Five Tips for 1st Year PhDs

By Christopher Valencia |

Welcome to UCR!

If you are reading this, you are probably beginning your Ph.D. at UCR this Fall… 



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Pictured: The Graduate Writing Center here at UCR gladly welcomes you!

There are many ways to describe the Ph.D. process and many tips people can pass along; I just finished my second year, so my experience is just a drop in the vast ocean of advice and experience you can find out there. So, I would encourage you to reach out and talk to people in (or outside) your academic field who have gone before you. The tips below are just suggestions and will be based on my experience as a grad student in CHASS (College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences). Nonetheless, these points are from my initial experience here, and through sharing them, I hope they can be helpful to you.

The Turtle Wins the Race

There is a well-known saying that many of us are familiar with: the turtle wins the race. As one of my mentors recently told me: “The Ph.D. is a marathon for sure! Take it steady, and it will end well.” When I began graduate school, I had multiple reading assignments for my coursework and was enrolled in two seminars that happened to be on the same day. In the span of a week, I would have to read hundreds and hundreds of pages. Everyone should develop their own reading strategies and set realistic daily goals. For me, I told myself that I was going to read a certain amount of pages or chapters, ensuring I made steady progress. Also, remember that we are all human, and we all have our limits. There will be times we will not understand the things we read, and that can lead us to be frustrated. Be patient with yourself and take your time and ask for help.

Avoid Procrastination & Give Yourself Enough Time

If there is anything we can all work on, it is probably procrastination. As Ph.D. students, our writing assignments are typically more extensive and may span the entirety of a quarter. As soon as the quarter begins, plan out your work for the quarter and spread out your assignments so you are not overwhelmed. During a time in my first year, I was taking three courses that each had me writing a 20-25 page paper in 10 weeks. With UCR’s fast-paced quarter system in mind, I realized I did not want the last weeks to come around and have to work on three papers at the same time. As the middle of the quarter approached, I began to draft my essays, giving myself enough time so that they would not stack up at the end of the quarter. In addition, I prioritized more demanding assignments to allow me to distribute my mental energy across my work in a balanced way.

Avoid Burnout — Take Time to Relax and Recharge :)

During my first year in my program, my department allowed me to focus on coursework. However, this may not be the case with every department, so your experience may be different. If you are allowed to focus on coursework, the following may be more relevant for you. As you begin diving into reading assignments and taking care of papers and different projects, you definitely do not want to burn yourself out. During my first year, there were days when I studied for long hours on the weekends, and there were days when I prepared presentations late into the midnight hours. I remember coming home tired from a seminar and wanting to read and study, yet as I was reading, my mind was foggy. My body and mind were telling me that I needed to rest. It is normal for your brain to need a break to recuperate. Take a breath, relax, and don’t forget to have some fun. Your long-term productivity will thank you.

Coursework -- Laying a Foundation and Exploring

Depending on your program, your coursework will introduce you to foundational, basic, and key concepts. For example, in my coursework, it was required that we take some classical and contemporary theory courses during our first and second years. In addition to this, if your department allows, you may get the chance to explore different topics through additional coursework that can be beneficial for your research. Check in with your department and advisors to see if additional coursework would be the best for you. By taking additional coursework outside my department, I had the opportunity to introduce myself to different faculty and establish a few professional relationships. Sometimes these connections just take a simple email but will go a long way in helping you in your academic journey.

Find a Good Support System

As a last comment, without my family and friends, my experience in grad school would also be very different. One of my mentors used a word to describe the Ph.D. process: rigmarole. At times, some days will be fairly smoother. On other days, you will struggle with work upon work. Having some good company and moments of recreation to get through those ups and downs is essential. Thankfully, I built a good support system while transitioning into graduate school. During my first year, many of my friends were also in school, so we were able to talk about different school projects we were working on or other stuff to get our minds off school. Whether you go out for a sport, a meal, or whatever the adventure may be – a little socializing can be therapeutic. Of course, the Ph.D. process will require moments of isolation and intense focus, but if possible, try and find people you can walk the path with.


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Pictured: You got this!

Hopefully, these few tips will come to your remembrance: take it steady, give yourself enough time, take time to recharge, lay a strong academic foundation for your Ph.D., and find a good support system.