There is truly nothing more daunting than the first day of anything. The first day of school, the first day of your new job, the first day of university. No matter how many new schools you go to or new offices you work in, the first day never gets much easier. Your head swims with questions of what you’re going to be doing and whether you’re going to like it here.

Yesterday, the first day of my PhD, was not my first-first day at university. The first-first day was for my undergraduate degree; they put a whole bunch of socially awkward engineering students in a room and forced us to talk to each other. I was paired with one of my now best friends who asked me what my favourite TV shows were, and by lunch we were sharing food after bonding over Doctor Who. All in all, that first day worked out pretty well.

My second-first day was a whole new kettle of fish. I imagine a lot of universities are like mine; there wasn’t that much information provided in advance about the doctorate course, other than a few (occasionally broken) links on the website. So I was going in partially blind with nothing more than vague ideas and, luckily, a passion in biomedical engineering. I had built up many questions in my months of waiting, and yesterday I met with my supervisor armed with every last one of them. I felt a lot like this kid:

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But by the end of the meeting, I had answers to a lot of my questions. Either directly, through my supervisor telling me, or indirectly, through me realising what I need to do.

How am I going to know I’m on the right track for three years with no subjects, no grades, no assessment?
A few ways. Firstly, the graduate department of the research school will contact you semi-regularly with a long bit of paperwork that you’ll tell them everything in. They’ll check it out, have a look to see if you’ve got any new papers published, and work out whether you’re doing okay. If you’re not, you’ll hear from them with extra help. If you are, you’ll get that same bit of paperwork in six months time. Secondly, you’ll do your Confirmation of Candidature within a year – basically you’ll argue “I’m doing really well, I swear” and they’ll either agree and pass you or disagree and won’t. Apparently the latter doesn’t happen very often. Thirdly and finally, your supervisor will want to hear from you LOTS and if you’re not heading along the right track, they won’t hesitate to tell you. They’re putting your name down next to yours for your candidature, and they want you to do well and make them look good. Regular grades and feedback were certainly helpful in an undergraduate, but you’re not on your own in a doctorate. Phew.

But really, what are the milestones?
I can hear what you’re saying; “you just answered this question! There’s all the paperwork and that confirmation thingy!” – well, according to my supervisor, nope. That’s not the milestones. Those are just the formalities in completing your degree. The milestones are publishing papers. My supervisor suggested one every six months if it’s in one of his selected “top” journals, or two every six months if it’s in the lower ranked ones. These are milestones because you can use and expand the content of your papers to write your final thesis, and write it in a few weeks instead of a few months.

When do I even start writing?
Today. Or, if you’re not starting writing, do something productive. I went home and downloaded a LaTeX editor and started learning how to use it, so I could begin working on the structure of my thesis. It’s not much, but it means that in a small way, I have started my dissertation. Bonus: it makes me feel way more motivated because I achieved something.

What if I end up being told to focus on an area of the proposed topic that I’m not even interested in?
Okay, so for me this one was easy. My supervisor had thought about it and narrowed it down to topics I was interested in to focus on; he also appreciated that I like to have a “complete product” and thus suggested 3 related focus areas that resulted in that complete view of my topic. If you don’t get as lucky as me, keep talking to your supervisor. Mine was a little less eager about my ideas for my undergraduate thesis, but the more I researched and supported them, the more he came on board. In the end, I was focusing primarily on my interests and it made it much, much easier to work on.

What if I can’t make progress on any of my research questions and I don’t get anywhere?
For an area where innovation is the make or break of your thesis, this is a very real fear. If you’re testing a new drug, and it doesn’t work out because of some nasty side effects or it doesn’t do what it was supposed to but did help with something else, then that research can still be published. But if you’re designing a system and it doesn’t work out, you’re going to have a slim-to-none chance of publishing what you tried. This question is one to which my answer will evolve as I work through my degree, but for now I have two main theories: (1) my supervisor will notice if I’m not making progress or if it’s looking likely that something I’m trying won’t work out, and (2) the lab technicians have always been good to me because I ask a lot of questions and respect their gear, so hopefully they’ll help me prototype my hardware over and over again with their equipment.

What if I can’t get papers published on the work I’m doing?
Papers are important. Like, really important. My supervisor looks at the papers someone has published and more or less decides then whether the thesis is good enough. Why? Because if you get published, you’ve already gone through a rigorous process of proving your work to a high-ranking body. So your work must be pretty damn good. BUT, if you don’t get many papers published, or you don’t hit the highest ranking journals, it’s not the end of the world. It just means whoever’s marking your thesis will read more into your thesis, rather than making a decision straight away. So as long as your work is good and you can prove your innovation, it’ll still be okay. Papers will help you LOTS, but you can make it through without having 2 pages of credits to your name.

So that’s it. I feel overwhelmed, a little stressed, and already I’ve managed to lose a little sleep thinking about what I have to do. But I also have a game plan, more or less, and a lot of my questions have been answered. Hopefully the answers I gained will make someone a little less stressed on their first day of a research degree.

What about you? What was your first day of research like? What questions did you have, and what answers did you find? Let me know, because I’d love to hear about other peoples’ experiences!

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