The Life Scientists’ Guide For New PhD Students
As scientists ourselves, we know how daunting it feels when you embark upon on your first PhD. Especially right at the beginning, when everything can feel totally new and overwhelming.
Whilst 91% of the life scientists who took part in our Big Life Scientist Survey said they’re passionate about their research, only 25% said they feel there’s adequate support for early-career life scientists.
To show you just how much support there is for you in the life science community from your peers (and from us!) we’ve put together The Life Scientists’ Guide for New PhD Students.
Here, you’ll find the fantastic advice our fellow scientists have shared with us, as well as a few tips from our personal experience.
Before you get started with your PhD
If you know you want to pursue a PhD and you’re looking at your options, there are a couple of things to consider right at the beginning. These two pieces of advice might well be the most important ones, because they’re going to make your entire PhD experience less stressful and more rewarding in the long run.
Don't pursue a PhD for the wrong reasons
Dr Bryan Roth, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine, has worked with many PhD students over the course of his 35 year career.
I always urge folks to study what they are passionate about. Dr Bryan Roth
Don’t follow the route of academia just because you feel like you should. You have to truly love what you’re doing and believe in the importance of the results you’re pursuing.
Adriana Humanes, a postdoc at Newcastle University, agrees: “If you’re really interested in research and love dedicating a great amount of your time to thinking, reading, and discussing your ideas, you will love being a PhD student.”
If you have doubts about your subject, or the level of commitment required to complete a PhD fills you with dread, then it might not be the best option for you right now. There’s absolutely no shame in taking a step back and having a rethink.
Find a supervisor and a project you love
Even if you’re the most dedicated scientist in the world, there’ll be times when things don’t go as planned and you doubt yourself. This is perfectly normal, and something that every postgrad experiences at some point in their career. Trust us. And this is where having an awesome supervisor will be essential.
“There will be times you will struggle with motivation towards your project, and if you have a good supervisor they will help guide you and keep you on track,” says Rachelle Balez, PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.
“However, there may also be times you are having issues with your supervisor and if you are passionate about your project, this will give you the drive and motivation to push through potentially challenging times.”
Dr Caroline Copeland, a lecturer in Neuropharmacology at the Institute of Medical and Biomedical Education at St George’s seconds the importance of finding the right supervisor for you:
When you’re going to PhD interviews, you should also be interviewing your potential supervisor in return: are they someone that you can work with?. Dr Caroline Copeland
In the early days of your PhD
So you’ve just started your PhD, and you’re probably feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. We get it, and there’s no need to panic! You’re part of one of the most supportive communities out there, and we have all got your back. Here are our top tips for getting through those first few months.
Read, read, read!
Right at the beginning of your PhD, set time aside to read as much as you can about the existing research and theory relating to the field you’re about to delve into.
Christina Murray, postdoctoral research associate at UCL, speaks directly from experience: “As I already worked in the lab I was doing my PhD in previously, I missed this step and found myself playing catch up later on with the reading. It may feel frustrating to not get straight into research, but having that background knowledge behind you will help when you are interpreting any results you get.”
It’s not just the topic you’ll want to research either. “Get familiar with the techniques you plan to use too, so that you can design your experiments appropriately,” says Dr Samantha Murray, a researcher at the University of Otago.
Establish good habits right away
The end goal of your PhD is your thesis, meaning you’ll want to do everything you can to prepare yourself along the way. If you get the right processes in place from the beginning, and start as you mean to go on, ‘future you’ will be very thankful to ‘past you’.
“Keep a tidy lab book,” says Dr Samantha Murray. “This will be so important when you come to writing your thesis. Along with this, keep thorough records of each experiment: what you did, and why, and most importantly the result! Three or four years on you will have forgotten why you changed that buffer, or that incubation time.”
Establish a great relationship with your supervisors
Your PhD supervisor will be your mentor, your champion, and your go-to when things don’t quite go as planned. That means having a great relationship with your supervisor is hugely important when it comes to determining the success of your PhD.
