Letter from a PhD student to a first year | Physics


By Matt Lane, PhD Cross-disciplinary Approaches to Non-Equilibrium Systems, Department of Physics

The transition from college to university can be daunting, but now that you’re here at King’s your questions will be different from the ones you had during admissions. So I’m going to skip over advice about meeting new people, societies, and halls because you’ve heard all that before. Instead, I’m going to focus on being happy and successful at university, because the sooner you can get this right, the better. So here are the four biggest pieces of advice I wish I could give to my first-year self.

  1. Nobody expects you to know everything already.

You are at university to learn. This means that your professors do not expect you to know all the answers. Sometimes someone might say something like ‘and of course, you have already seen this’, or ‘and the proof is trivial’, or ‘I’m sure you did this in high school’. We are not trying to make you feel stupid, and if you let us know that, actually, you haven’t seen this before and it isn’t trivial, then we will probably re-evaluate our expectations and help you out. For a lot of us, it’s a long time since we were in your shoes, and we need a reminder every so often of what it’s like.

  1. You can’t work well if you’re too tired.

This seems obvious, and it is. At least, it’s obvious as long as you’re not the one who is tired. I have wasted hours of time trying to work when I’m too tired, and even simple tasks become difficult, but for whatever reason I just kept on working. This is both disheartening, unhealthy and unproductive. So don’t do it! Make sure that you prioritise good sleep hygiene, eat regular meals and are aware of your own body. Sometimes, you might need to make yourself stop, and it is as simple as that.

  1. Healthy routines shared by friends can be a lifeline.

If you find yourself working seven days a week, skipping meals, or studying into the night, then you have a problem with your routine. Organise with your friends a regular weekly meet-up and then commit to it. I go for Friday drinks after work with my PhD friends every week, and this helps me remember that it is okay not to be working all the time. I also believe that I am more productive for it!

  1. Just because there’s no exam, doesn’t mean it’s not assessed.

Lectures aren’t assessed, right? So I can just skip them. And that optional assignment isn’t assessed, so why bother? And that first first-year lab report. It’s worth almost nothing, so I won’t really try. WRONG. It may not be assessed now, but if you don’t work hard from the beginning then you will fail your exams. Take every opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them; don’t leave making these mistakes until your exams. If you want to graduate with a first, start working for it from day one.

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