Twenty things I learnt or I wish I knew during my PhD

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s supervisor, employer, organisation, committee or any other group or individual.

By The Grey Wolf

There was another Nature article that talks about this. But I hope my own twenty things give some insights. I’m speaking as someone who has been through the process from start to finish and awaiting the conferral.

I generally do not believe in the concept of “right or wrong”, “should or shouldn’t”, etc. What “should” a good PhD student be able to do? After all, it is us humans who determined these rules. However, I’m applying for jobs and I realize there are some common “ideal” traits that employers are looking for when hiring post-doctorates. I’m also picking up some of those and putting them in this list, see if you can figure it out!

One: Take advice with consideration. Someone once said to me “You have to consider the advice you receive won’t work for you. Even this advice of me telling you this now may not work for you” which is very true. I’ve often received advice on things including lab technique, career planning, simple things like computer stuff – yes, some work but most of the time advice that people give is based on their experience and may not 100% work for you. Having said that, the advice my supervisor gives me usually works. Even this advice I’m telling you? Think about it.

Two: Teamwork. No one wants someone who talks bad about their colleagues behind their back. They want people who can work professionally in a team, contribute ideas, move things forward, be productive and achieve goals.

Three: Be very resilient. You will have issues – life gets in the way, experiments fail, you fall sick. No matter what, push through. Don’t have thoughts that will hamper progress. If you have issues, fix them as soon as you can. A PhD is tough and the toughest factor for me is the fact I have to work harder than most of the local PhD students because it’s generally harder for us expats. Your journey is your own. Your drinking buddies cannot fix your problems. Another PhD student journey is different – simply because of the laboratory, the project, the supervisor, their life circumstances. You have to persist.

Four: Work hard and work smart. Work hard because hard work is necessary to get projects going. Work smart because ideas, experiments and plans will then go accordingly.

Five: Find not like-minded people, but people who can mentor you and whip you into shape. I surround myself with more senior PhD students – people I look up to. You need good PhD students and mentors for career development. I have people who taught me how to solve problems, how to plan, how to think, how to have good work ethics.

Six: Be aware of good politics but don’t be involved in it. Be a listener of stories. I’m maybe a confidant for some. Knowing things gives me a burden of knowledge at first – but now I see it as I know things to my advantage. Being careful not to choose sides, avoiding politics is key to success. Politics of all levels exists and you never want to hear them if possible, but if you do, stay out of it or it will bite you back.

Seven: Treat PhD like a job. It’s 9 am to 5 pm, you don’t have to work more. Be disciplined and professional, and aim high. Work hard and play hard later. Your supervisor is your supervisor, not your parent. The laboratory is sort of like a family, but not a family. You don’t want “family” affairs at work.

Eight: Supervisor relationship is important. Your supervisor is the most important aspect. Do your research before signing up for a lab. I have received complaints of other supervisors – which is a bad sign for the laboratory. Trust and honesty are very important. If your supervision is horrible, consider an intervention and maybe even quit your PhD. Remember to discuss goals and expectations as well.

Nine: Diversify your skills. I’d volunteer in a different laboratory to spend 3 hours each week to learn a different technique. Now, there is a demand for a variety of skills and I think in your PhD trainee period is ideal for that.

Ten: Networking is powerful. Professional networking is not the same as knowing the PhD student community at Friday happy hour. Professional networking involves high level conversations some would say. A Science Editor of a journal once said to a friend of mine “Don’t underestimate the connections you make”.

Eleven: Prepare for a storm. You cannot slack. Taking it easy once in a while is fine. But be prepared to have to have life responsibilities coming into play. Be prepared for experiments failing. Always have a fall back option or plans – even involving backup projects or a support group for when things go wrong so they can help you fix it.

Twelve: The thesis is story. Write up things that didn’t work and things that worked. You postulate ideas – not cure cancer. At the end of the day, how you write a thesis, is the same as how you want a good story to be told to you in person.

Thirteen: Don’t let your enthusiasm die. At the end of my PhD, a new group leader said to me “It’s nice to see a PhD student at the end of their PhD having this much enthusiasm” and I really appreciated that. I’ve been told by some PhD students I inspire them – even those that never saw me present still say I give them hope. I don’t really know why that is the case but I suppose passion and enthusiasm are key.

Fourteen: Publish or perish. Particularly true for me. I exaggerate a little saying that a local PhD student with no papers is still more employable than myself who has more papers – simply because the way things work here doesn’t favor international PhD students for employment. However, in other cases, publishing in general gets you further. Try to aim high, but also have a small project ready to publish and showcase your ability to do research. A publication is proof (to some extent), that you can have research output.

Fifteen: Work-life balance is a myth. An academic once said “We’re all busy, it’s a matter of making time” and I think it’s all about organization, time management priorities.

Sixteen: Don’t eat where you shit. Sorry for the language, but this was advice given to me from a friend who has been in the workforce for a while. If you’re confident enough to do it, do so. Just be aware it can work against you.

Seventeen: Accept and learn good values, reject all others. It’s important to learn good behavior. My supervisor tries his best to instill his values. I accept a lot of them. While I’m friendly with most people around me, there are “flagged” values that I cannot accept, but they also bring their share of valuable perspectives.

Eighteen: Be an occasional guardian angel, but be a noticeable good Samaritan at times. My guardian angel acts have not been noticed, but I do sometimes leave obvious trails. My value is that people should always be helpful and nurture each other in the laboratory team – if I ever run a laboratory, that is my foundation and I’d like people to spread that.

Nineteen: Failure is part of a PhD, learn to accept failure but take action for success. Too many PhD students accept failure and take it too personally. Failure is more common than we think. Success is rare. Don’t winch, don’t complain, maybe a little, but act on it. Don’t be a problem person, be a solution person. Life is full of too many problems; you don’t want a PhD to add on to that.

Twenty: A PhD happens in these stages, and if you’re not experiencing them, you’re derailed. Early years – make all the mistake you want but make sure you learn from mistakes. Mid years – start to have a publication that will come to fruition in your PhD. Go to conferences to network and develop a sense for how science works. Final years – hopefully you’ve acquired all the technical and professional skills that a post-doctorate would have (stuff you see in a job ad), for that is a sign of a successful PhD student.

Bonus: Enjoy it! It should never be a reason to break you. If it does, consider quitting. If you enjoy it, then just happily go on.

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