Anticipating what’s to come: My PhD journey begins

You’ve finished your degree and summer is over: your PhD is about to start. but you have a summer ahead before you PhD starts. Emily shares her anticipations and thoughts as her PhD journey comes ever closer.  

By Emily Alger

I’ve graduated from Warwick and very soon I’ll start my PhD. I’ve had two months of internships and holidays to pass the time of summer, as well as relaxing, reminiscing, and preparing for what is to come.

A PhD was certainly not something I had planned upon when I first arrived at Warwick in first year. I was expecting Warwick to give me the degree I needed to kickstart my career, not further education. However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my degree and research. I found an incredibly supportive environment at the Institute of Cancer Research during a summer placement last year and soon after I accepted a PhD offer to carry on my work after graduation.

Emily graduated from Warwick this summer. Image credit: Emily Alger.

After many miss-fires and failed internships, I have found a next step I am genuinely excited about. I no longer need other people’s opinions to decide whether it is the “right” next move, I know it is. That’s not something I have felt for a long time.

Regardless, of how confident I feel, three years is a long time. When you start a PhD you do jump into an experience you can’t even begin to anticipate. It’s a lot of change, and independence, compared to an undergraduate degree. As I start the wait before my PhD starts, I thought I would share my own thoughts and techniques I plan on using and remembering when I start.

Fight or flight

I find in general, as I start new environments, my “Fight or flight response” is triggered. The comfort of what I know is incredibly attractive when you’re faced with a new office or meeting new people – there’s a safety in the known. That being said, it is true that every friend was once a stranger, and each home was once just a place. I often call university a “home” off the cuff, or more generally even call a hotel room a “home” when I’m on holiday. I think of it as a place I feel safe with people I know and love. As much as I now regard university as a home, it once felt very different – a huge campus and flatmates I barely knew. I do feel nervous to start a new life as a PhD student when I imagine arriving on my own in October. That being said, I need to remember that I felt nervous as a Fresher when I came to Warwick, time will pass and I’m sure one day it’ll feel like my home.

Eventually, Warwick campus will feel like home. Image credit: University of Warwick.

Imposter Syndrome

I’m sure everyone can relate to a feeling out-of-their-depth at university or that the degree was made for “cleverer” people. I have come to acknowledge that in the most general sense, everyone finds their degree challenging. The best in your class didn’t get that title on intelligence alone, but by being driven and hard working too.

As you start a PhD, you’re no longer competing for a certain grade on your work but you start becoming a name in your field. You often communicate your research within papers or at conferences – now you’re no longer one of fifty students completing a coursework, you’re one of one presenting your personal research. It may be easy to compare your work with others but it’ll be important to always acknowledge the effort you have put into your own work, and the impact it will have on the research community. You need to focus on your own personal growth and learn from everyone else. At university, exams almost felt like competitions. A PhD is no competition. You’re all there to learn from each other’s mistakes, building research and developing fields together.

Doing a PhD can be a really collaborative experience. Image Credit: University of Warwick.

There will be bad days

I have never talked to a PhD student who found their research “smooth sailing”. Unlike university, where exam questions are made to have an answer, I don’t think research is as simple. People are developing fields and research because currently there is no answer. I’m sure along my own journey there will be days where I’m stuck for ideas and not sure where to go or what path to take. As Kenneth Boulding, American Economist, once said “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”

I realise now that three years is a long time, I’m excited for the growth I am about to embark on, both personally and academically. I know it will be a challenge, but I am certain that it’s a challenge I’m ready for.

You may be starting your PhD this October at Warwick. PhD Life is a great place to start, reading experiences from fellow students on their research journeys, to top tips to get you started. Have a read of Pierre’s things I wish I’d known post or take a look at how Rupika found her first term when she started her PhD last year.

Are you starting a PhD this term? How are you feeling? Or are you a returning researcher? What advice can you give to our newest members of the PhD community? Let us know in the comments below, by tweeting us @researchex or by emailing us at

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