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The importance of the first year

In this article we explain why the first year of the PhD is a crucial one and what is important that the supervisor pays particular attention to.
PhD student at the start of mountain trail
© University of Groningen

You have now selected the best possible student and you are off to start on this journey of discovery with your PhD candidate. How do you make sure that you are off to a good start? What is important for you to focus on in the first meetings and in the first months of this journey? The importance of the first year for the PhD candidate and the supervisor cannot be stressed enough.

During the first few months, like a climber adjusting to the climate and surrounding terrains, the PhD students will get adjusted to their new role, to working within a new research group and within the context of the graduate school they have become part of, possibly even in a new country or a new town. In addition, during the first 3-6 months, both the supervisor and the student will need to assess and confirm that the student displays the learning capacity to develop the competences and skills needed to carry out the whole trajectory.

In the second week of this course you will learn how to make sure that you build from the very beginning a relationship of trust and support with the PhD candidate. In the following steps we will look at the important moments in the timeline of the first year. Whether you will be closely collaborating with the student or not, it is in fact important that you plan and schedule evaluation moments from the beginning.

Below you can find a timeline that we at the University of Groningen recommend to our PhD supervisors to adhere to in the first months:

  1. A few weeks before the PhD starts we recommend that you meet with all the co-supervisors to agree on important aspects of the project. These are related to the content of the research, the division of the roles, on how you want to work together, to name a few. This is the time to use the form we have introduced in the step about expectations.
  2. In the first week of the start of the PhD you should schedule a kick-off meeting together with the student and the co-supervisor(s). This is a time to start to get to know each other, so we recommend that you schedule enough time, and maybe add extra time for a coffee or a lunch together. You can start finding out about their situation, their preferences, their background, their strengths and weaknesses, their working style. It is also a good moment to give the PhD candidate an overview of the context where they will work, and possibly give them access to systems, facilities or rooms. You can start defining an approximate timeline of the project and discussing goals for the first year, both in terms of learning and of output. It is also a good moment to start discussing mutual expectations and how you want to work together. (You will learn more about how to set goals and expectations with the PhD candidate in the second week of this course).
  3. About three months after the start of the trajectory, we recommend that you have the first informal evaluation to look at the progress made, assess the collaboration, and possibly reconsider the goals that were initially set.
  4. At the University of Groningen, after 6 months we have a “progress interview.” This is a formal step to evaluate whether the expected progress was made, and what adjustments are needed to make sure that the PhD candidate is set on the right path.
  5. The 9 month go/no-go meeting is a very crucial formal evaluation moment. By then, if goals-setting, guidance and monitoring was well done, both the student and the supervisor(s) will know if enough progress was made, and if there is a good chance that the PhD trajectory will be a successful one. If this is not the case, it is much better, both for the PhD candidate and for the supervisor, that the trajectory is interrupted within the first year.

This is the timeline used by the University of Groningen. How do you structure the first year of the PhD at your organisation? Please share your experience with the other learners.

© University of Groningen
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Successful PhD Supervision: A Shared Journey

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