I recently had my PhD viva (that’s a thesis defense, to those of you in the US, and it was successful – yay!), and one of the questions my examiners brought up was: “if you could go back and do things differently, what would they be?”. Obviously they were thinking more about what different reagents, materials and methods I would have used, but my first response was: “well, I would have told myself to chill out a bit more!” (yes, I said this in my viva, and I still passed!).
After answering the question properly, and in the hungover haze I found myself in the next morning, I thought back to that question, and reminisced a bit on my lab days and what I’d do then, knowing what I do now. Here are ten things I would go back in time and tell myself:
- Chill out! One of the most difficult parts of my PhD was when an experiment went wrong. Cue the anxiety attacks, tears, thoughts of inevitable failure etc. While I’m glad I did experience all of that stress at times (I deal with stressful situations a heck of a lot better now), it really wasn’t necessary. Not every experiment is going to work 100% perfectly, 100% of the time. That’s part of science, and your colleagues and examiners understand that. Even negative results are still results – don’t panic.
- Experiments are only half of what you need to know. While you have spent years compiling blots and histograms and gels and colony counts and a plethora of data, it’s useless if you can’t put your work into context within the scientific community. Read what others have accomplished in your field and around your subject. And don’t limit yourself to papers and symposia. Even a good, well-produced television documentary can point you in the right direction.
- Think about your controls. It’s all well and good getting your lovely shiny result, but without a control to prove that it isn’t a false positive, anybody can disprove your work. Think carefully about every control you need – they’ll all strengthen your work. And don’t assume there’s only one possible control for each experiment! Sometimes you’ll need a few!
- Know exactly what is expected of you. I had to achieve a lot of extra credits during my PhD, both through scientific activities (like attending conferences and seminars) and by accumulating transferable skills and participating in outreach activities. All in all, it amounted to almost 300 hours of extra work over three years. Make sure you know what you need to accomplish so you can work your precious lab time around it, and you’re not met with any nasty surprises six months before you finish.
- Always have a little something in your back pocket for emergencies. Got a meeting with your supervisor and haven’t really achieved much this week? We all know that a seasoned PI can be a little out-of-touch with lab life, and that sometimes it can take a few weeks to get that experiment right. And the last thing you want to be dealing with is your PI thinking the results aren’t coming because you’re not working hard enough. That’s when you pull out a little something you’ve been keeping for just such an emergency! Perhaps a little result from a previous experiment, or a little side project. This tactic also comes in handy for talks and presentations: don’t put everything on your slides, keep some data back so that people are likely to ask you to elaborate on something you know about.
- Get used to networking. I used to find the idea of networking really cringe-worthy. I had this backdated 80’s idea that it was a load of people schmoozing in a room. While there are some people who still treat networking like that, for the most part these days, networking is about a group of friendly professionals getting together and talking about what they do. Networking becomes important in your future career, whether it be finding a job or identifying a useful contact for their expertise and reagents. Look into attending some events which are geared towards your area of interest. Get business cards and email addresses and follow them up. Add them as a contact on LinkedIn if they have a profile, and look out for like-minded people in the LinkedIn groups – the internet is a great way to stay in touch with people.
- Work hard, play hard. Everybody needs to unwind after a tough day. Make sure you find a good work/life balance. A lot of students at the beginning of their PhDs seem to think there’s some ritual that your PhD must be the hardest time of your life – that it’s some rite-of-passage into a career in science. Well, it’s no good working so hard that you make yourself miserable. Don’t feel guilty about taking time for yourself. You’ll function better if you have a holiday every now and then, and your experiments won’t come crashing down in your absence!
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The members of your lab are there to help you with technical things you may be stuck on. Your friends in other labs may even be able to help you out. A problem shared is a problem halved after all – make use of other peoples’ brains! If your problem is more like struggling to cope mentally with life and/or your work, then there are always people out there to help with that, too, even if it’s just a cup of tea and sympathy with a friend.
- Make the most of the little things. I have often been bribed to attend seminars and the like with free food and drink (one time there was even a barbeque – the half Australian part of me was very pleased!). It’s a little perk that I find is present in all areas of science, from academia to pharma to medical communications. Everybody likes a free lunch and a drinkie. My foraging skills are now top notch – take plenty of opportunities to hone yours too! And also let’s not forget about all the freebies reps give out. Do you really need another cheaply manufactured ball point pen? A stack of Post-Its? Absolutely!
- Be proud of yourself. A little self-belief and pride can go a long way, even if it’s just to get you through the day without messing anything up. In the grand scheme of your scientific career, amidst all the funding woes and the cost of reagents and machinery, you can feel rather small and insignificant. But just think – without you, nothing in your project would ever happen! You are the catalyst that brings all the ideas and the materials together – be proud of that, and don’t forget how far you’ve come to get where you are today.
What advice would you give your earlier self about a career in science, if you had it to do all over again?