A PhD in science can be a stressful experience. In particular, the first year. You’re thrown in at the deep end, no one’s holding your hand now kiddo. Well, fear not, as I’m about to share with you some tips and tricks that will help you in your journey. Here are 10 things I wish I knew when I started my PhD.
- Plan your experiments carefully. This may seem rather obvious, but it’s easy to rush into a new experiment without including that one control / condition you needed. Trust me, I’ve had to repeat many time-consuming experiments in my first year due to this. To avoid this, always draw up diagrams and timelines of your experiments (Scinote is useful for this). Then, bring this to your lab meeting for feedback before you begin. Your colleagues will likely spot anything you’ve missed or maybe a different approach that will simplify your experiment. Key message – communicate with your group.
- Get organised. One of the most important skills you’ll need to succeed in the lab is good time management. This is crucial for maximising the work you can complete each day. Experiments often have “incubation periods”. These can last from 5 minutes to 2 hours or even longer. This time is usually wasted checking up on emails or social media. However these periods are incredibly valuable to those who wish to be more efficient. Try using these gaps to make progress on other experiments (see below).
- That guy’s an imposter! “Imposter syndrome” is a psychological pattern in which people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. When I started my PhD, I had a similar problem. Despite how much work I’d done, I felt like I knew nothing. The solution to this problem leads us nicely to the next point.
- Those who think they can’t do, should teach. You never really appreciate how capable you are in the lab until you watch an undergraduate student try to hold a pipette. Teaching will increase your self-confidence, as well as strengthen your existing knowledge. By teaching undergrads and masters students, I quickly realised how capable I was in the lab. Check if there are teaching opportunities within your PhD programme.
- Look before you leap. Set time aside to become familiar with the techniques you’ll be using in your experiments. Say you’re running experiment “1”, during this experiment you’ll be collecting samples “a”, “b”, and “c” to be used in the analysis techniques “A”, “B”, and “C”. Now imagine you know how to perform the analysis technique “A”, but not “B” or “C”. Should you run your experiment, collect sample type “a”, and perform analysis technique “A”? If so, you will end up repeating this experiment again when you’ve mastered techniques “B” and “C”. My suggestion is to wait until you can perform all three techniques. Alternatively, you could simply learn how to collect all three sample types, then store them (if possible) until you’ve learned the other techniques.
- People are a resource. A quote straight from the walking dead, but equally applicable to a lab setting. This is linked to the previous point. When part of a lab group, one of the best resources available to you are your colleagues. Both in terms of manpower (see my post on Quartzy), and expertise. Remember, any post-docs, lab techs or even senior PhD students in your lab have a wealth of knowledge to share. In my experience I’ve found that as long as you ask politely, they’ll be happy to teach you new techniques or have a look over your experiment setup. Just remember to return the favour in a few years when a new student comes to you for help.
- Team work makes the dream work. As well as being able to provide expertise and feedback to you, your colleagues are also a great source of manpower. Think of your lab like the Avengers. Started an experiment but realised too late that you’re in over your head? Enlist the help of your fellow lab members. Using the example from before, you could collect samples “A”, “B”, and “C”, then give samples “B” and “C” to different colleagues who can carry out techniques “B” and “C” while you carry out technique “A”. This can help increase the efficiency of your lab as well as reducing the workload of your experiment. WARNING: This is not a substitute for learning how to perform particular techniques yourself.
- The Student – Supervisor relationship. Something to be clear on from the beginning, your supervisor is NOT your boss. Their job is to supervise, not to command. Although they will be full of useful advice, it is up to you to separate their unrealistic ideas from the more feasible ones. Your supervisor should be like a mentor, offering you feedback regularly. Bringing me to my next point, NEVER avoid your supervisor. During your PhD the only kind of regular feedback you’ll get comes from this person. Without feedback, you may struggle to monitor your progress.
- Ah the sweet smell of failure. This is guaranteed for any PhD student. Get ready to fail, again and again, day in, day out. You’ll run an experiment for 9 days then on the last day you’ll make a mistake and have to start all over again. Then you’ll restart the next week and on day 7 someone else will make a seemingly unrelated mistake that will cause your experiment to fail. If you can’t deal with failure, you will struggle throughout your PhD. My rule for this is, never make the same mistake twice. To help me with this, I keep a notebook by my desk titled “The Book of Mistakes”. Each time an experiment fails, I write down a description of the failure including what caused it. This way I am always learning from my mistakes, in particular, how to avoid them next time.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently” – Henry Ford
- General Tips. Keeping things organised is important in the office as well as in the lab. Keep your data organised in a logical manner on your laptop. If your like me and you read all your papers digitally instead of printing them, download Mendeley. Mendeley is a handy programme that helps you to organise your papers as well as annotate them. It even has a plugin for chrome and word to enable auto-referencing for when you’re writing. Last but not least, make sure you back up all your raw data to a hard drive regularly.