Tips on Starting Work in a New Field for Your PhD or Postdoc

Tips on Starting Work in a New Field for Your PhD or Postdoc

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Starting out a new role as a PhD student or postdoc will often be demanding and involve a steep learning curve. This is especially true if you have moved into a new discipline or field than you have worked in previously. With different approaches to research, learning and assessment than that which you have experienced before, it can take some effort to adjust to a new setting. Below are some tips to ease this transition to help you make the most of your postdoc in a new field.

Adjusting to classes and lectures

Moving to a new field can mean adjusting to not just new content, but also to new teaching styles. Some fields rely mostly on lectures, in which one presenter conveys information to a large class of students, while other fields make more use of seminars, in which a group of students discuss a topic together while lead by a teacher. If you are unused to certain teaching methods it can take some time to adapt, so it can help to identify your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning.

If you struggle to write coherent notes fast enough while listening to a lecture, consider asking if you can take an audio recording of the lecture. Often this can be done with a mobile phone, and lets you replay the lecture at your own rate for note-taking later. If you are inexperienced in class participation and find seminars intimidating, rather than focusing on voicing your own opinion you can start by asking questions of the other students and engaging with their responses. Find a way that you can retain information which works for you.

If you are the one leading a class or lecture, remember to check the styles and materials which your students have experienced previously, so that you can adapt your material to fit with their knowledge and abilities.

Assessment styles

In addition to differences in teaching styles, there will likely be differences in assessment styles between fields too. Find out if your work will be assessed through written examination, multiple choice examination, essay submission, project work, or oral presentation. Don't panic if you haven't experienced the assessment style before – all of these can be practised.

Lecturers will often provide you with example exam papers from previous years, which you can attempt to complete at home with a set timescale. For oral presentations, ask your friends to observe you presenting and give feedback – even if they are not knowledgeable in your field particularly, they can give important feedback on your pacing, speaking style, confidence, posture and so on. As for essays, the best plan when beginning in a new field is to give yourself as much time to write as possible. Find out the title of the essay and its due date as soon as you can, and start writing drafts immediately. You can adapt and update your essays as you learn more, and then draft, redraft, and draft again. This revision process will make your essay better, and also teach you how to write essays faster and more effectively for the next time.

Making use of the library

Once you've started work in your new field, your university library will be one of your most important resources. You'll need to learn extensive background information about your new field, and the best way to do this is with books and journal articles. Although books are not always the most up to date information (especially in fast-moving fields like the sciences) they can give you helpful overviews and introductions to topics. One you know the basics of a topic, you can make use of the library's journal access. You can probably access journal articles electronically, finding them through your library's website or through online search engines like Google Scholar or PubMed. Journal articles will help you to find the latest cutting-edges developments in your new field and to read more in depth into ongoing debates and disagreements between academics. Particularly helpful are special issues of journal which focus on one specific topic – not only do these issues collect related content, they also often include introductory texts by the editors which can be very helpful in understanding the big debates in your field which are new to you.

The challenges of a new field can be a great motivator for you to create new innovative ideas and to strengthen your skills across disciplines. Find out more about opportunities for PhD students and postdocs at INOMICS.