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How To Start Your PhD The Right Way

You have just finished your undergraduate studies, or perhaps you have been working in the field for a while, you are full of energy and zest and you want to prove to the world that you are carved from the right stone to pursue PhD studies. Going to graduate school is a very important, potentially life changing decision. You might experience some fears and trepidation, which is natural, because when you embark on this course you also accept the uncertainty that comes with it. Pursuing a PhD is a tremendous commitment that will perhaps take 5 to 6 years of your life to complete. While no one can predict what the future holds, you can prepare for this journey by starting it the right way. As someone who has recently completed this journey, with the experiences still fresh in my mind, I would like to offer some pointers and practical advice that I learned firsthand over the course of my PhD. Everyone’s experience will be unique, but being aware of these points will likely make your journey smoother.

Make sure you are passionate and driven by the big picture.

Let’s be honest for a minute. While in graduate school, you will not be paid a lot. In fact, you will be paid very little. Graduate school is very different from undergraduate studies. Your success will not be measured by getting good grades in classes, which are a minor part of your graduate education and not consequential to your success by a long shot. However, pursuing your PhD will provide you with ample opportunities to learn new things, be creative and think outside the box. But you have to be passionate about your work. If you do not yet know what kind of work excites you, not to worry, you will have many opportunities to discover it. One must see the big picture behind the work, however. Ask yourself, why do you want to do this work? Is it because you feel like you are contributing to a greater good? Because your work can find application in the clinic? Because you are passionate about pursuing and finding new truths? Without the big picture in mind, all you will be doing is transferring liquids all day. Seriously, the bulk of your time in the lab you pipette microscopic amounts of liquids from tube A to tube B to tube C, etc. In order to find the project that excites you, do several rotation projects in different labs.

Take time to carefully select your research lab and thesis adviser.

Selecting the right thesis adviser and the right lab is a critical step in your PhD career. It will either make or break you, so you need to choose wisely. Many factors go into choosing your PhD mentor: What kind of management style do they have? Are they very hands-on, approachable and spend time in the lab? Or are they only indirectly involved in the research and preside as some sort of mythical creature in charge of the mortals in the lab? As a graduate student, you are here to LEARN (which also means you are allowed, nay, expected to make mistakes), so you will require guidance and training. While other senior members in the lab can help you learn the ropes of experimental procedures, your PhD mentor should shape you into a clearly and logically thinking scientist and experimentalist.

Get to know your lab mates and TALK to them, especially to the senior grad students and other people in the department, who might provide guidance and help in your work. Look at the publication record for the lab. How many publications do grad students in the lab get?  Can the projects they work on be reasonably completed in the course of PhD studies (4-5 years tops!)? Does the PhD mentor submit your work for publication in a time-sensitive manner or do papers pile up on their desk while they are too busy building their little private pharmaceutical empire?

Remember, since you will be learning new things, a lot of the times experiments will not work the first time(s). High risk projects might offer reward if successful, but as a grad student, your future is at stake if the project fails. Do a rotation or several rotations before you join a lab for your PhD thesis to get a feel for the adviser and the lab atmosphere, to see if it suits you. Your PhD will be a long haul, the lab will become your second home and the adviser should become your trusted mentor in many different aspects. It is important to make sure that you and your mentor are compatible because you will depend on your mentor in many ways and they will also depend on you. It is imperative that you get along well with your PhD adviser. As a mentor, it is their goal to impart their knowledge and educate you. However, if you get a bad vibe about your interactions, be wary of joining a lab just because the research excites you now. You will be miserable in the long term. In a way, picking the right lab for your PhD is like picking the right person for a relationship: no one is perfect, but certain things make some people more compatible with you.

Seek out allies, collaborators and build up your professional network.

Get to know your department, department’s resources and people in charge and try to be on friendly terms with the dean and the department chair. Some years from now they might be writing your recommendation letters. Explore the university, its resources, facilities and graduate student services. Start thinking about who you want on your thesis committee, and make sure to talk to other students and get their feedback. The thesis committee members will ultimately decide whether you are worthy of being awarded your PhD, so choose them wisely. They are here to guide and instruct you, and in some cases, help you resolve any differences with your PhD adviser. Also, do yourself a favor and stay out of the internal politics of your research institution – every institution has some politics, but your goal is to focus on your graduate education and develop your skills as a scientist.

Planning, planning, and more planning – get used to it.

Formulate your working plan for the next month, next 6 months, next year and make sure to discuss with your PhD mentor the scope of your proposed project. Divide it into manageable stages, and create a reasonable timeline for each stage, keeping in mind that a lot of the times certain experiments will have to be repeated. When working long hours, which you inevitably will, make sure that each day is manageable, and reserve some time for yourself: take coffee breaks, go to the gym, go for a walk or meet friends for lunch – make it a part of your routine. Settle in and make your work space YOUR space,: your desk should be a comfortable and personal place to work, since you’ll be spending a lot of time there. Write EVERYTHING down – be organized and maintain a neat and readable lab notebook. You will be astonished how much help it will be when the time comes to write your papers and your thesis. Also, back up your files in multiple copies: you do not want a hard drive failure to deprive you of years’ worth of work! Revisit your original hypothesis from time to time to see if it needs some revision. A good testable hypothesis is essential for your success.

