How to Be a Good PhD Student

Despite my best efforts I have not been able to find much published work on how to be a good PhD student. I’m not talking about the qualities of a PhD student – such as organisation or perseverance. I’m not talking about good PhD programs – such as planning, professional development and good supervisors. I’m talking about once you are in a program, what are the kinds of things you should do as a student to do well (i.e. complete your PhD) but also make life easy for your collaborators, colleagues and (of course) your supervisor.

So, this blog lists my views on being a good student.

Know why you’re doing your PhD

Knowing why you’re doing your PhD will help filter every other decision you make. From conferences to attend, to papers to write, to topic to focus on, to choosing a supervisor. If you’re doing a PhD “because” it’ll make every decision hard. Furthermore, when things get tough – and they will – knowing why you’re doing your PhD will help get you through. Don’t forget to write down your reason and refer back to it regularly (annually perhaps). You might find that your reason changes – that’s okay. Update your documentation. More importantly, recognise that a change in your reason might make you rethink your entire PhD. It may even bring everything into question. That’s okay.

Treat your PhD like a job

Yes, you finish with a qualification. Yes, you’re called a student. BUT the reality is you are actually a worker. You are an apprentice researcher, so treat your PhD as a job. That means turning up on time and completing a full-days’ work. Just because it could be flexible does not mean you need to treat it that way. Being at the lab, office, field or wherever else you might do you PhD during regular hours will help your collaborators, colleagues and supervisor connect with you. Connect in terms of understand your motivations, but also make contact with you. Regular informal discussions about research are known to have a massive impact on progress – the corridor conversation as it were. Discussing your work and explaining it to others helps improve your understanding of the work, not to mention your ability to communicate it. If all of your interactions with other students, collaborators, colleagues, and your supervisor are planned – because you always work from home and every interaction is booked as a calendar invite – it is almost impossible to develop these skills.

Beyond serendipitous interactions of being in the lab, office or field regularly, this approach (a routine) is known to have a positive impact on your psychology1. Casual approaches lead to a casual mindset. Furthermore, having a routine in your PhD gets you into habits and routines that help you make progress. Finally, routines set you up for future employment, where being at work 9 – 5 Monday to Friday (or similar) is deemed essential, not optional.

Treating your PhD like a job will help

build routine, make progress and

prepare you for life beyond your PhD.

For a good indication of what “treat it like a job” looks like, pay attention to what the research assistants and technicians are doing. They’ll be present during set hours, attending and participating in seminars and journal clubs and planning their days, weeks, and months to ensure they make progress. You should aim to do the same.

Respect your time and the time of others

Everyone’s time – including yours – is important. It is one thing to have a corridor conversation. It is another to bail someone up for several hours about your work at the expense of theirs. So, if it is an impromptu discussion, but it will take some time, be clear about that up front. Be open to scheduling a meeting. And then make sure you are ready and prepared for that meeting. Indeed, for any meeting make sure you are prepared. That does not mean you must have results or data to show. But it does mean you need to be able to talk about what has happened since the last meeting, put forward potential next steps and discuss how or where you could improve. If you’re struggling in your PhD and not getting work done, still meet with your supervisor. Let them know how or why you’re finding things hard. Not giving them these kinds of updates is wasting their time, and yours!

Beyond meetings, respecting your time and the time of others also includes to the work you commit to doing. That could be research work, but it might also be extra curricula. For example, it could be student committees or event management. If you fall behind in those things, let your colleagues know ASAP. That way they can take remedial action sooner.

Listen to your supervisor

Your supervisor will have good advice– follow it! That does not mean all advice will be perfect. But blatantly ignoring advice is a recipe for a poor relationship. If you’re going to disagree, know why and what you’ll do instead. If they ask you to read a paper, read it. If they suggest an alternate approach, look into it. And don’t wait until the day before your next meeting. Do it soon. That way if you disagree you have time to convince your supervisor that you should change your approach. Rather than wasting a month (or longer) until your next meeting.

Keep good notes

Supervisors are notorious for losing track of what they have told their various students, and staff. So, it will be up to you to keep good notes and communicate them with your supervisor. I suggest a small number of dot points that are sent as an email after your meeting(s). Including any corridor conversations. It’ll make sure you can articulate their advice to you, as well as make clear what you’ll be doing next. It’ll also give you a chance to reprioritise activities. Without a doubt you’ll have more to do in a week/month/year than you possibly can. Agreeing the prioritisation with your supervisor will be important. Of course, as a researcher keeping good notes is more about your experiments than meetings. An out-of-date lab book is a pain for you, your supervisor and your university to manage. So keep good notes and keep them up-to-date. Good notes are not necessarily detailed. They are accurate and have enough information to know how, why and what you are doing. And they allow you to communicate the same information to others so that they could reproduce your work, decision making or thinking processes. If you’re not sure how to keep good notes – google is your friend.


Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He is passionate about PhD training and students getting the most out of an experience often designed with the supervisor in mind. Richard has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how make the most of a PhD.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to the newsletter. He’s on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).


1The secrete benefit of routines. It won’t surprise you. Headspace.com, https://www.headspace.com/blog/2016/08/22/the-secret-benefit-of-routines-it-wont-surprise-you/, accessed 01 July 2019.