It’s strange to think that it’s been seven years since that sticky, sweltering August day when I began my journey as a PhD student at the University of Florida. The sun was relentless for those first few weeks of the semester during the 15 minute walk from the former-pony barn-turned-laboratory to the shiny new health sciences buildings where my molecular biology class was held. My first few weeks of bumbling around in my new lab home, the Center for Environmental and Human Toxicology, felt as relentless as that boiling summer heat, and I had this undying sense that I had no idea what I was doing.
Between the molecular biology class that kicked my ass and the lab rotations, which I spent attempting to learn how to culture cells for the first time, I was relieved when the first semester of grad school was over—and thankful that I had survived it. The whole ordeal was an endless mix of gaining confidence when something went right and feeling incredibly ignorant when things went wrong (which, in my world of cell culture, was more often than not). I had spent my undergraduate career feeling pretty smart and sure of myself, and all of a sudden found myself 1300 miles from home and feeling like the dumbest person in the entire world.
But this lack of confidence didn’t last forever. With the first semester under my belt, things soon started to click. I was learning how to think about experiments in a clearer, more scientific way, instead of just doing whatever came to mind. I had a great working relationship with my advisor and found a strong support group in my office mates. I even started to jog on a regular basis for the first time in my life—there was something about those pastel dusk colors on Lake Alice that seemed to call to me. I had had a bit of a rough start, but in the end I found my footing and was able to hit the ground running (both figuratively and literally).
With the undergrads here at Liverpool well underway in their studies, our institute and other research groups here on campus are now in the process of formally welcoming new PGR students. After seeing all the new PhD and MSc students start to flood our labs and institute hallways, I found myself reflecting on the patchy start to my own PhD career and wondering if there could be a better way that I, or anyone coming into this new chapter of their lives, can start things off on the right foot.
Starting anything new isn’t easy, be it a semester, a job, or even just a new hobby. The start of your graduate career might come with more changes than you initially expect. As a student you’re used to going to class, studying, and staying focused on your grades, assignments, and exams—but being a PGR is a whole different ball game. Even if you have done some lab work before, there’s a big difference between a summer research project and a PhD project that spans 3-5 years. The stakes are higher, the experiments are more complicated, and (especially if you’re in the UK), you’ve got a very limited time in which to make it all come together. Especially if you’ve come directly from a Bachelor’s or MSc program and only did a little bit of lab work, you’ll find the transition to a 40 hour-per-week research gig to be a challenging one.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are a few suggestions on what you as a new graduate student can do during your first semester to get your post-graduate career started off in the best way possible:
- Take time and make time to read. Reading papers isn’t just something you do to pass the time while not working in the lab or as a means of torture by your PI when you’d rather be getting new results. Reading as well as critically evaluating the literature in your field is absolutely crucial for both understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. These papers are the foundations of your project and how results previously generated led to where your project stands now and where it will go in 3-5 years’ time. The way these experiments were done, the caveats of each conclusion, and the scientific logic that led from one paper to the next are key for you and your project. Your goal as a PGR is to now fill in a gap within the knowledge base of your field.
You might spent your first month or two reading a lot of papers, but remember that reading the literature isn’t just something you do in the first semester and the last semester (while you’re frantically writing your thesis). While you’re in the early stages of your PhD, make it a habit to read papers on a regular basis. In your first semester, figure out a way to keep yourself motivated, whether it be by hosting a journal club, buying a fleet of colored pens, highlighters, and post-it tabs, or writing a summary abstract of each paper that you can keep on the side until you’re ready for putting it in your dissertation. Making this a habit now will keep you on top of things and will keep you from feeling like you’re drowning in information when you get close to the end of your project.
