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The PhD Journey: Year One

Year One of the PhD Journey

Hugo (Hao) Du

10-minute read

Year 1: Settling in / Course structure  

Well, Congratulations! Finally, you have gained a position to do your PhD in NUBS. You can now announce yourself as a PhD Candidate because your journey has just begun…

Your Academic ‘boss’ (PhD Supervisors)

Two to three supervisors will accompany you through the remarkable journey of doing your PhD in NUBS. Usually, the second/third supervisors are chosen by your first supervisor, because they know which of their colleagues could also supervise your research. You need to build an excellent relationship with them. It will definitely be of significant benefit to your research.

Why I am saying they are the boss? During your PhD program, your supervisor may give you some extra paid work. It could be a research project where you need to conduct part of the study, or the opportunity to deliver seminars, or marking exam scripts under the module led by your supervisor. To be honest, thinking of our supervisors as the BOSS is more about respect. 

According to the regulations, we need to have a supervision meeting with our supervisors at least once a month, but if you have more requirements, just set up more time with them and I am sure they will try their best to help you. Working with supervisors is actually a kind of science. We may need to talk about it in a separate blog because there are so many stories I would like to share. Let me know how you think about this idea and what you want to know the most by leaving your comments. 

For the First Time in Forever

Have you ever seen the Disney Movie Frozen? Remember For the first time in forever, the song played on Elsa’s coronation day? Anyway, that was the exact song that ear wormed me the whole day, the day I officially enrolled on my PhD journey. 

Almost every new PhD candidate will have an induction tour led either by their supervisor or senior PhD candidates in the same supervision group. Luckily, my first school tour was guided by my supervisor.  From that moment, I was no longer a student entering the university, but a researcher, which I have to say, felt different and fantastic! 

I won’t talk too much about how modern and beautiful Newcastle University Business School is, because you will have to come and experience that yourself.  But we have a professional reception team to solve all of your fundamental inquiries and a Starbucks inside the lobby. There is always some hot food served at the bar, and I love the Lentil soup with a fresh bun, by the way. 

Meet the PhD support team

Before you go to the PhD office, you need to go to the Programme Administration Office (5th floor) tomeet a significant person.  There is a name frequently mentioned amongst the NUBS PhD researcher community. Please let me introduce the Education Administrator who manages the PhD programme: Carolyn Watkin. One of the most common phrases I heard at NUBS is ‘Ask Carolyn’. Carolyn knows everything about PhD – whenever you face an issue, she is always the one who you can ask who can help you to find a solution. Please first meet this important person, and I am sure you will get a super sweet welcome.

One essential item you need to always carry is your University Smartcard which you will have already collected on central campus during your registration process. This allows you to access the NUBS building and the PhD offices.  And remember, if you need any help, Ask Carolyn! 

PhD office

Swipe your smart card to enter Your Office, a big, shared office that can hold up to 50 people.

Please get rid of the PhD stereotype that we are ‘nerdy’ or ‘geeky’. I am not saying there will be a welcome party, but definitely be prepared to receive a warm welcome and greeting from your colleagues. Everyone asked precisely the same questions to get to know each other and learn how to correct pronounce names:  What is your name? What is your research topic/area/group? Who is (are) your supervisor(s)?  Most of the great friendships I have made in my PhD journey begun from the three questions.

Before you go to your seat and turn your computer on, let me tell you a joke. We always joked that ‘PhD’ actually stands for ‘Permanent Hot Desk’. Every new PhD candidate needs to sit at a hot desk for a while until a permanent desk is allocated to you. There is a waiting list, and you only need to make sure your name is on it. The waiting time could be a few months, but this is actually a great time to build a good relationship with your colleagues. You may need to ask them to share their cabinet that you do not need to carry books and papers all the time.

Remember, you are no longer a Master’s student who can rely for almost everything on your personal tutor. As a PhD candidate, you have to learn to solve problems independently and be mature. Communication skills are essential, understanding and respect are the core of it, and being polite and smiling goes a long way.

After you have met your colleagues and located a hot desk, just before you leave the office, quickly scan your smartcard in the printer, to register your student account there.  You can now print from any of the desktops in the room to that printer.  

Congratulations, you’ve completed your first day as a PhD candidate!

Am I only Researching?

If you think that PhD students just do their research day and night, stay only in the office or the lab, barely talking to others and acting eccentrically, it is time to shut down your Netflix and have a little break from The Big Bang Theory! Although I am a big fan of that show, your real-life PhD is not like that. 

Reading

I still clearly remember my supervisor asked me to do nothing except read helpful journal articles for the first two months.  The reason you need to read a lot of literature in the beginning is a little bit different.  At this point, your goal is to refine your own research interest and proposal further by reading previous studies. You will narrow it down from a broad, general topic to a specific and unique doctoral research project that only belongs to you, always supported by your passion.  Your supervisors set you this task at the beginning of your PhD to help you investigate the most appropriate research topic.  Everything you will read is worth it.

Training

In your first year, you will attend Humanities and Social Sciences (HaSS) Faculty Research Training with your colleagues. Sorry to say that, even as a PhD candidate, you still can’t avoid examination. There are around eight courses in which you need to either submit assignments or pass the exams. But all of the modules are really helpful, expanding your knowledge and benefiting your future research. Meanwhile, NUBS also provides a whole year of training regarding research methods led by professional academic staff. Your supervisor may even deliver one of the sessions.

