What does one do in the first weeks of a PhD? 50 steps to on-boarding as a new PhD student

So, I was looking at my organiser the other day, and I noticed that I had quite a lot of tasks ticked off ever since the start of my PhD (which was officially on the 1st of October 2020). Some were admin, some were research; most were all about getting organised and establishing routines.

If we pretend for a moment that these tasks are numerical values, then I would liken the first two weeks of a PhD to a ‘normally distributed’ probability plot where tasks are distributed like so:

Mind you, this is the ‘normal distribution’ for a student starting their PhD in times of Covid-19. I am working away from campus which means that there is perhaps more organising to do than there might have been otherwise!

In the spirit of being organised, I will share my on-boarding experiences with you in the form of a numbered list of key things I did to ensure that I had everything I needed to start working! They’re even grouped by category!

50 steps to on-boarding as a new PhD student

Every job has some sort of on-boarding procedure. A PhD is a largely self-directed job, so it has a largely self-directed on-boarding procedure!

Here’s what I did over two and a half weeks to get settled:


  1. Chatted to previous and current PhD students and asked for general advice
  2. Caught up with my research group via platforms such as Teams and Slack
  3. Attended weekly research group meetings/weekly coffee chats
  4. Set up an academic Twitter and followed key people from my institution and my research domain, as well as dedicated Twitter accounts for PhD students
  5. Set up a blog and decided how often I want to blog, and what about
  6. Updated my email signature to reflect my newly minted PhD status
  7. Had my first weekly supervisions
  8. Set specific dates and agendas for future supervisions

Also, because I recently wrote an MScR dissertation which made an original contribution to knowledge and had a direct link to my PhD:

9. Discussed the policy impact of my work with Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and presented my work to the SDS PhD team

10. Wrote a document to articulate the link between my MScR and PhD and thought about how my findings can be implemented in my PhD going forward

Getting organised

  1. Bookmarked all key university resources
  2. As I’m working from home, I hid away distractions and made sure that extra steps are required to access non-work stuff!
  3. Re-read my MScR dissertation and wrote a summary of it for quick future reference
  4. Sifted through meeting notes and seminar notes from the past year
  5. Digitised and organised my notes so that I can easily access them by date and topic
  6. Decided on how I will back up my files so that I don’t lose them in case of a critical PC failure
  7. Downloaded all the reading lists and course content from my MScR degree for future reference
  8. Created an index of key contacts including IT helpdesk and library contacts
  9. Went through the induction checklist provided to me by my supervisors
  10. Installed SPSS and NVivo through Napier’s software downloads page
  11. Considered the merits of different reference managers; I use Zotero but I might switch to Mendeley or EndNote
  12. Signed up for upcoming induction events for PhD students
  13. Recorded all recurring and prospective events in my calendar to get a sense of how I want to structure my working hours – I am aiming for a 9-to-5, Monday to Friday working week!
  14. Sorted some journal articles and books that I had saved over the last year to read during the PhD
  15. Set up a file organisation system
  16. Set up a dedicated browser for research and installed apps for tab management and productivity. Cluster is great for grouping tabs and New Tab draft comes in handy for on-the-go note-taking.
  17. Thought about potential conference or publication outputs from my previous work
  18. Created a weekly schedule for when to check email and when to check social media – I’ve heard that they can eat up a lot of time if not kept in check!
  19. Made arrangements for getting tech equipment for my university office for whenever lockdown ends
  20. Caught up with emails from all of my email accounts and created folders for filing emails away


  1. Completed all matriculation steps and arranged for a student ID card to be posted to me
  2. Filled out an Annual Update proforma for Skills Development Scotland – this is a handy form that allows me to easily communicate my findings to SDS every year!
  3. Enquired about renewing my PVG (Protection of Vulnerable Groups) certificate so that I am prepared to do data collection
  4. Scoped out professional associations and resources that are key to my work – some key online resources for me come from SDS, SGSSS, and the MyWorldofWork website
  5. Browsed Napier’s Covid-19 guidance pages
  6. Read Napier’s Research Degrees Framework, the Research degrees handbook, and familiarised myself with the formal deadlines and requirements for research degrees at Napier – I think it’s important to know what’s formally expected early on!
  7. Completed the ‘Introduction to IS induction’ Moodle module and downloaded the Napier app


  1. Read my research group’s outputs and caught up with their blogs
  2. Caught up with conference recordings from the EASST/4S conference
  3. Read PhD theses from my research group that are relevant to my work
  4. Started working on a literature search strategy
  5. Chatted to my subject librarian about doing thorough literature searches and utilising all the advanced features of Napier’s LibrarySearch
  6. Downloaded the literature search templates available through LibGuides and made my own versions of them
  7. Read the full PhD proposal my supervisors had written when applying for my PhD bid
  8. Drew some mind maps of key concepts and ideas

Personal development

  1. Read some general PhD guidance from blogs and other sources (Simon Clark’s Youtube channel is a good source of wisdom, though nothing beats PhDComics!)
  2. Asked about teaching opportunities at my school
  3. Considered my options for taking on additional work
  4. Signed up for several upcoming events and identified conferences that I can submit my work to
  5. Checked what training is available through Napier and SGSSS in the immediate future

Tomorrow, I’ll be attending the ‘Evolving Education & Careers’ virtual careers conference hosted by dmh associates. Stay tuned for updates!

Image credit: The Scribble Workshop

My friend Slavi makes epic architectural sketches of Edinburgh; this one is of Kirkbrae House on Dean Bridge!

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