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Notes For New Research Students

The following is guidance I give to my new PhD students. While parts are specific to PhD study in the School of Computing Science at the University of Glasgow, much is broadly applicable to science PhDs in general in the UK. PhD regulations and funding are very different in other countries, however, and this advice may not apply outside the UK (in particular, a US PhD programme is structured very differently to a UK PhD).

Welcome to your PhD!

Congratulations on being accepted as a PhD student. The goals of your PhD studies are:

Don't be too ambitious. The contribution inherent in your thesis will likely be smaller than you initially think. You're solving a problem, not all the world's problems.

You have one essential deliverable: your PhD dissertation.

The deadline for submitting your dissertation is precisely four years after your start date. Your funding is likely for three-and-a-half years. Think early what this means.

To help you in conducting research and preparing your dissertation, we require you to submit annual progress reports. During your first year, you will conduct a literature survey, perform initial experiments, and plan the topic of your dissertation. Your first year progress report will describe this initial work and plan, and will be discussed in a progress viva held at the end of the year. Based on the outcome of this progress viva, you will either be permitted to complete your PhD study, or will be required to write-up for a Masters degree. Progress reports at the end of year 2 and 3 are less formal, and provide a way to give you feedback on your progress, and guide you toward completing your PhD.

The currency of science is research papers. You will read many of these, both in your initial literature survey and throughout your PhD. It is also highly desirable that you write and attempt to publish papers based on your work. Doing so is good practice in writing, and a good way of getting feedback on your work. Writing papers enhances your CV, and makes you visible to the community (including those who might offer you a job after you graduate). Finally, the papers you write during the course of your study will form the core of your dissertation, making the process of writing up your thesis much easier in the end.

By the time you complete your PhD you will be one of the leading experts on your chosen topic. Certainly you should know more about your specific topic than your supervisory team does. Our job is to help you get there: by suggesting topics to consider, relevant papers to read and techniques to try, by helping you learn how to do research, how to write up your results for publication, and how to be an effective member of the research community. We'll give advice and guidance in your studies, but ultimately the responsibility for finding a topic, and completing your dissertation, is yours.

Practicalities

You'll have a main supervisor and a secondary supervisor. Your main supervisor has primary responsibility for helping you complete your PhD. Your secondary supervisor is there to provide an alternative perspective on your work, and as a backup in case your primary supervisor is unavailable. If I'm your main supervisor, we'll schedule a regular one hour meeting slot each week. If you want me to read anything for this meeting, please send it to me at least 24 hours in advance. If you need to talk with me at other times, come knock on my door. If you need to cancel or reschedule a meeting, please let me know in advance. How often you meet with your secondary supervisor is for you to decide: some students meet their second supervisor regularly, others very infrequently.

You will be given a desk in a shared office, filing space, a computer, and keys to access the building, common room, etc. Use them. Make the space your own. Treat it like a 9-5 job. This doesn't mean you need to be in the office at 9:00am every day, or that you'll leave at 5:00pm every day, however you should treat PhD study in the same way you'd treat any other professional job. There is flexibility, but you do need to work core office hours, and should be putting in something like a regular 40-hour working week. This is the start of your career as a researcher, so treat it as such. Take holidays. The University gives you vacation time as a PhD student. Use it. Try to have some work-life balance. If you are ill, or have other problems affecting your work, let us know.

If you need more resources, ask your supervisor. There is likely a budget for travel, consumables, computing resources, storage, access to special equipment, etc.

Go to all of the talks and events organised by your research group. Pay attention to other things happening in the University, including talks and events in other research groups in Computing Science and elsewhere. Don't get stuck in a rut, too narrowly focused on your research to see the broader picture.

You will be offered the opportunity to help with teaching, as an undergraduate tutor or demonstrator (or, in rare cases, as a lecturer). This is good experience, and I recommend you take such opportunities, provided you are paid for the time you spend. However, be careful to ensure that teaching does not take too much time away from your research.

You may be offered the opportunity to do internships in industry. Due to the nature of the University regulations, these cannot directly relate to your PhD topic, but they are a valuable way of getting experience in related areas. I strongly support students taking paid internships that help their growth as a researcher. Since an internship does not directly relate to your PhD work, it is usually possible to extend your four-year submission deadline by the duration of an internship.

Opinions expressed are my own, and do not represent those of my employers or the organisations that fund my research.