Starting Strong: Advice for Your First Year in a Psychology Ph.D. Program

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to a Psychology Ph.D. program! This is not an easy feat. But now that you’ve been accepted and are preparing to begin your graduate school journey, what should you expect during your first year? If you are like me, you probably spent a decent amount of the summer thinking/worrying about how to get off to the best start possible in your graduate school career. Likely you will spend several years getting your Ph.D. (anywhere from 4-7 years is relatively common), but having a good first year can make things much easier on you down the road. Although every school has a different culture and every advisor has their own style and does things slightly differently, below are seven general pieces of advice for how to start strong in your Psychology Ph.D. program.


1.     Develop a strong social support system


As you have probably heard, completing a Psychology Ph.D. program can come with its fair share of stress. That said, you will be much better equipped to handle the stressors that come with graduate school if you have a solid social support system. Many Ph.D. students move across the country or across the world to attend graduate school, while others may just move across the state or not at all. Either way, you will help yourself out a lot in the long run if you can forge new friendships and social bonds early in graduate school.


Being in a Ph.D. program in and of itself is a relatively uncommon experience, but on top of that every single program is different. For that reason, having friends that are in your Ph.D. program with you can be incredibly helpful. Not only can these friendships be beneficial when you need help with something (e.g., working on coursework or needing advice regarding how to complete a program requirement), they can also be there for support when you are having a stressful time or need to vent. Your fellow Ph.D. students will be the ones who understand your experience the best, so having good friends in the program with you is a huge benefit. For that reason, I recommend trying to get to know your fellow Ph.D students early! You may get to know some of them through some of your required classes, but don’t be afraid to organize other events to get to know them!  Having the occasional game night or dinner together can be a great way to become better acquainted with some of the other students in your program, and hopefully can lead to lasting, meaningful friendships!


Alternatively, having friends and sources of social support outside academia is highly valuable as well!  If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your fellow graduate students, don’t connect well with them, or just want other people to hang out with that won’t remind you of the stressors of academia, I would recommend having friends who are not graduate students. Whichever you personally prefer, having some strong social support system (whether it is academic or non-academic) will be important for your time in graduate school.


2.     Start thinking about your research early


Your research will be a crucial aspect of any Psychology Ph.D. program that you enter. For that reason, it is important to start thinking about this early. This is certainly not to imply that you need to come into your program with a complete research idea already together! However, it will be very much to your advantage to start thinking about research questions early. Reading the literature, coming up with interesting/important research questions, and designing studies are not easy things to do, and they definitely take practice! The earlier in your first year that you can start thinking through these things, the better! 


Additionally, don’t forget that research can sometimes take a while!  If you work in an area of Psychology where your data will take a long time to collect, know that it is particularly important to get a good start here.  In some cases, the research that you get started in your first year won’t be completed and published until your 3rd, 4th, or even 5th year of your Ph.D. program! But don’t let this discourage you!  Just know that taking the time to come up with good research questions and beginning to design studies in your first year will get you off on the right foot for your graduate school career.


3.     Don’t worry too much about coursework


For many of you getting this advice as you enter a Ph.D. program, this may sound counter-intuitive (I know it did for me). As strange as this may sound, it is good advice for nearly any Psychology Ph.D. program that you may enter. As I described above, research is a crucial component of your graduate school success. Coursework, as a general rule, is a requirement that you will need to complete, but is not something that anyone will care about after you complete it (when you graduate, people are unlikely to ask to see your Ph.D. program transcripts, and if they do, they are unlikely to care if you got a B+ or an A- in each particular class). So, be sure to pass your classes and take advantage of the opportunity to learn new skills, but don’t spend endless hours studying for a statistics exam just to ensure that you can secure an A rather than an A-. Odds are that those hours would be better spent working on your research.


4.     Get to know multiple faculty members


In the majority of Psychology Ph.D. programs, you will enter with 1 primary faculty advisor- The person who you will be working with the most throughout your program. Some programs require that you have a formal “secondary” advisor- Another person that you meet/work with, but who does not have as much of a role in your graduate school career as your primary advisor. If your program does not require that you have a secondary advisor, you should seek out an unofficial secondary advisor anyways. This is for a few reasons:


Having a secondary advisor, even if you don’t begin conducting any research with them, will give you another opportunity to see how someone else thinks about your/others’ research. Ideally, you can attend your secondary advisor’s lab meetings to learn about new research, and to see new perspectives on research that you are already familiar with. You may also have opportunities to present your own research to this second lab meeting to get additional feedback. This is very valuable! Further, a secondary advisor can be another person for you to go to for advice. If your primary advisor is ever out of town for a conference or unreachable for other reasons, you can ask your secondary advisor for advice/help. Additionally, your primary advisor may not always know all of the answers to your questions, or may recommend seeking a second opinion on certain topics (they are human too!). In this event, you can go to your secondary advisor. If you are applying for funding opportunities (or eventually for jobs) many places will ask you for multiple letters of recommendation. In this case, having multiple faculty members at your university that know you well will be a big advantage.  Lastly, it is hard to predict early in graduate school where your research may take you!  It is possible that you may learn a lot about another area of research and develop an interest in that topic. If this occurs, your existing relationship with a secondary advisor may bode well for designing your own research study in another lab. Building a relationship with a secondary advisor early in graduate school will only leave more doors open for you as you continue through your program.


