Advice from Future Dave (David Cann)

David Cann out in the field - literally. Photo by James Hunt (@agronomeiste). 

Dear Orientation Dave,

I'm writing to you from February 2019 so congratulations! You've survived the first year of your PhD.

You can take "dying from excess caffeination" off your seemingly inexhaustible list of things to worry about this year. The great thing about a PhD is the time it affords you to make mistakes, then mop up after yourself and try again. The key to not burning out is reflecting on your experiences, celebrating your successes and tweaking your shortcomings.

So, with that in mind, here's a bit of advice from future Dave:

Don't forget your passport.

Learning to drive a 4WD, giving radio interviews, conversing with farmers who somehow managed to find my number, driving a truck and being invited to join a random country football team's end-of-year drinks – at first, all these things seemed like distractions from my magically-extending to-do list. But, the more time I spend talking with other researchers and mentors, the more I start to see it differently.

A PhD is like a plane ticket – a tool to get you from one place in your career to another. But the skills you develop, the connections you make, and the credibility you build during your PhD? They're your passport. If you really want to go places, a plane ticket isn't worth much without a passport.

Work up an appetite.

As an undergraduate student, sitting in lectures with hundreds of other students, it's easy to feel like a small fish in a very large pond. It doesn't take long to realise how different post-grad life is. La Trobe runs an incredible array of short courses, workshops, seminars and initiatives aimed at researchers early on in their careers. Topics can range from social media training to statistics help to funding advice to writing for a general audience. La Trobe, particularly through the Research Education and Development (RED) team, puts on an amazing all-you-can-learn buffet of opportunities. Your first year is the perfect time to take a bite.

Tend to your garden.

At the one-year mark of your PhD, you're required to submit a "substantial piece of writing", which will be the first flower to emerge in the eventually rich and fruitful garden of your thesis. You can probably get that flower blooming in the 6-8 weeks before confirmation by showering it with attention like a climate change-fuelled summer storm dumping nine months’ worth of rain in 24 hours. You’ll get the writing done, but it will be a frenzied, forced product and, chances are, you'll end up weeding it out of your final thesis.

Unless you specifically block out time every week to work on your thesis, I can guarantee you'll find yourself praying for a deluge in 10 months' time.

A far better idea is to tend to your thesis gradually, setting aside dedicated writing time starting now. Check out things like La Trobe's Shut up and write (weekly community writing groups) or Melbourne Write Up (weekly, full-day writing retreat).

Instead of just jumping through hoops to meet your confirmation requirements, you'll find yourself reaping useful, potentially publishable pieces of writing from your garden.

No-one should say, "We should split up". 

A friend once told me that a PhD "sounds like a horror movie". I guess if you combined the isolation of The Shining with the fanaticism of Misery and the sleep deprivation of Nightmare on Elm St, you might get an outsider's view of the PhD experience. That's how it seems to get represented sometimes!

My first year, in contrast, has been rewarding, fun and - for the most part - free from human sacrifice. There is one horror movie trap I have seen others fall into, however, and that's saying, "we should split up".

You'll never make it to the closing credits of your degree without support. Your supervisor should be your biggest cheerleader, trusting you to follow your own interests and using their experience to guide you forward. You'll also have lab mates or office buddies – ask them for advice, share stories, celebrate their progress and they'll celebrate yours. La Trobe has a whole office of people with the knowledge and the tools to help you survive the zombie apocalypse next few years.

Finally, there is a whole online community of people like you - just type #PhD or #PhDChat into Twitter and you'll be amazed at the number of researchers willing to share advice and support, 24/7.

Don't let your boulder crush you!

Unfortunately, not every day feels like progress. Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus, who was condemned to an eternity of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom. If you try to fight those days by working harder and longer, your boulder is more likely to crush you than make it to the top of the hill.

Sometimes, just making it to uni is an accomplishment – so treat it like one. Break your goals into smaller pieces, go away for the weekend, write 'done' lists instead of 'to-do' lists, share your struggles with your supervisors and friendly colleagues. Maybe Sisyphus could have gotten the boulder up the hill if he'd just asked for help.

A PhD is hard work, but it's not supposed to be all-consuming. Being unable to switch your brain off, trouble sleeping, negative impacts on your relationship or a sense of dread about university are not "just part of a PhD". If you find yourself at any of these points, make use of La Trobe’s student Health and Wellbeing services and resources, or talk to your own GP.

I feel that by ending on such a serious note, you're probably tempted to press the "Eject" button already. Don't do it! I’m only one year into my PhD, but it's already been one of the most fascinating and rewarding journeys I've made.

Orientation Dave, you're in for an awesome year – make the most of it!

Good luck!

Confirmation Dave


David Cann is a second-year PhD student in the Crop Agronomy Group at La Trobe University. His research focuses on breeding winter wheat varieties for low-rainfall zones, helping crop farmers in southern Australia adapt to changing climate conditions. 

He is interested in farm management, sustainable agriculture and global food security. 

David is an avid traveller and has a Diploma of Languages in Italian. He tweets from @the_ag_lab.