Advice and tips from current PhDs

A PhD takes time (3-4 years in fact, and even longer in the States!) but during our first year, we sometimes forget this!

For me, when I look back, I realise that first year was the year of learning- understanding new techniques and concepts, getting a grip with the new lab equipment, and doing a lot of reading, but at the time I know I stressed about not having data, and where my project was going.

In this post I wanted to give some advice for those just starting their PhD, or a few months into their first year – and who better to give advice to first years than other first years?

Here are some of the tips you wanted to share with your fellow first year compatriots.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask other people in your lab group for advice! They’ve done all the troubleshooting

As a fourth year, I agree so much with this!! We are here for you- it actually helps us too, to have to explain a technique and show someone what we are doing. 

  • Write down everything!

Yes! everyone gives this advice to new PhDs- because it is so important! I curse my first (and tbh second year self) now when I look back at some of my early experiment notes.

  • Time Reading counts as time working. To those applying: Expect to spend more time reading than you currently expect.

It can be a shock to those new to the PhD that reading takes up so much of your time. 1st year in particular requires a lot of reading, but it is so important to do.

  • Take time to chill.

You do a PhD, the PhD isn’t your life. You need time for you too.

  • Don’t stress if you don’t have the results you wanted in the first attempts.- and be aware that you will probably have to redo parts of the experiment. 

I had not appreciated the number of times you sometimes have to repeat experiments because they just didn’t work. You will become a pro at troubleshooting!

  • Learn how to do statistics by yourself as soon as possible!

I will also add: never underestimate how long it will take to do the statistics! If your institute is running statistics courses take advantage, even if you don’t need the statistics knowledge at the moment. If you are doing a science PhD, you will need to do statistics sooner or later.

  • Develop a habit of writing. It doesn’t have to be a set number of words at this point.

This will really help when you come to write up your thesis! In my PhD I had to write regular literature reviews and reports, and although I complained about them at the time, I am glad I took the time to improve my writing skills.

  • Keep plucking away at work, but chill out. You don’t need to stress yourself about results from day 1.

Results- again, this may not be true for everyone, but a lot of PhDs do not get results (or usable data) in their first year. I didn’t get any until the end of the third year! There is a reason that PhDs take 3-4 years!!

  • Don’t be afraid to reproduce published results. It takes a longer than expected amount of time, but teaches you tricks that weren’t explicitly discussed in the paper.

So true! Papers normally state the minimum details about methods, and if the technique is new to you it could be good to run a test where you know what the expected outcome is!

Thank you so much to everyone who gave me their top tips via twitter for this article. I hope hearing these tips from other first years is helpful! Please comment on here, or twitter with any of the tips you would also give to others 🙂

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