Starting a PhD in September? Prepare to fall down the rabbit hole!

I am nearly one year through a part-time PhD.  I’m near enough having started that the beginning of the adventure is still fresh in my mind, so in this blog post, I hope to offer some practical tips, suggestions and food for thought for those who are preparing to embark on the same journey.  One thing’s for sure though, expect as many unexpected twists and turns along the way as Alice did in Wonderland!  (The Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland metaphors are endless; in the interest of brevity I shall pause with them for now – maybe it’s another blog post waiting to happen.)  These are just a few pointers that I hope will be helpful.  Anyone else who has already started a PhD, please do add any other suggestions in the comments below.

Find some go-to blogs

You will discover so many useful blog posts that you will want to bookmark, but I think it’s useful to have a few blogs which you can return to now and again for inspiration, fresh ideas, new ways of thinking and practical suggestions.  These blogs may share an overlapping research focus or method, or maybe the style of writing resonates with, and inspires you.  If you’re looking to purchase a book on a particular topic, authors who blog will give you a flavour of their viewpoint and style of writing and can therefore help you filter, and find a book that in which you want to invest (and let’s face it, it doesn’t take long to clock up a small mortgage on buying academic books).

Here are a few of my favourites, but you’ll no doubt find your own:

Patter – Written by Dr Pat Thompson, this blog is about “research education, academic writing, public engagement, funding, other eccentricities.”

How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)  – an honest and down-to-earth blog about doing a PhD – great anyway, but also particularly good for PhD parents.

Anuja Cabraal – Great for all things qualitative.

Raul Pacheco-Vega – I find this blog helpful for practical ideas for getting myself organised.

Pubs and Publications – A general PhD blog worth a browse!

Find a reference management software

This is frankly worthy of whole blog post (and more) in itself!  Reference management software isn’t essential in order to pass your viva, but it’s Very Very Helpful and can save you a huge amount of time.  Commonly used programmes are Endnote, Zotero and Mendely.  Even before officially starting PhD studies, the chances are that you already have quite a list of references that you’ve compiled for your application or made a note of along the way.  It’s worth having a play around with these before, or early on.  A good overall summary of the varying features between the commonly used reference management software is here.

Twitter, Twitter, Twitter!

I guess it’s not surprising that as a blogger I would also suggest using Twitter, but honestly, it’s a lifeline for me.  Firstly, because it connects me with the academic world and fellow PhD students through accounts such as Academic Chatter, The PhD Parent and PhDMidwives.  Secondly, because it connects me with my areas of academic interest (so in my case, I follow twitter accounts related to migration, Afghanistan, Serbia and the Western Balkan region, among others), and thirdly, because it connects me with those using similar research persepctives, methods and methodologies, which has been invaluable as I’ve tried to navigate the minefield of conducting research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I would also recommend using the ‘bookmark’ function of Twitter.  There’s nothing worse than discovering that gem of a Tweet with some crucial information and then not being able to locate it at a later stage.  Bear in mind though that Twitter doesn’t display old Tweets so it’s worth downloading or screenshotting a copy of anything that you might want to come back to a few years down the line.

Taking notes

Once upon a yesterday, I would have considered note taking as taking pen in hand and using said pen to record in a notebook.  These days though, it’s a case of two hard copy and four soft copy places to store notes!  There’s no hard and fast rules here – it’s a case of playing around with what works for you.  But just bear in mind the volumes and volumes of notes that you’ll have, all of which need organising and filing in a way that is easy to locate.  Personally, I use:

  • A notebook!

Yes!  I’m not very good at typing notes while in a meeting, so I record meeting notes in an A4 notebook by hand.  I also now and again like to map out thoughts and ideas visually using pen and paper.

  • A diary


I have a beautiful page-to-view diary which I use as my to-do list and also to record some reflections.  I recently discovered “bullet journaling” which isn’t for me (yet), but I’m including here as I know many like to use this technique.  Alternatively, if you don’t want to write down your reflections with pen and paper, you could always stitch them…

  • Evernote

The beauty of Evernote is the ability to clip webpages, make notes and add tags, whether working on your computer or using the app on a mobile device.  I’ve also recently started to use it as a way of keeping my reflections more organised and structured.

  • Mendeley

Mendeley is the reference management software that I use.  It’s free to download and as well as providing an easy way to insert citations into documents, it has a highlighting and note taking feature, as well as a tagging facility.  I recommend Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog about using Mendeley.

  • MindlyScreenshot_20200718-180833_Mindly

I love a good mind map!  Nothing helps me more when I’m in the early stages of structuring a paper or thinking about themes in the literature.  The free Mindly app has helped me a huge amount and has a facility to make notes (which I use to reference my ideas).  Any mindmaps I create on Mindly can be downloaded as a PDF as well, as a backup.  The only downside is that it’s currently only available as an app, rather than a desktop version.

Most importantly…

Take a break, however short, before you start your PhD journey.  Read a book solely for pleasure (it may be a while before you’re ready to read for pleasure again).  Rest, do whatever you like to do for relaxation.  Then, let the adventure begin and know that you will never be the same again….

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” 

Alice, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


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