Some tips for 1st year PhD Students

During the annual meeting of our research team, each PhD student presents the progress of his/her research. I've added a "bonus" slide to my presentation so I could talk about what I've learned as a first year PhD Student. I promised to share some of the Internet links that helped me, but I ended up writing this page with such links but also some tips from personal experience.

The torment of first year

My first PhD year was a torment inside my head. It was hard, it taught me a lot an that's why I would like to share the experience. During the first year I've searched, read and saved a lot of useful material which I will provide the links here. But I have also accumulated some practical experience.
Your thesis advisor is not there to save you, but to help you finding your path. Do not wait for him to get you by the hand and take you to (or through) the path. So, AUTONOMY is essential. The process may change from advisor to advisor, lab to lab, university to university, and so on. But, in general, I think you should try to advance by yourself and occasionnally have meetings with him to see if you are taking the right path.

Don't panic if some of this normal stuff happens to you during the first year:


We are human beings and we are governed by feelings. In conferences I had the opportunity to talk with lots of PhD students, and most of them shared the same feelings I had during my first year:

Tasks and Procrastination

I did not use my time well, procrastinating a lot. You can take advantage of procrastination (the "I'll do it tomorrow" syndrome) in a productive way.
You may have several parallel tasks during your PhD. For example, some students may do teaching assistancy (TA), which I do. Others may work in research projects not completely related to their thesis, which I also do. Your time is fragmented, now you have to "switchtask", which gives you a cost on switching from one task to the other. In order to get concentrated again, you need time. If you have 3 obligations (thesis, TA and research project) and you can't be organized enough to work on all of your tasks you're going to have a hard time. I'm still working on that...


Performing Experiments

After finding a thesis subject, some work must be done. In Software Engineering it is likely that you'll need to observe and test applications, methods, approaches, etc. Performing experiments and presenting the interpreted results helps to support your hypotheses. Taking a look at Empirical Research and Quantitative Research may help. Depending on what you want to present you may need some background (or remembering what you've learned as an undergraduate) in statistics.


Scientific Reading

Read a lot. You need to know who is working in the same (or similar) issues of your theme, unless you have a really original problem (which is rare) that no one is working on. Not mentioning at least the most important ones in your articles or in your thesis means the you are neglecting the state of the art of your theme. When writing a paper, it will need to position your work to the existing one.
I believe the three main sources for computer science are the first links below. It requires paying access which you may already have through your university/research institution.


Scientific Writing

One of the most important things for a PhD student is how to write down what he/she is doing, so other people could read and understand. This is not easy, but it is the path to present a paper in a conference. Some reasons for submitting a paper to a conference:
But first, you need to find which conferences are interesting in your field. Your advisor may help you with this. Try the good ones. If your paper is ever rejected, you'll have at least 2 experts explaining why it was not accepted. You can take the critics, improve your work and your paper. It will increase the chances of having your paper accepted in the next submission, which can be a different conference if you don't want to wait almost 12 months to resubmit where you have been rejected. The traditional path is submitting to a Workshop -> Conference -> Journal, whith your work evolving between these steps. However you are not forced to follow this sequence. Here are some nice links, which during your navigation you may find twice


Discuss your theme

Discuss your theme with other people. In conferences, your friends, etc. This is something I've neglected. I had inputs from other people in the different conferences where I went, but I never asked stuff to the people beside me at my lab (the people I work with). I'll try to fix this in the years to come.


Doing a thesis is not easy, and doing a good one is even worse because you'll never be certain if you're doing good or not. A PhD appears to normally be a long road with lots of obstacles. Organization is essential, and persistence is a key factor for continuing.
The links made available here have been collected through my first PhD year, in the academic year of 2008-09. The text available in this page is a result of my own experience, my reading of the above links and discussions with other PhD students as well as people that have already obtained their PhD. I think you'll only know if it was good after your defence. Well, that's what I think. Still 2 years to go.
I sincerely hope that the information described herein can somehow help other PhD students in their path on research.
Thanks for the visit, and feel free to contact me in case of suggestions or anything.

Other useful links

How to be a good graduate student (try to read as much as possible of this one)
PhD comics make you feel like a normal PhD student
Google Do your own searches and don't be limited to the links or what is written in this page you're reading ;)