Student Life

My First 100 Days as a Research Student: What I’ve Learned

I’m a little over 100 days into life as a research student and the learning curve has been steep, my friends! I’m already onto my second journal, my folder of written notes is bursting at the seams, and I’ve had to reorganise my bookshelves to make space for the steady stream of titles I’ve acquired for my research. I feel like I’ve learned so much but know nothing at the same time, which people promise me is the general vibe of academia. I’m slowly finding my feet in my community and narrowing down the specifics of my research, as well as settling into a study routine that’s productive without leaving me exhausted at the end of each week. As you’ll see below, the importance of rest is something I came to understand very quickly…!

So, let’s take a look at ten of my biggest takeaways after 100 days of life as a full time research student:

  1. Find your community

I put this point first for a reason – it’s my number one tip for anybody looking to enter academia or begin their studies. Find your people! When I started my Masters I knew nobody working within my field, or any adjacent field come to that. I was overwhelmed at the sheer size of my university and, for the first few weeks, it felt like I might never actually form any connections with other academics. Academia is a big, wide world and it can definitely feel cliquey at times but finding like-minded folks who are at various stages of their academic journey has made everything feel less intimidating and a lot more fun. So, how did I go about getting to know people when I study from home 99% of the time and we’re living in a pandemic?

First, I looked at my university societies. I found most of these geared towards undergraduates and/or those who live on campus but I have joined my university’s LGBTQ+ association, so it’s nice to immerse myself in campus queer life, even if I’m too far away to attend in person events.

Second, my university runs a number of research networks and I’m part of two of these. We meet roughly once a month and occasional events are run in between this. While everybody’s research is wildly different, each network has a central theme that unites everybody’s underlying interests – one of my networks is for researchers working in romance fiction and the other is centred around popular and genre fiction. If your institution runs similar groups I wholeheartedly recommend them – I’ve met so many lovely people this way!

Third, Shut up and Work sessions. Most academic institutions run their own Shut Up and Work sessions, otherwise there are plenty of writing sessions and study groups you can join online. Most weeks I join my university’s postgraduate research Shut Up and Work group, where we alternate between goal-setting, chatting, and studying for an afternoon each week. I always get masses of work done, I recharge my social battery without feeling drained, and I’ve made a bunch of friends. What’s not to love?

Fourth, Twitter! More on this below but academic Twitter is a friendly, chilled place (in my experience anyway!). People are always on hand to chat, answer any questions you might have, provide reassurance, and generally get to know you and your research. #AcademicChatter is a great hashtag to check out and I have plans to share a post about all of my favourite academic Twitter accounts soon.

2. Ask questions

Absolutely don’t suffer in silence! Just because everybody might look like they know exactly what they’re doing, nobody expects you to know where to go and what to do from day one. I’ve inundated my supervisors, my fellow students, and academic Twitter with questions from the day I enrolled and everybody has been more then happy to help and chat through things. It was everybody’s first day once and there’s a lot to get to grips with when you start out as a researcher, so don’t be afraid or feel silly if you haven’t quite got your head around things yet.

3. Academics are a friendly bunch

I touched on this above but I’ve been consistently surprised at how friendly and generous with their time academics are. Before I even started my studies a friend put me in touch with a researcher working in my area who was kind enough to send me her unpublished PhD, which is such a fantastic resource I know 100% I’ll be referencing in my own work. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but, honestly, I expected so much more snobbery than I’ve faced. People are passionate about their research areas and just want to share what they’ve discovered, so don’t feel as though you can’t reach out to people and make connections, it’s definitely been one of the most pleasant surprises of my first 100 days of studying!

4. ProQuest is the best

Ah, ProQuest. Your capacity is boundless, you let me access your titles online so I don’t have to trek to the library to find out if a chapter is going to be helpful, you (mostly) find exactly what I’m looking for in less than a second. This is a love letter to you, my friend.

5. You will never read every paper you download

Yeah, I’d seen the memes about this but was convinced I would 100% read every single paper I gleefully downloaded moments after my journal access came through. Did I? Did I hell, most of the blighters are still languishing, unread, on my laptop but I swear I will read you all someday, papers, I swear it.

6. Just because everyone is leaving academia, it doesn’t mean you have to

A lot of people are leaving academia, and I mean a lot. I can’t log onto Twitter without seeing somebody sharing their story of leaving academic for a job in industry – and, honestly, when I read their stories I 100% understand why. Academia has its problems, big ones, and I’m sure anybody studying in the UK has had lecturers and supervisors striking throughout the year – for bloody good reasons! It can be disheartening to be so early on in your research and see people leaving in droves but, to be honest, I’ve never known if my future careers lays in academia. I’m passionate about research and I’d love to publish and speak at conferences, continuing to add to scholarship in my field even after I graduate, but it doesn’t hurt to be realistic about the problems so many are finding in academic professions.

7. People aren’t lying when they tell you to rest

I was coming out of a couple of months of intense full time study when I noticed my capacity to retain information was just…off. After posting about it on Twitter a lot of people reached out to me to tell me to rest, to actually rest and recharge my batteries. I took a week off, rested my brain, and the benefits were huge. In the week that followed I did more constructive work than I had in three weeks when I wasn’t resting properly. I used to set myself strict goals to study for at least eight hours a day without exception, but I know now that doesn’t work for me – five hours seems to be my sweet spot and I get more done in 25-30 hours of focused, productive work a week than I did in 40-50 hours before. Rest is your best friend and it really is key – don’t skip it.

8. Journal, journal, journal

I’ve been keeping a daily journal since I started my studies and it’s one of my most powerful tools, even though I never spend more than ten minutes a day filling it out. If I ever feel like I’m not making progress I just flick through it and take stock of how much I’ve learned and how many great steps forward I’ve taken since I first started my research. Each day I log the tasks I completed, my thoughts on the work I did that day, what hours I worked, and any key tasks for the next day. Then once a week I log my achievements for the week, anything I want to improve on, and my tasks for the next week. I never write more than an A5 page a day but the benefits have been huge.

9. Comparison is the thief of joy

This is true in every area of life but particularly academia. So you’ve logged onto Twitter and the first posts you see are people celebrating book deals, conference slots, soon-to-be published papers – of course it’s hard not to feel like you’re not achieving enough. I constantly catch myself wondering if I’m doing enough, if I should have submitted to a journal by now, if I’m behind everybody else because I haven’t presented at a conference – then I remind myself that four months ago I hadn’t even started my research so maybe I need to chill a bit. That said, there’s no formula for what success looks like – some people present at a conference a month, some have entirely fulfilling academic careers without ever presenting; some people seem to have a new paper published every time you see them tweet, and some people work quietly in the background and publish one absolutely seminal work across their whole career. Everybody works at a different pace, everybody’s measure of success is different, and comparing yourself to other people is never, ever going to make you happy.

10. You’ll find academia in everything

Four months ago I couldn’t have told you what metadiscourse was if you’d paid me, now I can’t seem to crack open a non-fiction book without regaling my girlfriend with exciting tales about the quality of the signposting in the introduction. I notice quantitative data everywhere, I scan un-academic articles online for references, I pore over books to find compelling academic turns of phrase. I’m like a woman possessed – and, to be honest, I couldn’t be happier.

So there we have it, ten of the biggest lessons I’ve learned throughout my first 100 days as a research student. Do you remember the first few months of your research? I would love to know what your biggest takeaways were!

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