5.     Develop a healthy work-life balance


One tricky thing about graduate school is that your “work hours” are very open-ended. Nobody is going to clock your hours for each week- It is generally speaking up to you how much time you want to spend working (especially considering how easy it is to bring your work home with you). Therefore, it can be tricky to figure out how much time to spend on academic work- You don’t want to be perceived as a “slacker” or not get enough done to accomplish your goals when you graduate, but you also don’t want to spend all of your time working nonstop. In my experience, most graduate students have trouble with the latter. That is, they tend to spend too much time working and not give themselves enough time away from work. While it is easy to fall into this trap because there is always more work that you could be doing, don’t forget the importance of a healthy work-life balance!


Taking a healthy amount of time away from academic work is hugely beneficial for two main reasons: 1) It gives your brain a break, so you can ultimately come back to your work with fresh eyes and more energy, making you more efficient when you are working and 2) It allows you to be a happier, healthier person. Some of the best advice that I received in graduate school was to think about what I want my work-life balance to look like when I achieve my dream job.  Now, whatever that looks like, try to mirror that in your graduate school career. This is because it is so easy to fall into habits of working 50-60 hours per week. Then, when you ultimately become a professor (or whatever other career goal you may have), you may continue to do this same thing because it is what you are used to doing when you are working. Getting in the habit of working X number of hours per week and sticking to it helps you to get used to that style of work-life balance, but also to be able to work efficiently enough during those hours to get done what you need to.  From the time that I started graduate school, I have set the goal of working 40 hours per week. For the most part, I have been pretty successful at this. Of course, there are a few weeks here or there where I work more than that to hit a particular deadline, or get a certain amount of grading done. But for the majority of the weeks out of the year, I am able to limit my academic work to 40 hours, and I feel that much happier and more efficient for it!


6.     Put active effort toward time management


When you enter your Ph.D. program, you will quickly learn that there are a lot of different tasks to juggle at any given time. You may have your own coursework to take, a class to TA for, lab meetings to attend, research articles to read, your own research to get started, funding opportunities to apply for, and conferences to attend. Although this sounds like a lot to manage (and it is!), it is very do-able if you put the effort toward figuring out how best to manage your own time. With so many possible things to be working on at any given time, it can be overwhelming to figure out what to work on next. My recommendation is to try to come up with your own way of managing your time early on in graduate school. If you begin early on by trying to balance your time and figuring out what works best for you, this will make things much easier for you as more gets added to your plate throughout your program.


For time management, everyone tends to work differently. Some people like to have planners while others prefer to use google calendars. Some people prefer to create detailed to-do lists, while others prefer to use sticky-notes to keep track of upcoming tasks. Some people like to set goals at the beginning of each day for what they will accomplish for each project/task, while others prefer to set goals at the beginning of each month. There is no set right or wrong way to organize and manage your own time. However, I would recommend trying some of these out early in your Ph.D. program to figure out what works best for you. If you can come up with a good system for keeping track of your time and your tasks early on, you will be better equipped to handle new tasks as they come along.


7.     Don’t let imposter syndrome get you down


As you may or may not be aware, imposter syndrome is a common experience among Ph.D. students. Essentially, imposter syndrome involves doubting your own accomplishments and feeling as though you aren’t good enough to be where you are. Many Ph.D. students feel as though they don’t actually deserve to be in their Ph.D. program, and fear that someone will discover that they are inadequate. If you feel imposter syndrome during your first year of your Ph.D. program, first note that this is a very common experience. If you are feeling this way, odds are that many of your fellow graduate students may be feeling the same way, or may have felt that way in the past. Don’t be afraid to seek support from those around you. Your academic friends may be particularly likely to understand what you are feeling and to give you words of encouragement to help you get through it!


Further, be sure not to compare yourself to other graduate students in your program (particularly not the graduate students that are farther along in the program than you). Everyone is doing their own research and has their own independent goals, so making comparisons is not fair and not helpful. I distinctly remember in my first year of my Ph.D. program looking at the older graduate students and thinking “They are so smart!  They know everything!” and then feeling that I knew nothing and had nothing to contribute in comparison. This was a completely unfair comparison, and didn’t do me any favors. Of course the older graduate students knew a lot more than I did. They had much more experience than me! Ultimately it is in your best interest to understand that each graduate student is on their own independent research journey, and that making comparisons between yourself and others doesn’t do anyone any good. Be kind to yourself and remember this and to try talking to others if you start to feel imposter syndrome setting in!

Hopefully you find these tips helpful as you get started, and you can kick off the beginning of your Psychology Ph.D. program with a good start!