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Starting a new PhD? Don't get in a FLAP

18 July, 2023

I began my PhD on 1st February 2023. A few weeks in, here’s what I’ve learned so far…

F is for Fear of the Unknown.  A PhD is a uniquely unknowable challenge; in an unknown environment, with unknown people. Would I fit in? Would I remember anything about psychology? In the first week I discovered that my team enjoy tea and the pub. I immediately felt at home.  One of the best things I’ve done is to ask colleagues about their work, go to their lectures and read their papers. Hearing them talk so passionately and insightfully about their research has absolutely motivated me to be the best researcher I can.

L is for Learning. It is fair to say that I’ve thrown myself headfirst into the Centre of Doctoral Studies training prospectus, signing up for courses on everything from systematic reviews, concise writing (ironically, the session overran), co-production and tackling imposter syndrome. Training has helped me to meet other PhD students and appreciate that we share similar concerns. During our PhD induction, for example, we were polled on our worries, and it became obvious that almost everyone feared our supervisors thinking we aren’t good enough. What a relief to know a) that’s normal and b) it’s (probably) not true.

A is for Acronyms. There are a LOT of them. I’m part of the KCL IoPPN (King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience), based at the WEC (West Education Centre). I’m funded by the UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) and am part of the NIHR HPRU EPR team (National Institute for Health Research Health Protection and Research Unit in Emergency Preparedness and Response).  As with all large organisations, an exclusive language of abbreviations has developed over time which can be difficult to understand as a new student. I spent much of this first month with a confused look on my face listing letters and hoping they were in the right order. However, I also made a note of every acronym and what it meant.  And it is working – only this week I heard myself say the sentence “I’m meeting someone for coffee at the SGDP to talk about PPIE at the LSHTM”. I’m already becoming acronym-fluent.

P is for Planning and Project Management. Prior to this PhD I’ve worked as a project manager, and a month in, it strikes me that a PhD is simply another large project in disguise. I’ve developed a Gantt chart for the next 3 years, plotting key review points and dates like school terms, ethics board meetings and submission deadlines. I’ve planned a budget. I’ve mapped out my stakeholders – supervisors, teachers, teenagers, funders – and their communication preferences. Essentially, I have built and am now managing a new project. While I’m pragmatic and prepared for my PhD to evolve, project management skills have proved key for working out where I’m heading, how I’ll get there and the pace for me to set for the next three years.

And, just like that, I am a month in and so embedded that I find myself creating new acronyms for my glossary. I told you I was fluent! So, for all new PhD students: remember FLAP (as in, don’t get in one). Fears are normal, but you can address them to make them manageable. Take advantage of the range of great training and other opportunities for learning – most people genuinely want to help you develop into an excellent researcher. Write down the acronyms to reference back to until you start recognising them (and developing your own if you feel like it!). And use project management skills to help plan your PhD. I feel privileged to be able to spend the next three years researching a topic about which I am passionate, surrounded by such a supportive team, many cups of tea and, of course, the occasional trip to the pub.

By Angie Pitt