Ten things I learnt during the first year of my PhD

To say the first year of my PhD was a learning curve is an understatement. Despite completing a master’s degree with a lab-heavy curriculum, it took me the first year of my PhD to be able to settle down. In that year, I slowly learnt how to PhD and I’d like to share my main points with you below.
  1. You will not know what’s going for the first couple of months, and this is ok

When I took my position in Leicester (UK), there were a lot of new beginnings: I had to find a new home, move to a new city, and settle into a new lab to be surrounded by new (sometimes intimidating) faces. Some techniques I already knew; most I did not. It was fair to say I felt a little overwhelmed and I have no doubt that a first, you will too. This feeling will be expected by your supervisor and colleagues, who will understand and will be willing to guide you through it. Take each new piece of information, experience, or aim at one step at a time.

  1. Asking for help, even if it delays a task, is worth it

In continuing with the first point, when feeling overwhelmed or not, asking for help is vital to not only completing a task properly first time but also for the future. It’s better to delay completing a task and ask [what you think is]a stupid question than to do it to a less than satisfactory standard repeatedly. However, be sure to note down the answer for future reference!

  1. Do your literature search regularly

Keeping up-to-date with literature searches is one of the main pieces of advice given to academics, it’s a great way to come up with new ideas for our own work but forgetting to do it and getting behind on new research is common. One way I’ve found to keep on top of literature searches is by scheduling my weekly PubMed search on Friday – a day where most of my work is completed by the morning. This gives me plenty of time to search the couple of key words relating to my work. I then like to print articles to highlight and read at my desk then or later while travelling. I feel this helps me to read the article properly and remember key sections.

  1. Know your aims and objectives

Even as you begin you PhD, you should try to have a rough idea of what your main objectives are – the main question(s) you hope to answer through your work as a PhD student. Aims are your current ideas, i.e. the experiments you want to carry out to to reach your objectives.

It’s useful to keep you aims and objectives in mind when planning experiments as they allow yourself to ask important questions: “What is the purpose of this experiment?”, “How will this contribute to reaching my objective?” Knowing why you are completing experiments to work towards an aim and eventual objective makes it easier to write your thesis and answer questions in your viva later.

  1. Adapt and evolve

Despite having clear aims and objectives, research rarely goes to plan! The idea of having to adapt and change your aims and even your ultimate objectives strikes fear into the heart of many academics; there is no shame in turning your work in a new direction if you find yourself having come to the end of a line of investigation. If you find yourself in this situation, talk to you supervisor on where to go next and search the literature for pervious work in the new direction you hope to take. Often, a new direction leads to better results, less time wasting and a more satisfactory academic journey.

  1. Get and stay organized

To complete your aims and objectives, you need to be organized. Getting efficiently organized took me more time than I’d like to admit. I first started off with a weekly sheet, which had a column for each day of the week. I would fill in any experiments and academic events into it to follow as the week went by. While it works perfectly for some, I still felt less in control and would forget miscellaneous aspects of lab work such as making reagents.

After looking wistfully at pictures of bullet journals on Pinterest, I bit the bullet (perhaps not literally) and set one up. Now I have my all work and social calendars in one place with the added therapeutic advantage of checking tasks off at the end of the day. If bullet journals are not for you, adding events to an online calendar to sync to your computer and phone might prove useful.

Another idea to keep organized is keeping an up-to-date lab book. The purpose of a lab book is to record your results per day or week. The usual format is with the date, the objective and aims of the experiment, the method used and the data e.g. graphs and excel files. I was not fantastic at recording my work and I would let weeks go by without updating my lab book, until a virtual lab book was recommended to me by one of my supervisors. My life has been changed! No longer do I have to print out graphs and excel files, now I export it all to my virtual lab book which is organized into sections for each experiment. I use Microsoft One Note for my work but there are plenty of other programs such as Evernote and Google Keep so ask your supervisor and find a program that that suits you.

  1. Get over the fear of public speaking

Before starting my PhD, my experience with public speaking was limited to clammy, last-resort, if-I-have-to-for-my-grade situations. My first presentation in front of my new lab group was a car crash of nerves, but due to it, I got advice from those around me who were more experienced in the art of public speaking. For my first year presentation in front of the entire department, I practiced my presentation out loud more times than I could count and despite feeling ridiculous by talking loudly to myself, the presentation went really well. Be excited about your work, it’s important to the scientific community and beyond; if you can voice your excitement, your audience will feel excited too.

  1. Build and maintain a good relationship with your supervisor

Your supervisor will be your main academic contact for 3+ years. They will ideally know what you’re up to most of the time, they’ll be thinking up with new ideas for your aims and they will be the first person look over your reports, thesis drafts and publication drafts so building and maintaining a friendly relationship is ideal. Chat about subjects that are not work related, ask them about their weekend and what they get up to outside of work? Don’t be afraid to go out for lunch, dinner, or drinks with your supervisor and lab group – it’s easier and more enjoyable to build relationships in a relaxed, out-of-work setting.

  1. Be confident in your own work

It took me sometime to have confidence in my own work and results; especially if they did not correlate with the results of publications. Even academics at the pinnacle of their careers disagree. The director of my master’s course once told me of a violent verbal fight erupting between experts at a conference as to whether a particular bacterial species possessed a capsule. It takes time to become confident in yourself and your work but the more experienced you become, the more confidence you will gain.

  1. Life is more than PhD

It’s easy to think “I can stay an extra couple of hours to finish this experiment” or “If I just come in on Saturday to start this new project”, but in give in to thoughts like this too often and burnout is inevitable. Take on an amount of work that is not difficult to maintain. In being organized and knowing when you are ready to move to  new directions of investigation, you can still complete the work you need to do without risking too much of your sanity in the process.

And when you take that much needed time off away from the lab, do something useful with it! Binge watching Netflix for 48 hours every weekend will not make you want to enthusiastically skip into labs on Monday (perhaps “skip” is a little too enthusiastic for a Monday!). Explore the town/city outside your lab, find a class in something you enjoy, work-out, socialize with lab or non-lab friends; do something that leaves you fulfilled and content. You are more than just a PhD student.

Remember, you are not the first to take on a PhD degree, and you certainly will not be last. Those around you want you to succeed as much as you do, stay calm, take it in your stride, and finally, love what you do.

About the author

Hello! I am Louise! Nearing the end of the second year of my PhD, I have learnt a great deal about what it means to be a research scientist. The topic of my work is how air pollution affects bacterial behaviour. Before taking my PhD position at the University of Leicester, I completed a Master’s degree in Medical Microbiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a Bsc in Biomedical Sciences at St George’s University of London (UK). When not in the lab, I can be found cooking up a storm in the kitchen or sewing something outrageous. I can be contacted on Twitter via my email address, lc378@leciester.ac.uk.

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