It’s official. You’ve signed on the dotted line and you are about to begin the most exciting and frustrating journey into the depths of the unknown: a journey otherwise known as a PhD. You’ve heard the horror stories from previous students; the cloning that wouldn’t work for reasons unknown to man, the data that indicates growth for both the positive and negative ampicillin controls but the prospect of being called a Dr. must make it all worthwhile, surely?
To quell your fears, I have put together some tips for those starting your own grad school journey:
1. The Issues Experienced by Others May Not Necessarily Apply to You
It’s your first day in the lab. You have a crisp clean lab coat, you’re geared up and ready to do some science!! During the mid-morning tea break, fellow students are complaining that their ligation isn’t working and you wonder, goodness, what have I signed up for? Don’t be at all worried.
The biggest lesson I have learned is there are no set rules in research and there is no fixed path. Each project and associated tasks are unique to you. There is no umbrella under which all the reaction conditions fall. Instead, you will discover which methodologies and techniques are suited for your own individual project.
2. You’re Not Superman/Woman
It is not easy to keep up to date with publishing papers, recording your daily log book and filling out progress reports, not to mention your daily workload and then your supervisor unexpectedly asks you for healthy growing cultures. Gahhhh!
I suggest you invest in a day-to-view diary, plan out your work for the week and be sure to include time for lunch. You’ll be surprised how caught up you’ll get once the ball starts rolling.
3. It’s Your First Day, You Are the New Kid on the Block With New Surroundings to Explore
Start off with contacting admin for a new labcoat and a set of lab keys. Find an empty cupboard in the lab to hoard valuable finds e.g. petri dishes, filtered pipette tips. Then, locate the WiFi hotspot, which will be vital for checking emails. Invest in a good coffee mug and say hello to caffeine; your new best friend!
Get to know your colleagues, the veteran postgrads right up to the post-docs. Also, get acquainted with your office for it will become your sanctuary over the next number of years. Set aside some wall space for your GANTT chart and a Hang in There Kitty poster.
4. You Have No Idea Why This is Relevant to Your Project
You have no idea what’s going on!! These words ring true for many researchers gone before you.
You are starting a long but adventurous path, an arduous journey sprinkled with moments of miracles. Your project is unique, a jigsaw if you like. It will take some time for the pieces to come together and to fully understand the picture as a whole. But it will come.
5. Listen to Your Supervisor for He/She is Your Ticket Outta There
Your supervisors hold a wealth of experience, a breadth of knowledge of which will be bestowed onto you. Don’t be afraid to say the PCR didn’t work or that the illuminator is out of action. Keep them in the loop and they will help troubleshoot any issues you may encounter. They are as excited as you are about research, so keep the lines of communication open.
6. Should You Go to Workshops?
Throughout the academic year, the research office organizes workshops to help develop your skills outside of the lab. They range from literature research, career development, publishing and writing funding proposals. They may sound a bit naff but at the end of the day, what do you really know about communicating my research in a meaningful but concise manner?
Highlight 2-3 sessions that arouse your interest and take notes on the day. Even if you pick up just a few helpful tips from the presenter, it will be a day well spent. The presenters are there to help you improve your skillset outside of the lab and plus, there are usually plenty of tea and biscuits to go around.
7. Remember, You’re Not Entirely on Your Own
Success and failure are common in grad school. Use your optimism and energy to fuel others and encourage your team members. You never know, a fellow colleague may have experienced your problem before, so speak with others about any issues you are having. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, especially when shared over a cuppa!
Finally, don’t forget to make time for yourself. Indulge your Candy Crush time, remember to keep in touch with your family and friends, but most of all, enjoy your experience!