12 Tips for PhD Researchers

Dr. Andrew Hines is an assistant professor in the UCD School of Computer Science and leads the qxLab research group, where he currently supervises four PhD students. Recently, at our annual CS PhD research poster event, Andrew gave an excellent talk with advice to PhD students.  He has been kind enough to share his 12 top tips here:

1.   Read: Try to read a research paper every week; but also read some more: read books, novels, newspapers, twitter (e.g. #phdlife, #phdadvice). Read as much as you can and try to read with a reflective eye: you can learn about structure and story development from sci-fi novels or about reporting facts and a temporal progression from sports reports. It is even more important to read regularly if English is not your first language. Revisit (read again): Pick a seminal paper and read it in year one of your PhD. Write up some critical reflections and your impressions on key methods and contributions. Repeat every 9–12 months and reread your old reflections after writing your new ones. You’ll see how your understanding, expertise and critical reflections evolve.

2.   Write: Everything, all the time. Research has shown that memory is fallible – do not trust your research to your memory! Use Google Docs to create three cloud documents – meetings, lit. reviews, and a research diary. Use them to store your agendas and minutes for meetings with your adviser; your critical reflections; your musings and research ideas and rough results. Remember that there is a skill associated with taking notes and with making notes. If you find yourself with a blank notebook at the end of a meeting with your adviser, ask yourself the question: were there no actions, questions or answers worthy of noting?

3.   Reflect: Curiosity is a key attribute for PhD candidates but reflection and critical analysis are skills that develop the more you engage in them. Reflect on the content but also the language, structure and story presented by papers you read. Carrying out a Q&A session with yourself is a great way to crystallise thoughts into fully formed ideas. Ask yourself questions and write short answers to them.

4.   Plan: Take ownership of your work-life balance, health and wellbeing. Join committees of societies and clubs; engage in school and university activities; do the things that you thought you might like to do as an undergraduate but never got around to doing. Make time for coffee with your PhD colleagues, socialise and have fun. Organise your diary and plan your year: put all the target conferences for the next year in your calendar. Try the Pomodoro method from time to time to timebox your outputs for a day if you want to mix things up: changing your schedule and routine can keep you fresh. Try to work on group activities from time to time as PhD life can feel like splendid isolation. Even if you just offer to read and proof each others papers and have a coffee to discuss, or practice a conference presentation with your lab colleagues.

5.   Organise: Use Google docs or similar cloud service to keep your notes and shared documents that you want to access anywhere; Overleaf makes Latex manuscript collaboration easy with a good UI; Mendeley or similar for citation management; Git or similar for source control. Make your work always accessible, backed up and easy to share with your adviser. Take the time to put your research in order. Especially after you submit a paper. Spend the day after tidying up – you’ll thank yourself when the reviews come back and you need to rerun or revise things. I can’t stress this enough. It is so tempting to rest after the rush to submit and then to want to move on to something new but reproducible research starts at home – if you cannot make it reproducible for yourself what hope has anyone else?

6.   Prepare: Nemawashi is a Japanese concept of informally laying the foundations for something, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, before a meeting build consensus and avoid disagreements. It’s an organisational skill that can help to increase your own confidence and decrease the stress and anxiety associated with unexpected public disagreements. Preparation is the best way to manage fear of the unknown.

7.   Engage: Seek out opportunities to experience do different things; volunteer and say yes; and talk to new people; write an article or visit a secondary school. #WomenInCompSci and other such great ideas don’t appear in a vacuum. Great people, like you, initiate them – don’t wait for someone else to do something you could do. When you go to conferences, network and talk to people – you never know where the next good idea will come from.

8.   Risk: Resilience – it’s your bounce back ability. Research can be an adversarial environment – people will challenge your ideas but that doesn’t mean they don’t like them. Submit papers, get rejected early and often – it does get easier. Eternal success is a myth.

9. Ask: Ask for help or advice. You’ll be surprised people say no a lot less often than you imagine. When you ask for advice you may get ideas you would never consider. For me this was taking a module in philosophy because asking the right question matters and philosophy can hone your question framing skills. Ask your adviser’s for advice. And if you do, reflect on it, and even if it sounds like you might disagree, act on it and then measure its quality. Evidence based research! If you never try the advice, your adviser will feel there is no value in giving it.

10. Template: Come up with a “house style” for your published work: format, fonts, colour scheme for figures, charts etc. and stick to it within publication limitations. Script them all to be reproducible with formatting – trust me you’ll appreciate it when you come to reworking your early papers into your final thesis. Same goes for references – start using Mendeley or equivalent early.

11. Think: Revisit your research questions. Hone them. Write and rewrite them. Polish your ideas. Practice your elevator pitch. Some of my best thinking is done in 5 minutes during my morning shower – take some time every day to just think rather than doing.

12. Believe: In yourself. Remember that you were among the best in your school and as an undergraduate. You haven’t suddenly changed. Just because you spend your time in the company of a cohort of very high achieving PhD candidates doesn’t mean you should judge yourself only against their best attributes. Compare your best attributes against the mean of the cohort – it will lessen your Impostor Syndrome. And remember that we all fail and we only tell people about the great things we did. Ask your PhD adviser how many CVs they have submitted or how many research proposals or papers they have had rejected. If they are being honest you will find your failures are in good company.