Dedicated to “Absolute beginners”

Authors: Alexandra Lagorio and Albachiara Boffelli

With today’s article, we would like to inaugurate a new column dedicated to who is just starting in the world of research, perhaps starting a research fellowship (as often happens in Italy) or a PhD program.

We have tried to think about the best pieces of advice we have received (or would have liked to receive), the online resources that have helped us and the tools that have been most useful to us during our PhD journey.

We will talk about all of this about once a month in this column that we have decided to call “Absolute beginners”, after a great David Bowie song that you cannot miss (and if don’t know it, you can remedy here).

We would like to open the first column by telling you about our personal experience and giving you some very first (perhaps trivial) bits of advice that helped us take our first steps into the world of research.

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Alexandra’s perspective: When my experience with the PhD started in 2014, I didn’t have a clear idea of what exactly it was, what kind of effort is required and how I would get there. I had the same feeling as when you start a journey. I had spoken to many people who had experienced this (or were in the process of doing so) and got only positive feedback. Many of them also stressed how it was “a life experience” and an academic and work experience.

Before going any further, I can tell you that each person experiences a PhD differently, depending on their nature, the people they meet, the subject they choose, and the country in which they decide to undertake this experience. In Italy, the doctorate lasts three years. Usually, every year it is necessary to present a document summarising the activities carried out during the year and the research progress.

After deciding on the research field in which I would carry out my research during the PhD (urban logistics) the first steps I took, which were advised to me and which were fundamental for the development of the study in the following years were:

  • Improving my English: this may seem trivial, but despite years of study at school, learning to write scientific articles in English is not trivial at all. It is not enough just to read many articles, you need to do something more and start studying again a geared towards scientific writing.
  • Carrying out a systematic literature review: I know; the effort is enormous. Systematic literature reviews require rigour and time, but they are essential. The systematic literature review I carried out on urban logistics became a solid basis for my doctoral research by understanding the main research gaps and, consequently, the main research questions to be pursued in the following years. Also, reading all those papers gave me an idea and a specific culture regarding the topic I was investigating. And finally, the article I developed from it became my most cited paper!
  • Having a strategic plan: At the beginning of my PhD, I had set some intermediate goals with my supervisor to be achieved at the end of the first, second and third year. Then, independently, I first realize a Gantt chart of these activities. I tried to divide these objectives into smaller ones to always keep an eye on the progress of the work and understand when the work was slowing down or stalled on some issues that were perhaps more complex to understand or investigate. Of course, not everything went smoothly! I revised and changed the objectives and the Gantt two thousand times, and the thesis does not reflect the initial idea I had! But this is normal too. Research often leads to changing paths, giving more attention to topics initially thought to be marginal and neglecting others. But I am still convinced that having a plan can help, obviously without getting frustrated if you need to change it along the way!
Photo by William Fortunato on Pexels.com

Albachiara’s perspective: I was among the few lucky people that could enter the world of research gradually. First, I worked at the University of Bergamo for a year and a half as a research fellow, and I started the PhD path only after I have had the chance to try almost every experience connected to the academic career, such as writing a paper, presenting it to a conference, teaching and evaluating students, and collaborating with companies. Actually, you must know that I applied for the PhD even after just a few months but, unfortunately, I was not successful. But I didn’t give up, I applied again one year later and I entered the program with the highest score. Why am I telling you this? Because one of the most important lessons that the PhD taught me is to never give up and learn from mistakes. Something that, most likely, nobody tells you before to start a PhD program, is how much tough it is. The path challenges you at every possible level, and especially from the psychological point of view. You will need to be strong, but more importantly, to be humble and to recognize that you cannot achieve your goals by yourself. At the end of the PhD, most likely you will have had to start many collaborations and to build your own network. And here comes the second major hint, a successful PhD path requires to become collaboration-oriented, and this is even more important if you aim to pursue an academic career afterwards. Of course, the people to collaborate with need to be chosen carefully. Everyone has different selection criteria; it might be the impact factor of the other person (opportunistic), the knowledge and relevance s/he has in your field of research (smart), or the pleasure to work together (motivational). Personally, I usually follow the latter approach. And among others, the person (or people in case there are more than one) who needs to be most carefully selected is the supervisor, the person who will advise and help you throughout the process (and maybe this topic could be addressed in a dedicated article in the future).

Finally, the last advice we want to share with every “Absolute beginner” out there is to enjoy the path; it will be full of emotions, new exciting experiences, many learning opportunities and it will last less than you expected!

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