My PhD is rapidly becoming a distant memory. Before nostalgia completely obscures my recollections of this chapter of my career, I thought I’d jot down some pointers for prospective and current PhD students. These are mainly based on things I wish I had done during my PhD, or mistakes I have seen others make. I hope they’ll make your life easier! If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to chip in with a comment.
- Do think about whether you really want to do a PhD. Being a PhD student is not the same as being an undergrad, nor like working as a research assistant. A PhD is extremely hard work requiring a lot of discipline and dedication. Don’t just start a PhD because it’s the line of least resistance.
- Do choose your supervisor well. The quality of your supervisor will have a direct impact on how much you get out of your PhD and how good (or bad) an experience it is. Don’t choose your PhD supervisor because he/she is the leader in his/her field, in fact that’s the most likely way to find a bad supervisor. Talk to the PhD students already working in the lab, find out whether they are happy and get information about the supervisor’s personality, level of attention (too much/too little?) and how well they plan their projects.
- Don’t leave the responsibility for your project to others. Don’t leave it to your supervisor to tell you how to work, what to read or plan your project. This is your learning experience: Get involved and take responsibility as early as possible.
- Do get support from other PhD students. When things get tough, the only people who can understand what you are going through are other PhD students (or former ones!). If there are other PhD students around you, arrange to go for regular coffee/lunch breaks with them. If not, try an online forum such as the Postgraduate Forum.
- Don’t waste your first year. It is easy to think that you have a long time to complete your PhD, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security… time has a habit of disappearing fast. Start out as you mean to go on. Establish a strict work and study routine, and stick to it… you are not an undergrad anymore! (see #1!)
- Don’t spend long hours in the lab for the sake of it. Make sure that when you are in the lab, you are working and not just hanging around. I’ve seen many people spend 16 hours a day in the lab, but they only actually work for eight hours or less. An 8 hour day, with time away from the lab to relax your body and mind will keep you sharp and focused.
- Do summarise your results as you go. From the beginning, get yourself into the discipline of writing a monthly summary of experiments performed, results and conclusions and include all lab book references/data/images. The monthly reports will link up to make a story of your research and make your write-up much easier.
- Don’t underestimate how long it will take to write up. However long you think it will take you to write up, double or even trebling it will be closer to the truth. The write-up is the hardest part of your whole PhD. When my wife says that I have no concept of the pain and agony of childbirth, I beg to differ. A PhD is like a long uncomfortable pregnancy and the write up is the long and agonizing labor.
- Do take every opportunity to practice and learn Treat your PhD studies like an intensive training program. Listen to and learn from those around you, take every opportunity to try new techniques, present data, meet other scientists etc.
- Do get a life. It’s not all hard work and heartache. Smell the flowers as you go along, enjoy the people around you and make sure you have some fun!
And here are some bonus points from the audience:
- Do find a way to present at a meeting every year – poster or talk. This will be part of your professional life and it’s easier to learn how to do it right when you’re still a student.
- Do maintain a healthy inter-disciplinary approach of looking at things you are working on.
- Do try to enjoy it! You only get to be a PhD student once, and although it can be a very stressful time it can also be an incredibly fun time too. While PhDs are becoming more common it is certainly not something everyone gets to do, be happy you’ve been given such an awesome opportunity.
If you liked these tips check out our recent webinar where we discuss with current PhD supervisors what doing a PhD means and what student need to know.
Originally published 27 September 2007. Updated and republished 29 December 2014.