10 things I wish I knew before starting my PhD

It has been over two years since I defended my PhD at the University of Agder in Norway. During the last two years I have discussed the PhD process with many others including peers, junior PhD candidates and senior colleagues. In this post, I reflect on the PhD process relying on my own experience and some others’ I know, and try to provide some guideline for current and potential PhD candidates.

1. Before you start your PhD, get to know your potential supervisor. Check your supervisor’s academic profile to be sure that you both have common research interests. See their publication record, research methods they use, conferences they attend etc. Most likely you will end up publishing in the same journals, attending same conferences and using same methods. I was lucky to have a supervisor with exactly the same research and methodological interests. If your supervisor had other PhD students before you, you may contact one/two of them asking what can you expect while working with the professor and what not. If you are considering me as one of your potential supervisors (and came across this post), you will find details on my personal website.

2. Don’t do a PhD just for the sake of doing it. Do it only if you are really passionate about your research “topic”. Some students with good academic record start PhD because they could get admitted to the program easily but are not passionate about their research topic. Often, they end up as dropouts. You are going to study the topic for 3 to 5 years, if it does not excite you, most likely you will loose motivation at some point.

3. PhD is just a part of life and not life itself. Some takes PhD too seriously and end up working all the time including weekends without any breaks and then experience burnouts. It is important to have a nice work-life balance during PhD, that is, to spend quality time with friends and family, to enjoy weekends and have summer holidays, all of it while doing the PhD. Of course you might have to work on some weekends or holidays to meet conference or journal deadline.

4. If you feel down, talk to your friends in the cohort. No matter how talented you are or how organized you are, chances are that you will feel frustrated at times during your PhD time. This is because some of the success in the PhD depends on luck as well. For instance, you sent your first paper in a prestigious journal and after 18 months you had to withdraw the paper because you have not received any review report and the editor was not responding to any of your email. This is a true story by the way, and you just couldn’t do much in such situations. To more, this could happen to not only one but two of your PhD papers! So, talk with your friends when down and only then you will know they are going through the same and it’s okay. Also, it could be a very good idea to share your feelings with your supervisor. If you need help, ask for it.

5. Build your career not just finish the PhD. During PhD years, in addition to your PhD research, try to get involved in other voluntary activities such a giving a guest lecture in your supervisor’s class, review papers for academic journals, be a part of organizing social activities in your department such as lunch seminars, hosted conferences. All these activities have something to add to your career which you might not realize in very early days of PhD.

Presenting at the IAME 2019 Conference at Athens, Greece

6. Identify the two most relevant conferences for your topic and attend them every year. Beware of predatory conferences. If you don’t have a polished paper, submit as working paper. After all, they idea of conferences are to get feedback from colleagues and networking. Later, submit an updated version to a journal after working on feedbacks. Also talk to as many people you can during conferences, attend social events and add everyone you met in LinkedIn just after the conferences. These people are the ones who will send/list you as reviewers for different journal articles. Also, you will end up collaborating with some of them later. By the way, count journal publications only not the conference ones. Conferences are good for presenting, getting feedback and building a network, but do not count them as publications.

7. Read full papers not just a paragraph here and another there in an article. In the first year, read as much as you can and read complete full text of at least 100 papers in the first year. Read what may not seems directly relevant to be sure that it is for sure not relevant. Reading full texts of articles will also familiarise you with standard journal article writing style, trust me this is different from just writing in English.

8. Write a paper-based thesis, not monograph. If you wish to continue a career in academia after your PhD, do not write a monograph. Of course, you can publish journal articles when writing monograph, but most people do not. As career in academia is much dependent on journal publications, if you have the option to do paper based PhD, just go for it. It simply increases the probability of journal publications during your PhD and also easy to track progress. Also, we want people to read our work and published papers are read more than monographs for sure.

9. Never compare yourself with others. Each of us are unique and have different working styles. Some may take longer to publish/graduate than others and it is totally fine. You can only try your best and be patient. Good things often take time.

10. The best PhD dissertation is a finished one and perfect is none. Often as young scholars we have the vision to do something ground-breaking in our PhD. This is exciting but doing something ground-breaking may take 10 to 20 years easily, often difficult within a time frame of 3 to 5 years (with some exceptions of course). If you master the ‘doing research’ during your PhD, you can have all the years after your PhD for ground-breaking science.

PhD Defense (2018) Celebration at the University of Agder, Norway

The thoughts expressed are my own opinion. If you have something to add, please leave a comment.

This is a Research HUB original post by Dr. Ziaul Haque Munim. He is currently working as Associate Professor in Maritime Logistics at the  University of South-Eastern Norway. His main research interests include maritime logistics, forecasting, supply chain management and international business. He received the Best Paper Award at the IAME 2016 Conference in Hamburg, and the Best Young Researcher Award at the IAME 2018 Conference in Mombasa. He published several articles in leading journals such as Journal of Business Research, Resources Conservation & Recycling, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, and others. Follow his research on ResearchGate and Google Scholar.

Leave your thoughts


A platform to support academics particularly young researchers. ResearchHUB provides training on different research methods, and academic writing and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

Team ResearchHUB

Privacy Policy