Reflections of a PhD student: Two months in

As November came and went, Warwick alumni Emily reached two months into her PhD at the Institute of Cancer Research. See how she is getting on and read her reflections of life after undergraduate study.  

By Emily Alger

Last month I wrote a blog about my initial experiences as a Statistics PhD student at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR). Now in November, two months in, here’s my second edition.

Time goes by but I don’t achieve very much

A row of trees with red and orange leaves. There are lots of leaves on the floor and a small pond in the background.
As Autumn turns to Winter, read how Emily is getting on with her PhD. Image: Ivy Zhuo.

 It feels so normal now to be studying for my PhD, I find it hard to believe I have only been at the ICR for two months. At the same time, weeks go by, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have achieved very much.

My day-to-day currently consists of replying to emails, following up on tasks, and research. Research is varied and it isn’t necessarily as fast-paced as you might expect. Even if you’re in a cutting-edge research group, getting the basics down can be slow and persistence is needed. It is comparable to teaching yourself a module at university. There’s theory and application which could easily be made into a set of lecture notes but unfortunately there is no module leader there to guide you. My time is currently spent reading, coding simulations within R and writing literature reviews.  There can be a lot on your plate and there are no longer any university deadlines or assignments to keep you motivated.

Even if you’re in a cutting-edge research group, getting the basics down can be slow and persistence is needed

A fountain pen resting on an open notebook. 'Notes' is written on the top of the page and there are a pair of glasses in the background.

Though there are no grades or marks to receive, the work you do during your PhD is down to you. It defines your success. I like to assign tasks for each day, so I can arrive at my desk in the morning with a fresh to-do list. I also follow a technique I learnt about whilst writing an article for the Study Blog on procrastination – eat the elephant beetle! Do the worst task in the morning and it’s off your desk. You can focus on the nicer (maybe easier!) tasks in the afternoon when your energy might start to wane.

Create your path Even though a PhD is a big step in forming your career, it is a lot more open ended than you may think. Conferences, placements, and trainings can all define your PhD journey and they’re something to think about. Supervisors are amazing role models and supporters, but they can only help you so much. Whilst you are studying and researching, find out what interests you and be open with them. A supervisor can only provide you with so many opportunities, they are busy people and have a lot on their mind. I would really recommend sharing new research and opportunities you are excited about with them. Not only does it make for a happy PhD student, but it will also enrich your research and allow you to focus on the work you are really passionate about.

I like to assign tasks for each day, so I can arrive at my desk in the morning with a fresh to-do list

A girl in a blue dress and graduation robes throwing a mortarboard in the air. She is standing in front of the Koan.

I have found that recently, as my PhD has settled, I am in less contact with my supervisor. Sometimes it can feel like I have a lot of time on my hands with no obvious supervisor guided direction. That’s the time to take initiative – curate your path. Don’t be scared to follow the routes you’re particularly passionate about and do something off-the-cuff. Present your work to your supervisor and see what they think. It may not be a direction they had not previously considered, or an area they didn’t even knew you were interested in! If you’re right at the start of your PhD, this is the time to grab your chance and steer the ship where you want it to go!

Just like October, I will be asking myself the same three questions each month to see how I have been getting on.

How are you feeling about your PhD?

I can see a path forming for the structure of my PhD. Three years feels like a long time, but I can see a path I am really excited for! It still feels like early days but I’m feeling more settled into the PhD rhythm.

How are you settling into your new home?

I still miss my university set-up. I haven’t transitioned into my new life as fast as I expected. Now the focus is on making new friends and continuing to put effort into my relationships from university.

What do you want to improve by next month?

By next month, I want to send off a placement application and start forming ideas behind the structure of my thesis. Projects still feel like a pipe dream but it’s time to start putting pen to paper and forming the outline of my research.

If you want to learn how to eat the elephant beetle and find out other procrastination busting techniques, then read Emily’s previous blog post on procrastination here. If you want to read more from our bloggers about their PhD experiences, then you can check out the Your Experiences section of the website.

How are you finding your PhD so far? Do you have any top tips for your fellow students, or do you have any questions you’d like answering? Tweet us @researchex, send us a message on Instagram @warwicklibrary or drop us an email at

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