Have a life outside the lab… seriously.

Graduate life can be extremely demanding and stressful, so it is important to make sure that you have other things in your life that help you feel balanced. What will you do if, after spending 10 hours a day for two weeks in the lab, your experiment fails (and it will on occasion)? How will you handle your committee meeting that went badly? What will you do to release your mental and emotional stress? If your well-being depends solely on how well you do in the lab, you will spend a lot of your time feeling miserable. So make sure you have hobbies outside your work that allow you to de-stress and feel positive. Activities that separate your mind from your body help you leave work at work: sports, yoga, dancing, anything that helps you refocus. This is also a good way to start networking, as you are likely to meet people from other areas of research or work that could boost your professional network and aid your job search in the distant future (yes, it does exist!). Also, there is a tendency to break away from the outside world while being engaged in PhD research, so make sure you stay in touch with your friends and family: these are the people who accept you no matter how badly your experiments turn out.

Develop your writing and communication skills both inside and outside the lab.

A mark of a good scientist is not only the ability to conduct good experiments, it is also the ability to effectively communicate novel findings to audiences from different backgrounds. As you progress through the course of your PhD studies, you will spend a lot of time presenting at lab meetings, writing abstracts and research papers, explaining concepts to junior students or working as a teaching assistant, and presenting your research at conferences. You should observe other speakers in your institution and learn how to construct your arguments in a clear and logical way. Hopefully, your PhD mentor will help you in this. Be prepared to face lots of criticism and receive it with grace, yet know how to defend your points with solid facts. Join a Toastmaster’s club and practice talking to an audience. You will be pushed outside your comfort zone, but it is essential for forming an ability to think on the spot and develop your confidence. If you are a shy person, this is an absolute must to help improve your communication skills. Knowledge cannot exist in a vacuum, but to share it effectively, you must be an effective communicator. Try explaining to your science friends what you do at work in plain terms. You will eventually realize that you can talk about the same concepts to audiences of different backgrounds and specialization levels.

Stand your ground.

During the course of your PhD studies, you will be tested in many different ways. You will be repeatedly criticized, sometimes constructively, sometimes not. Since you are here to learn, you should be able to accept constructive criticism from people who are more knowledgeable than you. Do not be stubborn: understand that in most cases they are trying to help you learn. However, do not be a push-over and allow yourself to be intimidated. Be prepared to defend your view-point in a constructive way with solid facts and knowledge. As you progress through your PhD studies, you will become the expert on your subject. Make sure you clearly see a difference between professional feedback, which is meant to help you improve, and a personal remark, which is just a subjective observation. Learn to have a thick skin but know your worth and stand tall. This is especially relevant when it comes to submitting your manuscript and having to deal with reviewers’ feedback. If you think the other party missed your point, have a valid rebuttal. Do not allow negative remarks to get you down: learn from any mistakes and move on.

Look towards the future.

Yes, that day will eventually come when you leave your lab as a freshly minted PhD. However, you need to start thinking about your future way ahead of time. There are many questions that you need to answer, and a lot of preparation to be done. Do you like working in the lab? Are there other aspects of science that you enjoy more than wetlab? Is teaching your calling? What would you like to do with all the skills and knowledge that you have learned during your PhD? This will require some soul-searching and introspective thinking. As I already mentioned, networking will be your lifeline once you leave the graduate school, so start networking early and maintain your professional contacts. Collaborators, people you meet during conferences, and people you meet through societies are all potential networking contacts. Talk to your connections about what they do, what they like about it, how they got involved in it. Also, be clear with your mentor of your future plans and when you plan to graduate. By now you have become a valuable resource for the lab and some mentors might have a hard time letting you go; in some cases they will do everything they can to prevent you from leaving. So be clear about your timeline and make sure your mentor agrees with it.

Are you ready?

The time spent during your PhD will perhaps be the most trying and uncertain time of your life, yet it will also provide you with ample opportunities to learn and form both as a scientist and as an individual. It is a full-time commitment, a point of no return, so make sure you have thought this decision through. As yourself: “do I want to spend the next 4-6 years specializing in a single area of research?  Do I enjoy asking questions that might not have a definitive answer? Do I thrive in the atmosphere of intellectual challenges? Am I motivated enough to undertake such a journey? If the answer is yes to all of these questions, then you are ready to embark on your PhD journey into the uncharted territory where research dwells to “raise your flag on some yet undiscovered land”.

What advice do you have for starting out your PhD the right way?

4 Comments

  1. Biopore on November 30, 2012 at 4:33 am

    Thank you for the great information. This is one of the best grad school advice articles I’ve come across in my search over the past few months.

  2. Randeep Singh on September 8, 2012 at 5:57 am

    Itz Gr8…
    Thanx…!!

  3. Kenzibit on September 7, 2012 at 8:48 pm

    This is the gold we’ve all been searching for. Thanks for this.

  4. lem on September 7, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Thank you very much for your constructive advice.

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