Starting your PhD

It’s important to get the best possible start to your research degree – from developing an effective relationship with your supervisor to planning your work, and managing your time, it can be a big adjustment.  Here are some things to think about as you begin your research journey:

Key relationships

Your relationship with your supervisor or supervisory team is vital to your research, to your progress and to your wellbeing whilst undertaking your PhD.

The University clearly outlines what is expected from all parties in the relationship in the Supervision Policy for Postgraduate Research Degrees  which provides the foundations for your relationship. However every supervisory relationship is different, it can depend upon your subject, your mode of study and of course how you (and they) work best.

Understand what their roles are in your education and be proactive in building these relationships.  Start by being clear about your mutual responsibilities and what you should expect from the supervision process.  A well planned schedule of meetings will also provide you with a structure that will help you stay on track. You might find the How To Work With Your Supervisor training  useful in helping you get on track.

However as you start on your journey,  remember there are other people who will help you along the way, from lab technicians, librarians, your fellow students and even your friends and family.

Take a look at what other Manchester students have to say about their PhD experience including working with supervisors. Find further useful information about starting to work with your supervisor on Vitae.

Managing your workload

For PhD students one of the biggest changes is getting to grips with the different feel of your studies now. Chances are it’s must less prescriptive than your previous courses and you will need to structure your workload and manage your time to ensure that you hit the key milestones for the year.   Here’s some really useful information about getting off to the best start as a researcher.

A practical way to do this is to set clear and practical milestones for what you want to achieve. Just saying that you’re going to hand in a thesis in 3 -4 years isn’t all that motivating – but what do you need to do to get there and are there any University deadlines or requirements you must meet?

That said, be prepared to be flexible. You’re just starting out – and the route to graduation could take a very different path to what you expect.


Be prepared to read – lots! There’s no shortcut to becoming an expert in your field. You must understand all the important research already done to understand how your PhD will fit in – how can you contribute to the research?

You need to find a reference management tool  – there’s a lot out there so take a look at the library’s  information about referencing, including guides to some of the software available (if you don’t have a favourite already) and you can also drop in any Friday to get information from library experts on reference management.

Think about the way you read, at this stage learning to scan or skim read effectively will be helpful.   Then read with a structure (basics and most important papers first). You might find it useful to make notes that remind you in the future why you found the piece useful (or not!).

Then, make sure that you know how to keep up to date with publications in your area and look at all the relevant ‘searching’ resources on my research essentials and my learning essentials. It’s better to get to grips with anything you might need sooner rather than later!

You might also find it useful to read books that will help you with your skills development to support your research; productivity, personal skills and business books can help. They provide practical advice, including study tips and also general guidance.


Write early and write often. Your finished product might be a few years away, but you can start getting in the habit of writing now. Writing early will help you to develop and maintain your writing skills for when the time comes to write a full-fledged paper. By writing often you will accumulate content that you can reuse when you need to write abstracts, papers or proposals.

Managing your work/life balance

The challenges of postgraduate study may cause some worry and stress at times – as you’re getting to grips with a new way of studying.

Make sure you take a break. A PhD can become all consuming. Try and find a way of working that gives you structure and time off. Some people find it useful to treat a PhD as a 9-5 job ( or at least try and work towards that model). Whatever works for you, breaks and socialising will help keep you motivated and refreshed and keep you from feeling isolated.

Make sure you eat well and if it’s your thing exercise regularly (and if it isn’t – why not try, even a brisk walk can really help). Sporticipate is the University’s free sporting activities – take a look and see how you can get involved.

Academic conventions

If you’re new to the University, it’s important to make sure you know about the plagiarism rules  at the University of Manchester as they could be very different to at your previous institution. Before writing your first essay, familiarise yourself with the correct referencing system so when you begin reading you record all your information correctly. If you are doing a PhD this is vital you will be researching your topic for at least three years, and the last thing you want is to be accused of plagiarising by accident. One of the main reasons students get penalised for plagiarising is that they don’t know the rules and commit it by accident, so it is important to make sure you know the rules, as not knowing the rules is not an excuse.

Even as a postgraduate it’s worth a look at the learning essentials  guides to referencing and plagiarism.


University Graduate development resources

STEPS blog: Research students sharing their experiences of undertaking their PhD at Manchester – why not get involved.

Following blogs such as Thesis Whisperer and  PhD life can help boost your motivation and reassure you that you’re not alone.

Finally, University student support services are here for you too. If things seem a little daunting take a break and if necessary seek advice and guidance from your School student support team or see the student support website for other sources of support.