Five Lessons from My First Year as a PhD Student

Advice to keep in mind throughout your graduate school journey.


I started my PhD at the University of Alberta in the fall of 2020. Before returning to university, I worked full time as an occupational therapist at a hospital here in Edmonton. I still work at the hospital on a casual basis, and have done so throughout all waves of the pandemic.

Needless to say, it’s been quite the experience. Over the past year or so I’ve learnt a few things that might be useful to those of you who are just starting your graduate school journey!

Set a Daily Highlight

This is a strategy I learned and adapted from the book Make Time. Personally, I find massive to-do lists to be overwhelming. I don’t know where to start, and beat myself up if I don’t get enough done. With the "daily highlight" method, I write down the most important task I need to get done for my program every morning. Some of my daily highlights have included scheduling participant interviews, editing an abstract, and even writing this article!

After I identify my daily highlight, I then brain dump some of the other things I’d like to get done that day if I have the time. Typically, I wind up finishing at least some of the other items on my list. But sometimes I have a bad day and the daily highlight winds up being the only thing I get done. And that’s okay! I find that if I have achieved the most important task of the day, I am much more forgiving of myself when I need to take it easy the rest of the day.

Join a Writing Club

It’s likely that your faculty or department offers a writing club for graduate students. The idea behind this type of club is that graduate students meet for a set period of time to work on their individual writing projects. You announce what you are working on at the top of the meeting, then discuss how it went once the meeting ends. The project you work on can be as big as your thesis, or as small as a post on a discussion board. Often, I work on achieving my daily highlight during writing club.

Joining a writing club has a few key benefits. First, it means you have designated time set aside in your calendar to work on assignments. Finally, it can be a fantastic way to meet other people in your program! If you are nervous about participating in a designated social event, writing clubs are a low pressure way to get to know other students in your program. You can chat as much or as little as you like at the end of each meeting, it’s up to you!

Forgive Yourself for Zoom Mishaps

Trust me, they will happen. Calls are dropped, children appear, people are still on mute. These errors are a reality of working from home and they happen to everyone— your supervisor and professors included. The spot in my house with the best light and internet signal is not my desk—it’s my dog’s favourite couch. I can’t keep track of the number of times he has crashed one of my meetings. Everyone thinks it is adorable until he barks into the microphone. So don’t be too hard on yourself when something goes wrong!

Identify Your Version of Self Care

Enter "self care" into any search engine, and you’ll see that the term is everywhere these days. To be honest, sometimes it feels as if self care has just become another way for us to compare ourselves against others. While I have always loved the idea of being a person who meditates every morning, I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. Repeatedly trying to be that person and failing only makes me feel worse about myself. 


Self care is about taking time out of your day for what you need. So don’t worry if what you need looks different to others. For some, self care is watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, or going for a run. During the past year, what worked for me was reading fantasy and science fiction books. Those genres provided a blissful escape after a stressful day spent at the hospital or stuck at my desk. Although I did have to avoid all plague or pandemic related plots for a while!

When In Doubt, Walk It Out

This is a habit I picked up from work. During particularly hectic shifts, I try to go for a walk on my lunch break. Otherwise, I find that I spend my whole break ruminating about all the things I have to do in the afternoon. A walk with a podcast or playlist on blast gets me out of the office and, more importantly, out of my head. That way, I head into my afternoon work refreshed instead of demoralized.

Now, whenever I find myself in a major school rut, I change up my surroundings as soon as I can. Staring at a blank screen is not a fun feeling and the longer I do it, the grumpier I become. One of the benefits of being a graduate student is that your schedule is relatively flexible. Take advantage! Even on my busiest school days, I can usually afford to go for a ten minute walk. Just a short time away from your desk can do wonders for your mood.

While these things were key to my first year as a PhD student, always remember that no strategy will work for everyone. Figuring out what works for you takes time and a lot of trial and error. Read what works for others, try it out. If it doesn’t work for you, forgive yourself and move on. You’ll find your strategies, I promise! Sometimes it just takes time.



About Kathryn

Kathryn (she/her/hers) is in the first year of her doctoral program in Rehabilitation Science. She is a practicing occupational therapist, and works on a casual basis at an Edmonton area hospital. When not at her desk or at the hospital, Kathryn can be found cooing over her dog and checking out far too many books from the library.