7 Things to Do Before You Start Your PhD

It’s the time of year when people are announcing their PhD acceptances. If you are psyched to be doing a PhD, yay you! I have some advice for things you can do to make it easier. If you are already into your program or even graduated and haven’t done these yet, it’s never too late to do them. But I wish I’d done all of them before beginning my PhD, so if you can do them ahead of time, I think it will go better for you.

1. Choose a citation manager.

You’re going to be reading a LOT of scholarship: articles, book chapters, conference proceedings. You’ll read some assigned by your professors and some you find for your own work. If you start out capturing all of them, it’ll be easier to find them later when you reference them in your own work.

You have two options here: something that will grab references for you and build citations and reference lists, or doing it manually.

Software that will do it for you

There are a lot of options for the former. I personally use Paperpile. It integrates with Google Docs, which is where I do most of my writing. It has mobile apps and includes a reader that will save your highlights and annotations. It costs about $30 a year.

I’ve also tried Refworks, Zotero, and Mendeley. I recommend looking at the features for each option and choosing the one that looks like it will match best with your anticipated workflow. Paperpile is good for me because I like to read on a tablet and it requires no extra steps to set that up. Think about your plans for reading and your plans for writing.

Know that this is a pretty low stakes choice, as most of these have an export option that will let you move all of your references to a different manager easily.

Doing it manually

You can do this manually if you like, though it can get unwieldy if you start to build up a large collection of resources. (I currently have over 3500 in my Paperpile library.) To do it this way, I recommend setting up a spreadsheet according to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method. (If you’re a Notion user, I’ve got a pay-what-you-can template for doing this.)

To create the references to include in your bibliography, you can either build them manually or find them in Google Scholar and click “Cite” to get a list of formatted citations.

If you go this route, you should be meticulous about keeping track of which references you use. I would recommend building your reference list as you write rather than waiting until you’re done writing.

2. Choose a way of storing readings.

With Paperpile, Zotero, and Mendeley, this is handled for you. If you use Notion, you can use their web clipper to gather readings. You can also just download readings into a folder you manage yourself. If you do this, I recommend backing them up to the cloud using Dropbox or Google Drive and backing up to an external hard drive for extra security.

3. Figure out how you prefer to read.

Knowing this preference will save you time later and help you build a reading-writing-citation environment. You might like to print things on paper, read them on your computer screen, or read them on a tablet or phone. Try all of the options available to you to figure out what you like best.

4. Look for information on your university library’s website about help with research.

Is there a specific librarian assigned to your department? Learn about them. Maybe even get to know them. You are not bothering the librarian. The librarian’s job is to help scholars with research. You are a scholar. The librarian will work with you.

Does the library provide instruction in how to use databases? Sign up for a session. Do they offer topic guides? See if there’s one close to your research interest and get familiar with the resources included in it.

5. Learn to read and take notes.

This is the most important one. Don’t be like me and spend hours of your PhD reading every paper in excruciating detail. If you are in the social, natural, or applied sciences, check out Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion method as a starting point, then dig deeper into readings that feel especially important for your own work.

Track everything you read, keep notes on it, and later you won’t have to work as hard to hunt it down. Again, I recommend setting up a spreadsheet according to Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump method. (If you’re a Notion user, I’ve got a pay-what-you-can template for doing this.) Dr. Pacheco-Vega also has a lot of wisdom to share on note-taking techniques, so look at those and see what might work for you.

6. Develop an elevator pitch for your research interests.

You’re going to have to introduce yourself and your research interests to people, a lot. Try to get down a quick explanation of your research interests. This will change over time.

For example, in my application, I said I was interested in researching how connected learning could fit in school libraries. Then, I said I was interested in interest-driven learning in libraries. Now, I am interested in how connected learning as manifested through fan activity contributes to information literacy and practices. (Would I need to define some of those terms? You betcha. In that case, I could say I’m interested in how fans engaging in activities like cosplay and fanfiction learn through those activities, as well as how they find, evaluate, use, create, and share information.)

7. Get a hobby or two.

A hobby gives you something to do that’s not school, and that’s important. Ideally, it’s something you will have begun learning before school starts so that you’re not, say, simultaneously trying to understand Marxist geography and the sociology of space while also learning to knit. If you can get more than one hobby, even better. I like having a solitary one and one that will lead you to interact with non-school people. In my MSLS days, my principal hobbies were baking cupcakes and being in the Durham Savoyards. During the PhD, they were tinkering on the IndieWeb and doing improv comedy.

There are a lot of other things you might do to make your experience go smoothly, but if you’ve got these seven down, you’re going in with a strong foundation.

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Kimberly Hirsh, PhD @KimberlyHirsh
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