First steps in the PhD program

I just started out on the PhD journey and wanted to share my first impressions and learnings. So far the first six months were exciting on the one and on the other hand very challenging and veeery different to how I was working before. So here are three lessons learned that hopefully I will become better in following and also that hopefully will help and inspire other PhD students.

1. Embrace the challenge

Setting out for a PhD is probably one of the hardest things you can do. First it sounds easy and like you have lots of time – about 3,5 years after all – but once you start and you get into the subject it turns out to be a lot harder than you thought. You will learn that the topic that you picked will be way to broad to get any results and that really finding your niche, getting to the core of the problem, finding a research question is much more difficult than it looks like. Only when you revise again and again you will get a really good paper. Only when you dig deeper you will find gold. Only when you set out to places where you haven`t been before you will discover new things. But guess what – this is where you learn and grow. Outside your comfort zone.

2. Embrace feedback

I heard that it`s normal that probably once a week you will talk to people or attend a presentation and you will feel like you are way to stupid to do this and it is only a matter of time until someone will find out that you are completely wrong in the PhD program. Yep. That`s how you will feel sometime. However, everybody feels like that. And I found that it helps enormously to talk to others about your ideas and get their feedback. Don`t be afraid to present something unfinished. Yes, people might advise you to throw it away and do it all over. But you`d rather know that now and not in three years. Also, most people are (1) extremely happy to help, (2) feeling flattered when asked for their opinion and (3) likely to give you honest and good advice.

3. Embrace the opportunity to create.

This is probably the most important. Your PhD project is like a little startup, your personal project and you decide what you make out of it. It`s your path that you create. If you decide that you want to conduct a study on topic X – you can do it. If you want to bring fellow researchers to the table to discuss topic Y – go for it. If you like to connect to industry leaders in order to find out their challenges – just take initiative. For me personally I really feel the opportunity to create for the very first time. In the agencies I worked at before, surely I could bring up ideas for new projects. But now, it`s not only about ideas but about making them happen. I have (or at least should have) the time and the resources to do it, because that`s part of my PhD project. It`s not only about sitting in the library, it`s about creating something.

To all my fellow PhD candidates – what else did you experience? I`d love to hear your tips and ideas. And in the meantime, I leave a little advice that I have in my office:

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be AWESOME instead. True Story”


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