Lucka Bibic, a PhD student at the School of Pharmacy, University of East Anglia, stresses the importance of great communication from the beginning: “Tell them if you’d like to learn a specific technique or develop some additional skills … [and] try to get to know your supervisors. Learn how they work and how to get the most out of them.”
Our own Sam Roome seconds this, adding to remember what your supervisor’s role is: “They may appear to be a scary boffin, with an encyclopedic knowledge of every piece of supporting literature that you will ever need, and a real skill for asking you questions about your experimental design, highlighting flaws that you had never even considered, but they know what you are going through – and they want you to achieve your very best!”
Making the most of your PhD
As you get further into your PhD and gain confidence in what you’re doing, things will start to feel far less daunting (we promise!) That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, but believe us, you’re more than capable of dealing with them.
When it feels like the stabilisers have come off and you’re getting in your flow, here’s how to keep focused and on track.
Take ownership and lead your PhD
Leading the direction of your research project is key, says Catriona Cunningham, a PhD student at the University of Manchester. She recommends taking control by suggesting what experiments you want to do, and what you want to focus on: “Your PhD is the first step to becoming an independent researcher and you have to defend your work at the end of it.”
Taking ownership and being a leader doesn’t mean you have to know it all though.
“Don’t be shy, always discuss your doubts with your supervisor and colleagues who have more experience,” says Agnese Solari, a PhD student at the University of Genova.
Get involved in the wider scientific community
In starting your life science PhD, you’re stepping into a hugely supportive community both offline and online. There are a whole host of incredible scientists out there, willing to offer advice, encouragement, and opportunities. You’ve just got to get involved.
“Become an active member of a science society and help organise workshops, community engagement events, or conferences,” says Rachelle Balez. “Not only is this a great way to network and meet new people, but it also helps diversify your skill set outside that lab and can be highly rewarding.”
Don’t underestimate the power of networking – work on your networking skills early. Dr Samantha Murray
Dr. Chinmaya Sadangi, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, says: “Networking is as important as doing science. So go ahead and attend conferences and workshops. They are the best place to network. Going to the departmental seminars is also very helpful.”
And it’s not just networking at conferences and events that will help you. Tap into online communities as well: “Read the PhD comic strips, sign up to Twitter, and surround yourself with other PhD students that are going through the same process as they might be of great support to you at some point!” says Lucka Bibic.
Stay positive, even when things don't go to plan
As anyone who’s worked as a life science researcher will tell you, you’re definitely going to experience ups and downs. Whether you make a mistake and have to start from scratch, you don’t get the results you’re after, or your project just doesn’t seem to be going to plan, keeping positive is important.
“If things are going horrendously badly in the lab remember that it is not the end of the world and negative results are still important,” Chloe Thomas, a PhD student at University of Birmingham, advises.
Don't be afraid of making mistakes, and don't give up!
Deep down, nobody likes making mistakes. Even though we all know mistakes are necessary to learn and grow. We’ve all heard the Edison quote: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Another, less well-known quote from Edison is: “Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
And his mistakes didn’t work out too badly for him, did they?
If you don’t want to take work/life advice from the 1800s, take Dr Deborah Kronenberg-Versteeg’s guidance instead. She’s a Junior Research Fellow at Homerton College, Cambridge who told us: “I would advise any PhD student not to be afraid to make mistakes, it is ok to do so and is part of learning.”
Brittany Berdy, a postdoctoral fellow at The Rowland Institute at Harvard is one of the most upbeat and positive scientists we know. She gave us a pep talk that every PhD needs to hear:
“Don’t get discouraged. In many cases people starting their PhD were top of their class, totally awesome students who excelled during their undergraduate years.
“All of a sudden they’re thrown into this world where everyone is incredibly smart and creative and top of their class. It’s easy to get discouraged and wonder if you are in the right place, studying the right thing. And then experiments start to fail! Constantly!
Science is hard… and students find themselves doubting their own abilities, wondering if they know enough. Don’t give up – it's just part of the PhD experience. Dr Brittany Berdy
Do everything deeply
“Question deeply. Read deeply. Think deeply.” This is the advice of Dr Tim Mosca, Principal Investigator at Mosca Lab at Jefferson University, Philadelphia. By embarking on a PhD, you’re bravely going where few others have gone before you. This requires courage and thorough investigation. Always go deeper.
Dr Tim Mosca goes on to say: “The ethos that you build now will serve you for the rest of your career. Don’t just focus on one narrow area. Learn what your colleagues and fellow students are doing. If you’re a molecular person, learn systems.
“If you’re a systems person, know about development. You’ll be able to participate in, contribute to, and learn from so many more people if you know the basic concepts.”
A PhD is all about learning
This is your chance to really immerse yourself in academia. Of all the life scientists we’ve spoken to over the past few months, this is a theme that comes up time and again. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and push the boundaries of your learning.
“Don’t be afraid to be wrong, and don’t be worried about saying I don’t know,” says Hello Bio’s Director of Commercial Operations, Dr. Huw Davies.
“There will be times when you are asked something that you simply can’t answer – don’t see it as a problem, use it as a way to expand your knowledge. Most academics don’t try and trap you with a question, they want you to help them to understand why you’re performing the research you are. In my experience a question asked of me was invariably about how what I was doing could help further existing research.”
Focusing on your wellbeing
It’s easy to get consumed by your PhD. After all, it’s a huge part of your life. Remember though that you can, and absolutely should, have a life outside of your PhD. Achieving a good work/life balance is key to your success – after all, you can’t perform at your best if you’ve run yourself into the ground.
From time to time, you’ll find yourself in a different world where only your PhD project exists – but try not to spend too much time in this world as it helps to get out from time to time. Lucka Bibic
The results of our Big Life Scientist Survey support this further. 73% of life scientists we spoke to feel their ability to do their job is impacted by high levels of stress. Taking control of your stress levels and actively focusing on your wellbeing now will only serve to help you further down the line.
Celebrate the victories
It’s easy to get consumed by everything that’s not working, but remember to take time out to celebrate the incredible progress you’re making. Always remember that you’re doing something hugely worthwhile.
“It’s important to set achievable research goals and celebrate successes, no matter how small, as they happen. After all, every small success (and failure for that matter), gets you closer to the result you’re looking for,” says Lizzie Mann, a PhD student at King’s College London.
Don't be afraid to talk, and take time out
Your PhD is likely to be one of the most stressful and all consuming things you’ll ever do. As we’ve already said though, the life science community is huge, and extremely supportive. We understand the challenges you’re facing, so don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone.
Maintain your social life – it’s always good to have someone you can rely on to join you for a break when things go badly in the lab.Lizzie Mann
Maz from Have you Ever Wondered, agrees. She says: “Make sure you take time out regularly to de-stress, and make sure you have someone to vent to when you need to! So many people who go through PhDs will experience mental health issues at some point (myself included), so it’s super important to talk.”
Your PhD is going to be a BIG part of your life for the next few years. This means, you’ve really got to enjoy what you’re doing, and have fun while you’re doing it.
Remember to have fun, keep learning and to look after yourself – it can be challenging to maintain a healthy work/life balance at times.Rachelle Balez
Above all, when things get difficult, take yourself back to the reason you started all of this in the first place. And give yourself a huge pat on the back for how far you’ve come.
Additional Resources & Support
If you enjoyed reading this article, why not check out the other resources available on our blog for life scientists. We are really passionate about supporting scientists, including early-career life scientists and PhD students - with affordable reagents and biochemicals, travel grants, and resources to help with both personal and professional development. We know how tough it is - so we hope you find these helpful!
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