15 things all PhDs should know

At the beginning of my second year I wrote the post “11 things every new PhD student should know” for the John Innes centre student voice blog. Now, as I get ready to enter my final year I wanted to update my tips!

1.) Don’t be afraid to ask questionsand ask for help

I have seen too many people do things wrong because they haven’t asked questions! It is good to show independence, however, it is better to ask a quick question than to redo a whole experiment.

When someone is showing you how to use equipment or do an experiment have a notebook with you. Write down all the important information, and ask questions as they explain so you fully understand. I find that writing the protocol up afterwards also helps you to retain the information. Most people are more than happy to shadow you as you do a new protocol, or use a new piece of equipment for the first time.

2.) Write down everything- and organise it!

I seem to write this in all my posts- but it really is important. I have finally found a method which works for me: I type up and plan experimental protocols ahead of time, and then print them out. I take the printout to the lab and annotate it as I go. Afterwards, I paste the print out into my lab book, and add any additional notes. Your method may be different- find one that works for you and stick to it!

There is no point however, in writing it all down, if you then can’t find where you wrote it! So, spend time adding a index and page numbers to your lab book. Highlight the important things so you can easily find it on a page. I also find sticky tabs useful for quickly finding important info.

Index page 1: experimental protocols list

3.) Label everything- and label it well

For me the most important things to put in a label are: What it is (RNA/DNA…), Experimental number (if it has one), and the Date (when you made it, or collected the sample). If it is going in storage with other labs, also add on your lab name or number.

If you are using a code system for labelling, remember to write down what it all means!

4.) Plan your day

For me, a paper diary works best as I can add things to it as I think of it. Bullet journals are great too- you can customise your diary how you want. I also like it as I can add in to-do lists and meeting notes alongside my diary so all my information is in one place. If you want a ready made paper-diary I would recommend one which is a day to a page or half a page- this just makes it easier to write in everything you want to do!

Half week spread of my Diary

and… don’t bite off more than you can chew!

ok so you could run those 3 experiments side by side..it means you will have to skip lunch, and run round the lab like a headless chicken though… Maybe it would be ok to just postpone one to the next day?

5.) Make time for yourself

I will be doing a post in the future about work-life balance (so keep tuned). Making time for yourself is really important. It can be easy for your project to completely absorb you, but only spending time in the lab, and being at home to sleep is not healthy. Try treating your lab day as a normal work day: work 9-6pm and fully switch yourself off when you get home. Some supervisors really don’t like students taking time off- but you have a right to some holiday. You can’t be working 24-7. I am sure a supervisor would prefer a happy student who takes holiday than a stressed out unhappy one.


6.) Take the time to get to know your lab- and others in your year.

You will be in the lab most of the time, but you will most likely be sharing the write-up room with other PhDs or postdocs. Most institutes also put on conferences, lecture series and coffee mornings- it can be hard to find time in a busy work day but it is good to socialise with others outside your lab. Not only do you get to build your network, but you also get to talk to people ‘removed’ from your work, which is good for you! Having a good social network is important for everyone- especially PhDs.

7.) Get involved

Most institutes do Science communication and STEMM activities which are great to get involved in. If your institute doesn’t have something how about setting it up? It can be hard, but would be really worth it- try looking at Pint of science and soapbox science for more ideas!

Pint of Science 2016 in Norwich

8.) Try not to eat at your desk

Its good to get away from your desk for just half an hour!

9.) Just because you had a bad day today, doesn’t mean you will have a bad day tomorrow

Science goes wrong. It just does. A new day, and fresh eyes can make a world of difference.

10.) If you are having problems with your PhD speak to someone.

Don’t put it off- the sooner you can make changes the better. You should enjoy your PhD: if you aren’t, and its just making you stressed something is going wrong.

Mental health issues can affect many PhD students- it doesn’t come with the territory by any means, but the daily stresses of PhD life can exacerbate underlying problems. There is a lot more awareness surrounding mental health problems now- with plenty of information out there. If you find that you are struggling- don’t struggle in silence, talk to someone, and get some help. This can be incredibly hard to do, but once you do you can start to get better and enjoy what you are doing again. PhDs are hard, but incredibly enjoyable- and anxiety, or depression or other mental illnesses shouldn’t stop you doing what you want to do.

11. Don’t worry if you don’t have results by the end of first year… or second year.

Most people don’t actually start getting good data- useable data until the final year of the PhD. The first year is for coming up to speed- learning about the lab, understanding your project. Second year is to start the experiments, and the last year or two- to start getting some data.

Everyone worries about data- people like to show off how many results they already have- but if you still don’t have any don’t worry! I have only just started to get some in the last few months, and I am third year!

12. Make the most of conferences

Networking can be scary- but it is worth it. If you are nervous about just going up to someone and starting to talk science with them, start small. Try simply asking someone to explain their poster to you. The more times you do it, the less daunting it will be in the future.

Solgenomics Conference 2016

13. Use twitter

Before I started my PhD I rarely used twitter. Now I really do recommend anyone doing a PhD to get it- set up a work based twitter account, and tailor it for networking. You can do so much on twitter- communicate with others about conferences, find out about the latest SciComm event, find out about new papers and articles, and even find future job opportunities. There are so many lab groups, scientists, scicommers, research institutes and businesses on twitter you really could be missing out if you are not involved. Twitter can be daunting at first: if you are new to it have a look at this guide to twitter for scientists.

Some great hashtags to get you going are: #PhDlife #PhDchat #Scicomm #Sciencetwitter #PlantSci

14.) Actually put effort into the end of year report.

Writing end of year reports can seem like such a waste of time. But, these can actually be a lot more useful than you realise. They can organise all your notes- all you lab work- and literature that you have been collecting. It makes you realise what data you have, what you need to redo, and what you still need to do. It also keeps you in practise of writing up things scientifically and academically. None of it will go to waste- the methods for example can be used in your thesis write-up. So take time out to do a good job with your report- it will benefit you in the future.

15.) Enjoy!

PhDs are hard work, but they are also fun! Make the most of your time as a PhD student- it will be over faster than you think!

3 thoughts on “15 things all PhDs should know

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.