- Get into a rhythm with your PI. Some PIs are active in the lab and will meet with you and other group members on a weekly basis, others will be tied up between coursework and conference travel and you might not see them for weeks at a time. Regardless of who your PI is, take the initiative in your first few weeks as his/her student to get into a habit of making contact with her/him on a regular basis. For PIs who are around regularly, this can be through a weekly lab meeting that keeps you on task. If your meetings tend to happen in groups but you like one-on-one feedback, feel free to ask for a separate time to talk to your PI about your project. If you have an on-the-go PI, get in the habit of sending an update email once every week, regardless of what country or conference room they’re in, to let them know what you did that week and what you plan on the next. By taking the initiative early on to establish regular communications between you and your PI, you can prevent belated surprises from popping up in your advisor-advisee relationship.
In the early stage of your PhD, you should also talk with your PI about the expectations from the project. You’ll want to find out things like How much do they expect to hear updates from you? How many conferences do they want you to attend? How many papers do they expect? From your perspective, be sure to find out How will she/he stay in touch with you while travelling? How will he/she help you find a job when you’re finished? Will he/she be flexible if you have to travel home to see family or need to take a holiday? These conversations early on in a PhD program might seem unnecessary or too serious, but making sure expectations are clear and up front can prevent stress or strain in your relationship by ensuring that there are no surprises on either side.
(A tweeted suggestion from the Liverpool PGR development committee) Review your skills and ambitions and use them to make a plan for your own professional development. It’s OK if you don’t know what you want to do after your PhD—most of us don’t, and those of us that think they know (like I did) might change their mind a year or two into the program. But you don’t need to know your precise career path to have a few big picture ambitions in mind. Think about what’s inspired you towards a career in science. Would you like to teach? Do applied research? Organize research groups and manage projects? Work with data? Work with animals? Work with patients? Thinking of your big picture goals early on can help you find new career options as you go along, jobs that you might not have initially envisioned but that actually fit in perfectly with your goals and ambitions.
While reflecting on your big picture ambitions, use your first semester to think about what skillsets you currently have and where you could use some additional support. If you really want to teach but have only been involved with courses and teaching on a small scale, ask your PI to help you find some additional teaching experience. If you want to work with data but aren’t familiar with programming or computers, work with your PI to set aside time in your PhD program to get the in-depth training that you’ll need for the next stage of your career. Picturing your ambitions and visualizing what would be best for your professional development will help you get through your PhD and out to the other side with a good job in hand.
Strike a balance between perfectionism and sloppiness. Especially if you’re coming from program where coursework and assessments were the focus, you might still be in a mindset of making things perfect. From pristine essays to using a ruler to underline words in your textbook (incredibly, I have met people who actually do this), many who are attracted to sciences are Type A personalities: we tend to thrive on organization and perfection. But as you’ll soon find out, you can waste a lot of your precious PhD time trying to make a figure look just right or obsessing over minimizing the variation for some experimental parameter to a level not needed for good results.
But there is a need for balance: not being perfect is not an excuse to be lazy, and if you forget this fact you’ll soon find yourself on the receiving end of a discussion about the importance of graph quality when you show up to a lab meeting where your axes aren’t labeled. This first semester can be a time for you to learn how to strike the delicate balance between caring too much versus not putting enough effort into something. You might have to learn this the hard way the first time around (as I did when given a lecture about axis labels) but this is best to learn sooner rather than later during your PhD.
Enjoy it! Your PhD is the time in your career when you get to focus on your science, your research, and your own professional development. Any job you do after this one, be it in an industry lab, an aspiring academic, or someplace not even on your radar screen yet, will have less of a focus on you than your PhD. You’ll be juggling multiple projects, working on getting results for your boss/company/organization, or applying for grants and describing your research and aspirations in a way that will appease funding agencies and collaborators.
Your post-graduate career is also a time when one of your primary goals is to learn. Use that time to go to seminars outside of your department, attend conferences for the sole purpose of listening to presentations, and take a course on something just because you’re interested in it. Work hard, but make sure you take time to learn, explore, and enjoy the journey!
One last point of advice: be sure to check out the resources available from your post-graduate department/graduate school at your University. This group will be able to help you get the best out of your experience as a graduate student. You can also check out our previous posts focused on professional development. Best of luck to all of those starting out this semester. Remember to work hard when you need to and enjoy a 3:30pm pint on a Friday when you need (and deserve) a break!