The scientific method naturally includes the so-called “trial and error” approach. And you can think of your PhD experience in the same way. My PhD experience is a long story, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Therefore, I’ll share some of my trials and errors in earning a PhD to help you avoid the problems I faced.
My Trials and Errors in Earning a PhD
Choose Your Lab Carefully
First and most important: pay enough attention to the choice of the lab. That choice is a key element of success. An uninformed choice makes your PhD life much more complex. Choosing a lab is so important that I dedicated a separate article to this topic.
Accept Failure and Move On
Second: if you fail, fail fast. If you feel something is wrong, discuss it quickly and directly with your boss.
If it is a relations problem, don’t feel sorry for anyone and don’t feel embarrassed. Get some advice on your situation from someone on the outside—and take their advice. Solve your problems quickly and then move on. Don’t let things fester and waste your time.
If it is a problem with your research, then be proactive. Don’t wait for months to receive/purchase necessary equipment or to get approval for your research plan. Results are critical for your defense and publishing. By the way, every boss wants results too. So tell him/her early, “There is a problem. I have no results. Let’s fix it so we can get some data.”
Don’t Go Off on Your Own
The last example of inefficient behavior is working too independently, without substantial advice from a scientific advisor. Imagine choosing a lab where you could do anything without supervision. It’s not as idyllic as it seems. If you have a chance to do so at the postgrad level: don’t. Too much freedom of choice leads to lots of mistakes, and failing too much leads to depression. Your professor’s experience is priceless. He/she has the effective solutions for many different types of problems.
What Worked for Me
However, it wasn’t all trial and error while earning a PhD. Many of my decisions were effective.
First is collaboration. I’ve contacted many different people, developed possible joint projects, and offered to collaborate. The results are not always good, but if you involve other people in your project, you will gain feedback and learn how to cooperate. If it is successful, you gain the chance to be a coauthor of a joint work.
Don’t be afraid to travel to another lab. This is a collaboration on another level. When you work in different lab, you learn a lot about the working culture in other labs, get unique data, and experience publishing with another group of people. I actually found a productive lab outside of my home country and performed a part of my project there.
Your education doesn’t stop once you begin research in the lab. Any additional training in your field of interest is always inspiring. Training may take a lot of time and effort, but you won’t be sorry about the time spent in university, right? So, find some interesting courses nearby or online and keep learning.
Invest your Time in Useful Activities
What activities really pay off? From the start of your PhD you should:
- Read a lot
- Learn critical skills and essential methods
- Do the experiments and get results
- Learn how to write better and use that knowledge to write papers
- Learn the stages of the publishing process and applying for grant applications
- Apply for grants. Even if your application isn’t successful, you gain invaluable knowledge.
The most important part of the trial and error approach is learning from your mistakes. Taking the correct attitude towards your errors is a very important skill to develop while earning a PhD. Errors are normal, some are unavoidable, and you will learn from them. Try again and repeat until you are successful.