By Emily Goodacre, Tanya Paes, and Krishna Kulkarni, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

When we asked our research group, Dr. Jenny Gibson’s Play and Communication Lab, “What do you wish you’d known when you started your PhDs?” a lot of the answers were about organisation in the early stages: managing references, data, and documents. Others were about the research process, like tips for recruiting (and keeping) participants. Perhaps most importantly, our group emphasised the importance of taking care of yourself, even if that means your PhD takes the backseat. Here is some of that advice: things we’d like others to know at the start of their PhDs, and what we wish we’d known at the start of our PhDs.

“When I was writing my thesis, I had a big notice on the wall that said ‘Don’t panic!’

– Dr. Jenny Gibson
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Organisation: Get started right

When you enter your PhD, data organisation and reference management might not be the first things on your mind, but managing information is important from day one (and it’s never too late to start using good practices!).

“Keep track of ideas.” – A research diary can help track the development of your ideas over time. Second year PhD student Vicky Yiran Zhao’s research diary helped her to see where her ideas came from, and third year PhD student Emily Goodacre found that looking back on her entries showed the progress she’d made. Another way to keep track of ideas is through reference management software (e.g.  Zotero), which can also be useful for labelling and categorising papers.

“Plan!” – Planning is important even before you begin data collection: Recent PhD graduate Dr. Gill Francis wishes she’d planned the format of her data before she started collecting it, as this would have prevented issues during analysis. For example, how will you score and input your variables? Ideally, she says, your data should be readable by an outsider, which will help with re-analysis and data sharing; use annotations and labels to help. Recent PhD graduate Dr. Tanya Paes recommends planning analyses ahead of time, including plans for why you are analysing the data in a particular way. Preregistering your methods with the Center for Open Science can push you to make these plans and think through all of the steps; plus it allows you to, in their words, “future-proof your research.”

“Back up everything.” – You’ve been told before, but we’ll tell you again: make sure everything is backed up! Jenny’s advice is to “create a master file, lock it, and don’t touch it anymore.”

Participants: Nurture the relationships

Researchers think long and hard about participant recruitment, but things don’t always go as planned. Once recruitment is over, holding onto participants is an important part of research but can be difficult if you’re working with busy populations (e.g. teachers and parents) who might not have much time to spare.

“It takes longer than you think.” – Based on her experience, third year PhD student Soizic Le Courtois recommends planning “LOTS of time for recruitment.” Recruitment of participants can take much longer than expected, especially if you’re targeting a hard-to-reach or busy group. Tanya made sure to build some flexibility into her design to give enough time for recruitment and working with participants’ schedules. Soizic also recommends having a contingency plan for recruitment in place, meaning it doesn’t feel like the end of the world if things don’t go to plan.

“Show your appreciation… with doughnuts!”

Image by Anna Sullivan from Unsplash

Now you’ve got your participants. The next step is to ensure they stay with you. Your participants have lives of their own, so it’s essential to make sure that they their time with you is valued. Showing this can be as simple as bringing in croissants for an early morning meeting, which fourth year PhD student Lenka Janik Blaskova recommends. Fourth year PhD student Ana Trigo-Clapes also found that bringing snacks created an environment “where everyone is calm and relaxed” – an achievement considering her participants were taking part in a 4-hour workshop! – and suggests offering whatever you bring to the school receptionist or equivalent, making sure they know they’re appreciated too! It’s also important to show your appreciation in other ways: Ana stresses the importance of keeping an open dialogue with participants about their experiences of participating in the research, noting that sharing positive feedback with them can help build your relationship and improve the research experience.

“Keep relationships open.” – After you’ve finished collecting data, it can be easy to lose touch with your participants. Jenny recommends keeping relationships open by sending thank you letters, updates on your research, and even short newsletters. Maintaining relationships can help participants understand how important they are to your research, and it might make them more likely to participate in the future.

Wellbeing: Put yourself first

It can be easy to get caught up in the pace of a PhD, especially when your entire social circle is doing the same! Our group was passionate about the importance of a strong support network and always putting your own wellbeing ahead of your PhD.

“Have a mixture of friends.” – Some of your friends and family might not understand what you’re doing or what you’re going through, so ESRC postdoctoral fellow Dr. Elspeth Wilson and third-year PhD student Krishna Kulkarni recommend building a support network of other PhD students. Turning to other PhD students can help when you run into trouble and need someone to talk to. On the other hand, Krishna recommends also having friends who can get you away from it all and remind you what life’s like outside the PhD bubble.

“Learn to say ‘No.’” – Learn to draw a line and say “No” – sometimes to yourself. It can be easy to get carried away working long hours or through weekends. Even then, sometimes we feel like we should be doing more! While it’s important to get work done and meet deadlines, taking regular breaks can help productivity. Krishna emphasises the importance of not signing up for everything just because you can, and reminding yourself that it’s okay to say “No.”

“Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to friends, supervisors, or the University Counselling Service if things are not ok.” – Soizic emphasises the importance of asking for help when you need it. Further resources include the NHS 111 (call 111, option 2, free, 24/7) and Samaritans (call 116123, free, 24/7).

Share Your #FERSAPhDAdvice

We would love to hear more tips and advice from current and former PhD students. What do you wish you’d known at the start of your PhD? What advice would you pass on to incoming and first year PhD students? Tweet your tips and advice with the hashtag #FERSAPhDAdvice to let us know!


Thank you to all the members of the Play and Communication Lab who contributed tips and advice from your experiences to this blog post:

Dr. Gill Francis, recent PhD graduate with research on children’s counterfactual reasoning; post-doctoral fellow at the University of York

Dr. Jenny Gibson, Play and Communication Lab leader

Emily Goodacre, 3rd year PhD student researching children’s connected communication

Lenka Janik Blaskova, 4th year PhD student researching friendships in children with Developmental Language Disorder

Krishna Kulkarni, 3rd year PhD student researching parent-child play in the UK and in India

Soizic Le Courtois, 3rd year PhD student researching children’s love of learning

Dr. Tanya Paes, recent PhD graduate with research on the development of children’s executive function and language skills; post-doctoral associate at Purdue University

Ana Trigo-Clapes, 4th year PhD student researching dialogic teaching practices for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Dr. Elspeth Wilson, ESRC post-doctoral fellow researching children’s pragmatic language development

Vicky Yiran Zhao, 2nd year PhD student researching social play in children with Developmental Language Disorder

Posted by:fersacambridge

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