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Survival as a PhD Student: Keep the Post Docs on Your Side

From one lowly PhD student to another: we need post doctoral scientists.

From their ability to seemingly do everything right to their moral support after a weekend of failed experiments and questioning the decisions that led you up to this moment * clears throat *. The list of support post docs offer is endless.

So here are ten tips for working alongside those hard working, highly generous members of the lab.

 1.  Post Doc’s Won’t Bite

After the euphoric feeling of brilliance you get accepting that dream PhD position comes the reality of the tough times ahead.

This can be overwhelmingly terrifying.

But you’re not alone. There should be at least one post doc in your lab who was in your position not so long ago. They are there to give you advice, but probably won’t dish this out spontaneously. Post docs may seem older, wiser and terrifyingly brilliant, but I assure you they won’t bite! Just take a deep breath, pick a moment they don’t look too busy and ask your question.

2.  Questioning is Good, Pestering is NOT

Now you have found the confidence to speak to a post doc, you’ll no doubt want to start asking 100s of questions per hour.

Firstly, this is great! Questioning is a huge part of scientific research. However, bombarding someone with question after question is going to get pretty tiring—imagine if the roles were reversed. So, before rushing off to ask someone, read the literature or Google it.

3. Do Them a Favor

Let’s be honest, you want something from them: help, training, and knowledge. While this is a natural part of post doc life, it never hurts to sweeten the deal a bit. You scratch their back, they’ll feel respected and may even offer you future assistance.

For example: Their cells need splitting every 2 days and they are out of the city for a weekend get away. Very nice. You are, of course, in the lab every weekend trying to remember what freedom is. So, why not offer to split their cells? Just wait for those magic four words ‘I owe you one’.

4.  Accept When You are Wrong

As you settle in and start to develop, you’ll begin to formulate your own theories and ideas of how things should be done. However, in your flurry of hypothesizing and imagining your Nobel acceptance speech (we’ve all been there), it’s worth remembering that you will make mistakes and need correcting.

If someone says you are wrong and then proves you’re wrong, you are probably wrong! There’s no use arguing this fact, accept it, learn from it and move on.

If you do choose to argue * spoiler alert * you’ll most likely lose!

5.  Do the Cleaning

Working in a lab with post docs is much like cooking in a kitchen shared with a foodie:

  1. Don’t steal reagents: just ask, most people will share
  2. Put everything back where you found it: or even better, don’t move things
  3. Clean once you’re finished: no one likes cleaning other people’s mess
  4. Restock consumables if you take the last one: it’s not hard to deduce who doesn’t do this after a while
  5. Respect the rotation: no excuses! Everyone’s name is on there and you’re never too posh to scrub down a tissue culture hood!

6.  You Don’t Have to Chat About Science All the Time

Research life is all consuming and it gets hard to remember the outside world. However, there is no excuse for not getting to know your colleagues a bit better.

Post docs have lives on the outside too, so why not first discuss that!

Within no time you’ll be chatting away about their weekends, your most recent tinder date, and that funny animal video. Ok, maybe that last example is just for me!

7.  You are NEVER ‘More Busy’ Than They Are

Although you may often feel under pressure to perform, and those biweekly meetings with your professor are truly terrifying, don’t lose sight of the fact that no matter how bad you feel, life as a post doc is worse.

Remember, they deal with short contracts, the need to publish high impact papers, applications for fellowship funding, and competition between other research groups.

Hint: if you suggest that you are in fact more busy than they are, maybe when you switch your full bin for their nice empty one (yes this did happen in our lab) just think again!

8.  Never and I Mean NEVER Play One Post Doc Against Another

This shouldn’t even need an explanation… why would you want to do this?

Just don’t do it… EVER!

9.  Post Docs Are Only Human

Post docs may not always have time for you and they won’t always be in the best mood. They will mess up the odd experiment and forget to empty the waste pot. They may even need to Google the occasional word from a paper or look up a protocol.

It’s worth bearing this point in mind. Sometimes they can’t help you or answer your question. Research is part knowledge and experience, part luck and part guess work. You sometimes have to dive in at the deep end and just do it for yourself!

10. They Won’t be Around Forever

Its true! All post docs must move on at some point and you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Make sure you take time to absorb everything they have to offer, not just how to do a protocol or where things are in the -80 freezer. Learn from all their experiences, how they published their first paper, how they actually got through their PhD without going insane and how they got to where they are today.

Always remember: they might start their own lab and need to hire a post doc in a few years!

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