Those First Few PhD Months

This won’t be the only blog post on this topic, but here’s an important one to start off with.

Okay, you’re a PhD student now. Congrats! You’ve met your supervisor and have a rough idea of what you’re supposed to be working on.

But there’s that question regarding skills development that your supervisor couldn’t answer. And you’re not really sure who you talk to about the form you need to fill in for that thing everyone talks about. Or what training you’re supposed to be doing. Or who to talk to at the library about research resources.

There are a myriad of questions that come up when you start a PhD (and all the way through as well) that your supervisor will not be able to answer. If you have contact with any PhD student in your department that is ahead of you, ask them first. They inevitably asked someone ahead of them. That’s how you find stuff out. If you don’t have a contact, ask your supervisor if you can have the email address of one of his other students (this is not just useful for the silly admin questions – it can be useful to talk to someone else with the same supervisor, especially if you ever have an issue with them). If your supervisor won’t give you an email address, use the department website to track down another student who’s already in second or third (or beyond) year. No one is going to have a problem when you email to ask ‘where do I hand in this form?’ because that person asked it first.

If, however, you don’t want to bother another PhD student, or you’re a distance PhD student and emailing someone you will never meet horrifies you, then contact your department administrator. Every department has one, no matter how small. This person is normally the ‘secretary’ type individual, but they are also the front line person who deals with students and there is no silly question they have not already been asked. If you are on campus, talk to them in person (and talk to them – this person may save your life (or your PhD) one day). If you are not on campus, email them. They’re contact details should be on your department webpage, but failing that your supervisor will know who this person is and give you an email/phone number. And don’t be afraid to use it.

I can’t tell you the number of times I emailed my department admin and asked the dumbest questions ever, because I could not bring myself to ask another PhD student and look that stupid. Of course, inevitably, the admin had been asked that question before, which means it wasn’t dumb. Most of the time she knew the answer immediately, but when she wasn’t sure if the policy/etc. had changed, she called someone that did know and then gave me the right answer. I was on campus, so I was in the department a lot to use my office space (though not as much as I should have been – story for another day), and more often than not I would swing by her office to say hi, chat about life in general, listen to her talk (most people didn’t talk to her, they just used her for information and then left, which is a pity, as she had great stories), and then quietly asked for help. She never laughed or said she’d deal with it later. She always helped, no matter what she was in the middle of. That’s what her job is all about.

You’ll get the occasional admin who doesn’t like their job and doesn’t really want to do it, but it’s their job and you are welcome to ask them questions and expect answers, whether they want to give them or not. But do show them kindness, and they might just start doing the same to others. It’s worked for me in the past. Just remember that these individuals deal with A LOT. Everyone in the department relies on them. They have a lot of work to juggle. They are going to have bad days, no matter how much they like their job. If they are having a bad day and your question can wait a few hours, then leave it. You can always email tomorrow.

Moral of the story: never anger your department admin. This is the number one person after your supervisor that you want on your side. But make use of them, it’s what they are there for.

And not only for all those silly questions you can’t ask anyone else.