lessons...

Avatar for sneaks

I learnt to trust my instincts, one of my biggest lessons has been that my supervisor is only a person and although has been useful at some points has misguided me and I wish I had been more assertive or learnt to ignore her sooner!


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Hi Sparkles,

Thanks for bringing this up. I have been talking exactly about the same thing with my office mate this morning. There are few points I would like to add to yours.

1. First thing is to ensure all the essential tools necessary to carry out the project are available and they are robust! (eg. in my case I did not have the main complex code which is a key of my project when I started. It was totally not in my hands and I had to wait almost a year and a half to get it in bits and pieces from here and there and put everything together, validated each and every bit and the whole complex system at the end which took hell lot of time).

2. It is very important to start thinking about the thesis right from day one! It would be good to start writing some of the basic initial chapters like literature review (eg. my project has two key aspects - analytical algorithms, models which means I should have started writing chapters on the literature, algorithms and models long time back which I did not as I thought I could do it when I have gained more knowledge, but by the time I did the practical work I had to do was so overwhelming that I couldn't go back to write these chapters).

3. It is good to make plans and set deadlines for each of these plans - daily, weekly, monthly, yearly deadlines. Make sure that these deadlines are realistic and reasonably achievable. Tick off once you complete something. If stuck some where it is better to go and ask either the supervisor or at least email them saying that you are stuck and you are working on it and also it would be good to mention what you think might have gone wrong and what you think could be a plausible solution.

4. Maintaining a systematic bilbliography is crucial.

5. It is good practice to finish off a part of a study and sit and analyse the results then and there and see if it makes any sense and if so it would be good to write down the findings.

6. More than everything it is essential to take total control of your PhD yourself and ask for advice/suggestions from supervisors and colleagues. It is very much possible to get lost in between while exploring various issues. So it would be good to stick to a plan as we can't get every problem solved under a topic in three years! There is always a lot of time in the future!!!

All the very best to every one!! (up)


Thank you for creating this topic, I am just about to start my D.Phil and I am desperate for tips on how to prepare for the position.


The main lesson I learnt was to make sure I labelled things in a fool proof way. It is amazing how easy it is to label something to put in the freezer and think 'Oh yeah I know what that is' Then a week or two later you go back to the samples and you haven't a clue what your shorthand/abbreviations mean!

Also write up everything as you go along to make sure you get the most out of your work - there were a few things from my first year results that I didn't notice at the time. Then by the time I was writing up my thesis I had no time to follow them up.

Last of all in line with Sneaks' comment - definitely trust your instincts by the time you are halfway through your PhD you are on your way to becoming an expert in your field and so there will be some aspects where you know much more than your supervisor. In my first year I would generally let my views be overruled in favour of a senior academic/post doc - after a while you realise that half the time their guess is no better than yours, so be confident in your views!


Oh and I forgot - the most crucial lesson I learnt. Be nice to the lab techs and auxillary staff - there will come a time when you need something last minute and they are usually the people who can get it or do it for you or know who in the building to ask! (up)


Hi Folks

Re Sneaks, that comment totally strikes a chord with me too. My supervisor was so bad (not entirely intentionally, she was v busy and had very little background in what I was doing), I basically designed and ran my own experiments from start of year 2 onwards. From getting no good results for the whole year I went on to pass in 3 and a half with a few papers hopefully still to be published. The worst thing is my supervisor has never had the balls to admit that it was all my ideas. In the end I was working on the basis of having an idea, and thinking it through. If i could find no reason it would not work, then try it, it usually worked.


I learnt not to trust my supervisor when he said he was going to do something. I should have been more forcefull in saying "this NEEDS to be sorted now"

I also didnt keep as good notes as I should have done. I can think of many ways thigs could have been better organised from the start to prevent myself having to go back and re do things.

I'm writng up now, and only really feel I'm now getting to grips with some of the literature. I didn;t have to do a literature review in my first year, but really wish I had spent more time on that right at the start, and really trying to find a niche. A lot of what I've done has been done before and done better. Instead my supervisors encouraged me to get working on the protocol for ethical application early on, when I should have spend more time thinking about what really could be achieved.

I wish wish wish wish wish I'd written more as I went along. Everyone told me to do it, but it always got pushed down my priority list.

I should have tried to go to a conference earlier. I went to a big international conference in my third year, realised the way we;d done things wasn't the best way, and it was too late to change anything by then.

Finally I should have stuck to my guns on what I wanted to put into one aspect of the project. My supervisor was anti this technique, so it always remained as a possibility, but was on the back burner. He retired in my second year and has not really been invovled since. The technique would help with the novelty of my study, plus would be really helpful now in applying for jobs.