Community 

Although your office is called the PhD office, not only PhD candidates are using this room, but also research fellows, lecturers and even external scholars. Therefore, there are always great chances to talk to them and exchange thoughts. Trust me, they are so friendly and humble. As I have said before, PhD research emphasises a kind of independent research ability, which is the most significant difference from Masters’ study. Except for the required modules organised by HaSS and NUBS, we are the owners of our time and research.

You cannot imagine how many issues will occur regarding your study and work during the four years. Your supervisors will be super helpful, but they may not always be available, therefore your colleagues are the second most important group to help you address your issues. The help we offer and receive as colleagues is always mutual. Time and time again, we help each other, which deepens the friendships we have.  Please try your best to make yourself involved in the PhD community. Nothing will make you happier than to receive the blessings of this community when you achieve any success because they really understand your efforts

Teaching

Some of you may dream of being a lecturer. Every PhD student has the opportunity to gain a free teaching qualification in higher education. A teaching training course, named Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE), is organised by HaSS Faculty, and provides the chance for PhD students to attend the tutor workshop and obtain the certificate. After two-day seminars and passing the teaching presentation, you will finally have the qualification permitting you to assist the module leader in delivering some of the seminars. My opinion on that is a big YES, you have to get it! Do not be afraid of teaching, the experience is enjoyable when you really put yourself in it. 

Significant Challenges in Year One

ATTENTION PLEASE! Let us talk about the reality of what you really need to face in the first year of your PhD journey. There are two vital challenges you must be fully concentrated on and very well-prepared for: The Project Approval and the first year Annual Progression Reviews (APRs).

Project Approval 

Remember we talked about your research proposal that you submitted when applying for your PhD? It is now time to re-read and polish it. Because after three months enrolled in the programme, you need to submit your modified research proposal. 

I cannot remember how many articles I read in the first three months, and it is the same for everyone. Suppose you re-read your research proposal after a few further weeks of reading and further understanding.  You may find that your previous work is now ‘problematic’. But don’t panic as this is absolutely normal. The whole process of doing a PhD is a process of constant researching and understanding, revising and updating again and again. 

Rome was not built in a day 

In terms of project approval, you need to narrow down your research topic as specifically as possible and develop a renewed research proposal from your original PhD application. You may find it challenging to decide the core of your research (which is a common experience). In this case, it is time to ask your supervisors, who will definitely provide you with the most appropriate solution. When the final version of your updated research proposal is completed, you then need to apply for Ethical Approval before submitting your project approval.

Ethical approval

Ethical approval is an integral part of the research proposal before collecting data – this is a process that protects both researchers and participants. Because the research topics are unique, the methods of data collection are also different. For detailed steps on how to apply for Ethical Approval, please refer to your PhD manual and follow the requirements strictly. You don’t need to worry about whether your project approval will be failed or not if you obey the guidelines carefully. Do not overthink it after you submit it – keep going with your research because a bigger challenge is awaiting you. 

Annual Progression Review (APR)

The Annual Progression Review (APR) happens to all PhD students and is designed to assess your PhD progress against the research proposal submitted as part of the Project Approval Process. The first APR usually takes place approximately nine months after your initial registration. After that, the rest of the APRs should be scheduled every twelve months. 

I’ve heard that, if you fail the APR, you will be withdrawn from your PhD, although I never heard of this happening when I was doing my PhD.

Please be fully prepared for every year’s APR, as it reflects your intelligence and the merit of your thesis. Two professional panels, who are experts on your research topic, will examine your work and provide you with helpful feedback to improve your research. Therefore, pay attention to the comments they have provided, which will be super beneficial for your study.

Literature review

In the first year of doing the PhD, you have to develop the entire literature review chapter. I can tell you that it is not enough just to read the literature constantly. You need to establish a dialectical spirit, actively looking for gaps in previous research as you review the literature, and then demonstrating how your research can fill those gaps.

Although you have to complete your APR every year, the first year’s APR is the most challenging one. As well as submitting the work on time, you also need to give an oral presentation to the panels. I would suggest you prepare approximate fifteen slides covering all the essential information and have a mock-up presentation with your colleagues or supervisors. 

Please do not stress yourself too much about your APR, and just view it as a routine procedure that guarantees your research is always in the right direction. Thus, there is no need to be nervous, and you really need to learn to deal with criticism and comments with a sense of unbiased attitude. Accepting criticism with an open mind and working to correct problems will be the cornerstone of your progress. The APR is challenging, but everything associated with your PhD is not easy. Please be confident in yourself that YOU CAN DO IT!

First Year Reflection

Time goes by fast, especially when you stay concentrated on your research. The first year of your PhD journey will be significant. The most impressive thing is you are undertaking your own study as a RESEARCHER. You will need to experience it to establish your own reflections and feelings regarding this remarkable year. 

For me, the first year of being a PhD candidate was full of excitement and freshness.

I will never say it is an easy year, and I had a whole range of feelings, even after passing my APR. I had so many concerns, for example about my work’s uniqueness and whether I could complete my PhD on time.  I mean…nothing is more common than that. Please don’t be scared if you have this kind of thought. Take a deep breath and listen to me: getting a PhD is not easy, it can feel like a constant battle that you need to be strong for, both physically and mentally.   Remember that you were selected for PhD because the University believed you had it in you.  It’s important to really reward yourself. Most importantly, avoid arrogance, rashness or questioning your own ability. Always stay on top of the challenge ahead.

Keep Going, Fighters!

View all my PhD blogs here: My PhD Journey – Hugo Du

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