Although I am still at the relative beginning of my doctoral journey, I have already had my fair share of realisations in regards to undertaking a PhD. Since I am a biomedical researcher, my work revolves around the lab, which is equally as fascinating as it is challenging. However, I believe that most of the points below can be universal to PhD’s in various fields.
1.The beginnings are always tough, but things get easier
In the beginning, you may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing or that everyone around you knows way more. It’s really important to not compare yourself to others because everyone’s experience and journey are different. Finding your role in the team, learning where everything is placed and getting into a routine – it all takes time. This is perfectly normal. Once you get used to your new group and establish a plan of action, your project will have an outline, making it easier to follow.
2.Failure is part of the process – it makes us learn
In the process of achieving your aims, you will encounter challenges and failures. Getting things wrong is an important part of doing a PhD. Don’t let it get to you; instead, accept and learn from your mistakes. Failing makes us reflect on what went wrong. This can help us gain a much better understanding of your project and the topic you’re researching, which can help prevent mistakes in the future. It helps us develop problem-solving skills and adaptability, both really important during doctoral studies. So, next time an experiment fails, take a step back, reflect and learn.
3.Be proud of small achievements, even the smallest progress is progress
It’s really easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself from the very beginning. Don’t get me wrong, being ambitious is not a bad quality. But having unrealistic expectations and goals will only stress you out. Divide your PhD milestones into aims, your aims into objectives, and your objectives into even smaller (but readily achievable) aims. This way, not only will you be more organised and stay on top of your project, but you also won’t get too discouraged when something doesn’t go according to plan. Even small achievements deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. In the end, the collective results of all the smaller tasks are what make your PhD come together.
4.It’s critically important to take time off
I feel like everyone talks about maintaining a work-life balance and scheduling time for rest, yet many PhD students still fail miserably at doing so. But trust me, your body and mind will thank you for taking regular breaks. If not absolutely necessary, don’t work on the weekends or over the holidays, and try not to bring your work home with you.
5.You can’t control everything
This was something I found especially difficult to deal with as I am a massive perfectionist. But you have to realise that certain things will be out of your control, and you should not beat yourself up for them not going to plan. Lab equipment, samples, or cell cultures – they all have a ‘life of their own’ and you can’t always predict what will happen. Pretty much all you can do is acknowledge that something went wrong and proceed with your day.
6.Don’t be afraid to question your supervisor
Sometimes you may find yourself disagreeing with your supervisor. It may be extremely scary to question your supervisors, but after all, you know your project more than anyone else. If you feel like they might be missing some crucial information or misinterpreting something, tell them. Of course, make sure to keep it professional. They would do the exact same for you, as it is crucial to present a cohesive story as part of a team.
7.Think like a reviewer when writing
Writing is a major part of postgraduate studies. Whether it is your thesis, research articles or literature reviews, it is encouraged to keep your future audience in mind. Think of possible questions a reader may pose and parts of your text that may not be clear to them. Having a critical eye on the way you present your findings will not only improve the quality of your writing, but also save you time when addressing reviewers’ comments.
8.The journey isn’t linear
Doing a PhD is by no means a journey of continuous improvement. You will experience dips, leaps and plateau phases. At times, you may feel like you’re not making any progress, but it’s all part of learning. Sometimes it’s better to take a step back and approach a problem from a different angle.
9.Having a routine will keep you sane
I understand that having a strict routine during your PhD may be difficult. After all, they say that each day is never the same in the life of a biomedical researcher. However, you can establish a general schedule for your work and time off. You could go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and, therefore, have consistent working hours. Dividing your working days into blocks may also be helpful, e.g. responding to emails in the morning, doing lab work after, and reading literature in the afternoon. Your mind and body will get used to a routine, making it easier to shift between work and rest modes, and maximising your focus.
10.Your initial project will change multiple times and that’s ok
Most of us go into a PhD program with an initial project idea. We write a research proposal where we specify aims, objectives, and an expected outcome. We have a hypothesis to test and an idea for an explanation to a scientific question, but research doesn’t always follow a specific path. An initial idea may not lead you anywhere, so you might need to take a different direction. On the contrary, you may discover a completely new avenue that seems worth pursuing, so you will modify your project. It’s good to be flexible, think on your feet and adapt to the dynamics of your PhD project.
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Feature image by Hans Reniers from Unsplash.