I'd quite like to go back and start my PhD again, knowing what I know not. There's A LOT I'd do differently.


This post is really useful. I'm going through a tough time with the PhD at the moment, and trying desperately to not breakdowm over mistakes I've made. Afterall - 'never a mistake, always a lesson' ....


Hi all,

This is a great thread, it has helped me think through some of the stuff I have been through, its way too much and I would need more than the word limit allowed here( probably a whole other thesis) but most important
Like sneaks said - trust your gut- the supervisor is just another human being and not quite clued in on it all!!!:$ - If I had been clear about my vision and not tried to please everyone and incorporate their ideas into the thesis I would be a much happier bunny- but its all about lessons learnt .. I only came to grasp what it was I wanted to achieve as I headed into the write up stage !!! What a palava:-s ...nonetheless there are positive things I have learnt in the process....This forum for example(up)... no phd is picture perfect and I can only do the best I can..I am more aware of the shortcomings in my thesis and they stick out like a sore thumb at times( while writing the discussion chapter:$) but I am also very aware that I have tried to make a contribution to my field and that I think is the whole point of this process!! it may not be super succintly presented or how .. 100 other people or even my sup. would have done it BUT it is how I have chosen to do it...

I hope this encourages whoever is out there struggling with their blunders.....if you are close to submission the end is nigh...(mmmhh sounds like something out of a cheesy film- but I hope it makes my point )

(gift)(turkey) those are for all of us to enjoy!


Many of these seem to be science-y, so I'll throw in this from an arts perspective:

If you feel you have no idea what you are doing, tell someone. Ask for help.

...this nugget of wisdom, which I would hope is more obvious to most people than it was to me, is the result of three years spent having no real clue what I'm doing. I can partly blame a lack of supervision- it sounds ridiculous, but at no point during the first year did my then supervisor actually initiate any discussion about my thesis plan, ideas, etc. Where I went wrong is that I didn't do that either, and the longer it went on the more embarassing it felt to actually point this out. That supervisor left at the end of the first year, but the problem didn't go away- my new supervisor presumably assumed I was as on top of things as I should have been at that point. And, again, the longer it goes on the more weird and embarassing it gets to say. I'm now hitting a point where I should submit a chunk of my thesis and a detailed plan for the rest of it... and I still have no idea, so presumably I'll be crashing out very soon. So... ask for help.


Am very glad to hear of others having similar lessons! Please keep the posts coming!

Catalinbond, I can really relate to a lot of the things that you're saying.

Looking over my original post, I can see that I was probably overreacting on some of the points listed (the scoping issue for example, wasn't a problem at all, I was just probably panicking at the time). But I definitely need to work on my project management skills and organisation skills. Trouble is there wasn't much in the way of workshops available to us, and I thought that I would learn this from my sup, but as it turned out, I didn't. So I plan to fill the gap with my own reading and learning now that I feel I have some time to do so.

Overally, I think it just takes me a long time to absorb things (literature review case in point!), and to be fully aware of what I'm doing, what's involved and what the real outcome is - it's like I know on some level, but it must be a superficial level (unfortunately!). I don't know if this is normal and just 'part of the game' or my shortcoming or what...

But at least I know I'm not the only one out there with the same issues...


Hi Sparkles,

Great idea for a thread! Feels like a relief to know others make similar mistakes and that youre not the only one! Although not yet finished, I've already learnt some lessons I wished I knew before:
- Labelling things, as mentioned below, in a logical way would have saved so much time and work
- Planning experiments better and not rushing into them. Seriously, many times, sitting down for 5-10 mins planning would have saved hours, even days of work. Arrgghh!!!
- Networking within my dept - only starting to realise know that several members of my dept have expertise and skill in my area of research - to have netwroked more before and asked for help would have been so useful!
- Take time off!! I wish I had taken all the holidays I was entitled too and spent time away from here and the PhD. Dont let it take over your life!
- Dont be talked over by your sup - stand up for your work. You know more about your project than he/she does so dont let them push you over. And dont be afraid to question them.
- Also, I would have been much more open with my sup - make sure you are clear about what youre doing and that you go over everything important with them. Dont wait till 3-4 months down the line and they realise you are doing one small thing not to their liking and meaning you have to repeat things.

Well thats just the few I can think of now but certain there are many more!
All the best


Quote From sevenandthedoc:

- Take time off!! I wish I had taken all the holidays I was entitled too and spent time away from here and the PhD. Dont let it take over your life!

Definitely. I am fighting my way back from burnout and I *absolutely* do not recommend it.