Things I wish I had been told before I started my PhD…. [Becky]

This is obviously based on doing a PhD in science, but I think a lot of the stuff I say here relates to other disciplines as well.

Very recently, I was asked to give a short talk at the induction for our new postgraduate students in the department. I didn’t get much of a brief, except that I needed to be enthusiastic and excite the new students about what they were about to embark on.

I don’t need to be told to get animated about how great science is (that comes fairly naturally) but half way through preparing the slides, something about it didn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the stress of final year (and I want to stress now that overall I have enjoyed my PhD), but if I was being candid, I would say doing a PhD in this field is a tough, up and down ride at best for most people.

This got me thinking. What would I have wanted to know before I started my PhD? Asking around made it abundantly clear that although everyone has their own version of events, their advice tends to centre on a few common themes, a few survival tips that they wish they had taken on board early on.

Pick your PhD well, but just as importantly, pick your supervisor well too

You need to pick something you are genuinely interested in and excited by. You will need something to keep you going when things get difficult. But I’d be tempted to say it’s almost more important to pick a supervisor and a lab group that you get on with and that suit you (though this can be difficult to suss out). If you think you might need close supervision, don’t pick a huge lab group with a supervisor that’s never around because of their teaching commitments or because they’re head of the department or something.

Try and distinguish the people who care about your science, and the people who care about YOU, because they are not the same thing. You want to be with people who care about both. I happened to judge this right. But many of the people I know that have dropped out of their PhDs have dropped out because of the conditions in the lab rather than not enjoying the science – either they were being given a hard time by their fellow lab members, or their supervisor always put them at the bottom of the pile. If your supervisor is a very busy person, then consider having a routine such as a weekly/fortnightly/monthly meeting with them to discuss how things are going.

There’s a good article here on choosing a PhD supervisor.

Click for source
Click for source

You will feel stupid, and feel ridiculously out of your depth, if only at first

Don’t underestimate how big a transition it can be from the final year of your undergraduate degree to your PhD. You are suddenly flung into the spotlight and have to think on your feet. Most labs will get someone to supervise you or teach you the ropes with your first couple of experiments but don’t expect it, and certainly don’t expect to be told or shown the same thing twice – take a pen and paper everywhere.

But it is totally normal to feel stupid. Ask questions. Seriously, just ask, no matter how stupid you think they sound. It’s far better to get things straight in your head from day 1, than end up in your viva at the end of it all still having no idea what the answers to those questions are when your examiners ask YOU them. Or end up messing up an experiment for two months without realising, because you were too scared to check if you were doing something right or wrong.

You will make mistakes

ALL THE TIME. It’s part of the process of being a PhD student. You make mistakes and you learn from them. Try not to get too disheartened by it, even if it means taking yourself off for a coffee for an hour to get your head back in the game. Every mistake you make, chances are someone else will have been there, done that. You will learn to trust yourself with time.

Stuff often doesn’t work

I think there can be a misconception that being a scientist means you make cool discoveries all the time. Sometimes you do, but often things don’t work, and in my field you can go for months on end without anything working. Keep going, and try different approaches to the problem. But also learn to identify when to move on.

Planning, planning, planning

Making a plan the day before or even the week before, whatever suits you, can really speed things up. Have a proper think about how you are doing your experiment before you carry it out, and make sure you have everything you need. It can make for a really stressful day if you don’t. And write EVERYTHING down as you are doing things. You WILL forget otherwise.

Be a human first, scientist second….

This is really important – find something to do outside of work, whether it’s going to the pub with friends, doing exercise or having some kind of hobby. It will keep you sane when things aren’t going so well, and keep everything in perspective. Your PhD will occupy your mind a lot of the time, but fight for those precious hours where you can forget it all. Sometimes clearing your mind and going back to a problem is better than sitting there agonising over it.

…and don’t forget that scientists are humans – ego and all

There will probably be lab politics at some point if not all the time. There will also be the occasional person who sets out to make you look stupid or feel uncomfortable in front of an audience, but don’t be bullied. Don’t rise to it, and remember what you’re there to do.

Find out when YOU are most efficient

Doing a PhD is rarely a 9 to 5 job all of the time and some people will find that they like to go in later and go home later. Or go in early and come home early. Find a time that most suits you. Obviously there will be some constraints due to seminars, lab meetings and so forth. In the field I work in, you can expect to need to come in at weekends, even if it’s only occasionally, but don’t be pressurised to work every weekend if you don’t want to  – a tired, stressed scientist is not always a good scientist (no matter what your supervisor says). Balance is needed between getting the data out and getting published, and not cracking under the pressure.

On that note, do take holidays. A lot of supervisors can be quite passive aggressive (or even just quite rude) about you taking a break, but as long as you’re reasonable about it and you work hard, everyone is entitled to some time off every now and again. Try not to let people make you feel guilty about it.


Read lots of papers. It is well worth it, and can give ideas for your own project. This can require setting some time aside to do this, as it’s easy to get bogged down in what you’re doing.  It’s also important to write down what you read. Passively reading a paper can be a waste of time, and even if you do remember the content, it would be very surprising if you could remember which of the 10,000 PDFs you own contains that vital reference.

Write down what you read, but also read what you write. Practise writing, whether it’s journal article-style writing, or otherwise. You’ll be grateful for it when you come round to your thesis. If your institution doesn’t get you to write yearly reports, consider doing them anyway to consolidate your results and really focus your mind on the direction your project is going in, even if it’s a dead end. These may form the basis of chapters for your thesis.

Get some decent bibliography software

This might seem really lame and boring, but don’t underestimate how useful it is to have some kind of reference manager that you put papers into as you go along. It makes your thesis much easier to write.

If you don’t know where to start, try Mendeley or Endnote (that’s the free online version but you can also buy the software).

You feel never truly finish your PhD

There are always more questions to be answered, that’s how science works. There will come a point where you have to say, right, I have enough for my thesis and it’s a decent story. You will always look back and tell yourself you could have done it all so much quicker if you’d known what you know now, but getting a PhD is training, and a journey. Your thesis should reflect that.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this, particularly Vicki, Adam, George and Ian (check out his blog here!) who gave me their perspective on their PhDs.


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