For many students, a PhD project is the first opportunity to really sink your teeth into your very own research project over a long period of time. This initial period is exciting but can also be a little daunting. Where do you begin? How do you actually design your first experiments? I mean, what are you testing and how can you prove a result?
Here are eight important points to consider as you embark on your first exploratory quest for knowledge:
Don’t Panic Over Your First Experiments
Part of your PhD training is to become resourceful and to work out your own way to approach and solve problems. Ask a more experienced member of your lab, check previously published papers or online resources. Your PI will be impressed if you at least try to work things out on your own before you knock on his/her door.
There Are No Right or Wrong Answers
Always remain objective about your work and form your hypotheses correctly. Ask, ‘what mechanism regulates enzyme X?’ rather than ‘Does enzyme Y regulate enzyme X?’ It’s easy to slip into the mind-set in which you want your results to prove your hypothesis is correct as opposed to proving the science. This means that you spend your time trying to prove enzyme Y has an effect—instead of looking for something else has a much greater and more profound effect.
Keep It Simple and Take Baby Steps
It can be tempting to design one big experiment that could answer lots of different questions all at once. However, don’t over-egg the pudding! Over-complicated experiments are difficult to follow and explain. The chances of making costly mistakes (precious time, money, and effort) with so much going on are significantly higher. Aim to answer only one small question at a time.
Try to Minimize the Variables Within Your System
Most experiments aim to investigate the effect of one variable on another. Therefore, controlling additional variables makes your job easier and your conclusions more likely to be accurate. If you have variables you can’t control, account for them and show that they do not affect your results. If they do affect your results, then show to what extent. And make sure you are comparing apples to apples: perform each experiment in the exact same way as the previous ones.
Design Your Controls Properly
Even the most exciting, clever, novel, elegant experiments are only as good as the controls. Carefully think out your controls to ensure that you and others can be confident of your conclusions. Responsible scientists will endeavor to eliminate any and all remaining doubt about the validity of their results.
Prove a Result Using More Than One Technique
Utilizing multiple approaches to answer a question is excellent scientific practice. It ensures that there are no artifacts present that your technique and controls cannot eliminate. For example, quantify protein expression by western blot, ELISA or mass spectrometry and gene expression by microarray, qPCR or northern blot. The more evidence you can collate to prove your point, the better. Essentially it’s like another control!
Your Research Is Novel
Remember, nobody else has done what you are about to do. You will be the first in the world to discover this finding. This is what research is all about. You will push the frontiers of science—however small or insignificant you think your work may be. This is a huge achievement.
Develop Your Scientific Skills
Despite the ‘publish or perish’ dogma in science, the real aim and beauty of a PhD is to hone your logical and creative thinking and problem solving. By the end of your degree, you will be adept at utilizing the resources available to you to solve complex problems. This is a hugely valuable and transferrable skill. Enjoy this personal development process.
Few people are given the opportunity to study for a PhD (less than 1% of the UK population)—even fewer actually complete their project and graduate. Apply the above to all of your planning and experimentation work (not just your first experiments) and you will be sure to succeed.