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50+ PhD Study Tools & Systems I Wish I’d Known About When Starting a PhD

When I started my PhD, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a classical pathway into the PhD program (if such a thing exists e.g. Honours, Masters –>).

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I spent a LOT of time trying to figure out the basics – things that others seemed to already know about.

This is NOT to say that I’ve figured it all out now – but I have come a long way.

If I could go back in time to that first day, and take with me the learnings I’ve accumulated along my journey, I have a feeling that my PhD would have been a lot smoother, more efficient, and enjoyable. Equally, if I’d set up better systems from day one, I’ve no doubt that I’d be a much stronger scholar today.

Because there’s no way to rewind time, I’m paying it forward. A gift wrapped up as a blog post – a list of steps I’d put in place if I could do it all again.

Disclaimer: this works for me, but it might not work for you. It is my experience only. If there was one right way to do a PhD someone would have found it by now 🙂

Here’s what I would tell my past self if she was starting her PhD again.

👇

👉 DAY ONE: Start building a Second (PhD) Brain

You are going to read a lot. And you will forget nearly all of it.

Build a system for capturing what you learn.

👉 Learn how to find, Evaluate, and manage literature

  • 👩‍💻 ⬇️ Download Zotero – Reference management software. Also free. Store all your academic papers/resources in one place i.e. not having some as paper copies, some in digital folders, some in [insert random place that you’ll forget about].
  • 👩‍💻 Gather the tools you’ll need to find and explore the literature.
    • 👩‍💻 Check out Research Rabbit – Find papers, then papers related to those papers, and so on.
    • 👩‍💻 Check out Connected papers – Use it to explore your research area and find more papers.
    • 👩‍💻 Get familiar with Google Scholar and learn how to use its search and citation features.
    • 👩‍💻 ⬇️ (optional) Download Publish or Perish – You can use it to find literature and evaluate its quality.
    • 👩‍💻 ⬇️ Get Pocketsave things your find on the web here and read them later – anything that’s of value can then make its way to Zotero or be made into a note(s) in Obsidian.
  • 👩‍💻 Acquire a Kindle (or Kobo – an amazon alternative) and use it for reading (less weight than lugging books when travelling!)
  • 👩‍💻 Learn about Scimago – a good tool for determining the ‘quality’ of journals and where the papers you’re reading sit in the academic publishing hierarchy.
  • 👩‍💻 Get a copy of the ABDC Journal List (Note. I’m in a Business School – ignore this if you’re not)
  • 👩‍💻 🏫 Get hold of your university’s ‘quality journal list’ so you’ll know if your planned publications will be counted against performance metrics.

👉 Develop a writer’s mindset

  • Understand that you are now a writer. Learn the craft.
  • Note. there are many other brilliant books on the topic of academic writing. The above titles were the ones that had the greatest impact on me during my candidature.

👉 Create a System for Managing the ‘day-to-day’

  • 📖 Read Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal Method
    • Treat yourself to a new notebook (and use it)
  • ⬇️ Install Evernote and set up Tiago Forte’s PARA system (see above: Building a Second Brain)
  • 📖 Use the Morning Pages method to dump all of the stressors out of your brain each morning so you can concentrate on what matters.
  • ⛑ Find out where you can access mental health support – the PhD journey can screw with your head! Your university will generally offer free mental health services.

👉 Find a community. Give more than you take.

  • 👩‍💻 Explore PhD-related blogs for advice on writing and the PhD journey:
    • 👏 🥰 💻 Research Whisperer blog
    • (Note. there are many others, but the ones above are what got me through my PhD)
  • 👥 Join your university’s PhD Club or similar. Fellow PhDs will be your support lifeline. Note. If your university doesn’t have a PhD club, consider starting one 🙂 It looks good on your CV and helps build connections. It’s also fun to hang out with other PhDs 🙂
  • 👥 Use the power of ‘body doubling‘ (a productivity technique popular in the ADHD community) to help you focus on writing. Options:
  • 👥 👩‍💻 Join Twitter (contentious, given the whole Elon-takeover situation, but there are still many academics hanging out there. Will update this suggestion as things evolve).
    • Set clear boundaries for yourself around social media use – or it will suck up all your time (maybe just me 🤔).
    • Use academic-related hashtags to find your community (there are many – these are the ones I found most valuable)
      • #PhD
      • #PhDlife
      • #PhdChat
      • #ecrchat (ecr = early career researcher)
      • #acwri (i.e. academic writing)

👉 Make writing easier

  • 👩‍💻 🎓 Get a copy of Academic Phrasebank from Manchester University. Seriously amazing!
  • 👩‍💻 ⬇️ Install Grammarly (on Word, email, Chrome plugins etc.) to check for writing errors.
  • 📚 Use ‘Table of Contents Mapping’ (this is what I call it – not sure if it has a real name). How it works:
    • Find (minimum) 3-5 theses that use a similar methodology or are in a similar discipline and look at their table of contents. Unpack and repurpose their structure and create a structure for your own thesis – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel 🙂
  • 💻 Find ONE writing program (and stick to it – I lost weeks of my candidature playing with tech instead of writing my thesis)
  • 💿 Establish a backup system (!!!) (e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive) and set a calendar reminder to back up your backup system every three months (minimum). Note. During my Candidature, I printed my thesis every few months (hard copy) just in case the internet broke. It didn’t. We’re all still here. But I felt more secure having a hard copy in case it did. Have a data backup plan (i.e. offline storage on a hard drive) in case you get hacked or can’t access your web-based storage.

👉 Make ‘reading’ easier

👉 Get Job Ready

  • ⬇️ Download and start an ‘Academic Log‘ to record all your academic outputs e.g. presentations, memberships, qualifications, publications, and media (trust me, your future self will thank you for keeping records). For more info on how this is useful, see a post about it I wrote for the Research Whisperer blog post.
  • 👩‍💻 📨 Set up an email signature, branded with your university logo/details i.e. project a professional presence. Check with your uni for approved format.
  • ✍️ Create a CV / Resume – you won’t be needing it just yet, but put a reminder in your calendar to update it every 6 months based on the info you record in your academic log so if opportunities arise (e.g. to gain teaching experience) you always have a CV at the ready 💃.
  • Claim your space on the internet
    • 👩‍💻 ✅ OrcID
    • 👩‍💻 ✅ Google Scholar profile (learn what an H-index is)
    • 👩‍💻 ✅ Researchgate profile
    • 👩‍💻 ✅ LinkedIn (I’m not a fan, rarely use it, but it’s used by recruiters so an investment should I leave academia)
    • 👩‍💻 ✅ Twitter (see above)
    • 👩‍💻 Register your name as a domain name (e.g. broneager.com) so it’s available if you decide to start a blog in the future.

👉 Stay on course

  • Define your ‘why’ i.e. clarify the reason you are doing a PhD.
    • Write it on a Post-it (or equivalent) and stick it where you’ll see it every day.
    • Knowing why you’re doing a PhD will help you more than all of the steps above combined by helping you to keep moving towards your goal when things get tough. They will get tough.
  • 🤗 Realise that being good enough is better than perfect. Perfection is a myth.
  • 🎦 🍿 Watch 3MT (Three Minute Thesis) videos, to see where you are aiming to be in the near future.

👉 Don’t forget to Enjoy Yourself

👉 Lastly…

  • 🤗 Be kind to yourself.
  • 🤗 Be kind to others.
  • 😊 🙏 Give back to the community by sharing what you learn.

The above is a lot. Take what you want and leave the rest 🙂

Best of luck!!

Bron

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