Time in the Early Ph.D. Stage – Where to Start?

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog, wellness

I find four-year time plans comforting. I enjoy the definitiveness of built-in success measures and expected outcomes. These are all things that are hard to find in the early Ph.D. stage.

Entering my second year of my Ph.D. and having recently passed my qualifying exam (woot woot!), I find myself asking the question: What now? On the timeline of Ph.D. requirements, there seems to be a colossal gap between the qualifying exam and ultimate thesis defense. The options for how to fill this gap are abounding (i.e. research, internships, teaching – just to name a few). But if you are early in the Ph.D., it is hard to figure out where to start.

When it comes to research – Start with the basics

What did you come here to learn and what are some activities you could start doing to learn those things? I use activities vaguely because it really can be anything – standardize a protocol or measurement, conduct a literature search and summary, chat with someone in your lab or another lab. When I went to my research advisor and asked what to do in my post-qualifying daze, uncertain of what should come next, we decided to do a biweekly journal club. Articles would focus on the types of data relevant to my research and possible included information about directions for computational models.

Think short term. Make concrete steps. Set a timeline or deadline.

Let go of the weight that what you are doing now has to be published and a part of your thesis work and enjoy the process of asking smaller questions and doing the work to answer them.

When it comes to career exploration – Start now in whatever form

Part of what first piqued my interest in NIH BEST, was the shifting perspective of looking at the Ph.D.-training beyond the research project. In one NIH BEST webinar about Individual Development Plans, they discussed the fact that research progress is only a portion of what is needed to be prepared for thesis defense and the next professional stage. Technical and professional skills can and should be developed in parallel with research.

Career exploration can come in many shapes and sizes, and intentionality can make any opportunity a transformative one. Become an organizer for the society or club you care about. Volunteer to lead activities like extracting strawberry DNA or building a roller coaster at your local middle school or science space. Go to that event or talk in the field you are curious about and meet someone who knows more about it than you do.

If it feels fun and interesting, then you should do it and reflect on it. There are fields surrounding the extracurriculars that you enjoy. Make a point to explore them.

When it comes to your wellness – Start with what matters to you

Ph.D.-training is an incredibly immersive experience, especially within the first couple of years. Between research, classes, and additional program requirements, it is easy to feel like the Ph.D. is all that you can have time for. But life does not pause. Make time for the people and things that you care about. Even if it is just coffee with a classmate or a full Saturday movie marathon. Remember that if an experience is feeding your joy, then that will improve your ability to learn and do research.

Decide what matters to you because when it feels like there are not enough hours in the day, those are the things you should hold onto. We often strive for perfection in every area when often good enough is good enough. Make peace with that and enjoy the journey.

Any other advice for early Ph.D. students? Affirmations you wish you heard when you first started? Post below!


Wangui Mbuguiro
Position: Ph.D. Candidate
Start Date: August 2017
Institution: Johns Hopkins University
Twitter: @WanguiMbuguiro



Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment