As we enter October, here at Roslin it is the start of the academic year and many new PhD students begin. We have over 100 PhD students here at any one time; it’s a very exciting and dynamic environment. However, for some (many?) a PhD is one of the most stressful things that will ever happen to them (ed: interesting choice of language). So how can we get round that? Below are my tips for new PhD students. Note my experience is in bio, so if you’re in another field, be aware of that. Enjoy.
PhD projects, and PhD supervisors, come in all shapes and sizes, and work in many different ways. For some, there will be a very detailed plan for the whole 3/4 years, with well defined objectives/chapters etc; others will be little more than a collection of ideas that may or may not work; and many will be between these two extremes. Whichever project/supervisor you have, you the student are responsible for making it all happen. This will be difficult for many; some people are not “natural born” leaders; and even those who are may not have had much chance to practice. However, we have to recognize that a PhD is not a taught course; it is a project whereby a student learns how to carry out their own research, to investigate their own ideas, to plan and execute research. That doesn’t happen if someone tells you what to do at every stage. So, lead. Take the lead. This is your project – if you have ideas that go beyond what’s written in the original project plan, then you now have the opportunity to explore them. Of course take advice; speak to your supervisor; speak to other experts; figure out whether your ideas are good or not; do things by the book and be healthy and safe. But if your ideas are good and they are worth exploring, get on and do it. If there is a predefined plan, execute it. Don’t wait; don’t ask; don’t sit nervously waiting for your supervisor to ask if there’s anything you want to explore – get on and do it. Lead.
Read the literature. In a fast paced field such as genomics, papers will be out of date within ~2 years. This means that to be on top of your game, you will have to read a lot of papers. This is something you need to just bite the bullet and do. Hopefully, if you’re in a field you love, this won’t be too arduous. Combine with Twitter (see below) and news feeds so you can figure out which papers to prioritize. As I have said before, you want to be the student sending a mail to your supervisor saying “hey have you seen this cool new paper?” rather than the student receiving those mails. Take a coffee, a bunch of papers, go somewhere quiet and read them.
Write. For the love of all that is holy, write. Learn to write quickly and well. Science is not only pipettes, tubes, plates, labs and computers; it is about writing. As a scientist it’s what I spend my time doing more than any other activity. Grants, papers, reviews, reports, plans, emails etc etc. Being asked to put together a coherent (referenced!) 3-page document in 24 hours is not unheard of; being asked to do the same for a “one pager” in a few hours is even more common. Writing is so important. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you hate writing, then perhaps science isn’t for you; honestly, genuinely, I mean that. Think about it. Being a scientist means being a writer. If all the results are in, papers shouldn’t take months to write; posters should take no more than a few hours.
I am not the first to say this and I won’t be the last, so here it is again – science is a social activity. Engage with people. Talk to people. Go to meetings, conferences, workshops and be active in them. Talk to people about yourself and about your project, ask them what their interests are. Much of success is about luck, about being in the right place at the right time. Go out and talk to people about what you do. Don’t be shy, don’t think they aren’t interested. You might also consider blogging and social media. The more you are out there, the more people know about you and what you’re doing, the higher chance they might want to work with you.
Keep a record of everything you do. In my group, we use a wiki; others use Github; obviously lab-based students have a lab-book (but this isn’t always sufficient!). It doesn’t matter what you use, the basic requirement is to keep a record of what you’ve done to such a standard that the work can easily be understood and repeated by someone else. This will help you in future, and it may very well serve as a record for protecting intellectual property.
It’s just possible that if I had to name the single thing that has had the biggest impact on my career, that thing might be joining Twitter. I can say with great confidence that people on every continent know who I am and what I do. I’m not sure that would have been true going on just my scientific record alone. Twitter has enabled me to meet, and engage with, 1000s of wonderful people, scientific leaders in their field. Twitter is an online community of (mostly liberal) forward-thinking scientists. If you’re not on Twitter, you don’t get it; I was once a person who didn’t get Twitter, I actually joined just to drum up applications for a job I had advertised. However, it has been a transformational experience. Now – it’s hard. When you first join, you have no followers, and no-one is listening. You have to work hard to get followers, to get retweets, and it’ll take years to get 1000s of followers. But it’s worth it, I promise you!
Find out what skills are in demand and try and focus your research on those. Bioinformatics is a good example – learn Unix, learn to code and learn some stats. If you have those, you will always be employable and in demand. Try and look for trends – at the moment CRISPR is very hot, as is single-cell work – if you’re in the lab, can you integrate these into your project and therefore practice these techniques? Seriously, anyone can do DNA preps and PCR; find out the skills and techniques that are in demand and learn them, if you can.
I want my PhD students to have a thesis plan by 3 months. You don’t have to stick to it, but it’s good to have an idea. What are the results chapters? What are the likely papers? If you are a post-doc, then if you have 3 years, what are you going to do with them? If you’re a PI, again, plan – what questions? Which experiments? Papers? Where is this going? What will be your first grant and how do you get to the stage where you are ready to be funded? Plan.
At meetings, conferences, workshops. Submit abstracts and talk about your research. If you are not confident at public speaking, then practice until you are. Don’t submit poster abstracts, submit speaking abstracts. People remember amazing talks they have seen more than they remember amazing posters. It’s quite common, I find, for young scientists to default to posters as they don’t feel ready or willing to speak. You must get over this. I know it’s hard. I used to be nervous as hell before speaking at conferences. However, it has to be done and it has to be done well. Practice is key. Get out there, overcome your fears, and do it.
You have an amazing job and an amazing position. You get to push back the boundaries of human knowledge. That’s your job. You come in to work and by the end of the day we know more about the world we live in than we did before. It is an amazing, incredible, privileged position to be in. Yes it’s hard; yes there are barriers and it can be stressful. However, if you can get by those, and you have a good supportive team around you, then you have the most amazing job/position in the world. Enjoy it!
And I’ll leave it there. As always, I look forward to your comments!