A PhD is a tremendous time investment, but admittedly helps in your scientific career. It’s been about more than 8 months since I finished mine. And looking back on the experience, I definitely would have done certain things different. So this is for those folks who are in the midst of the PhD fervor, or are just starting out (PhD babies!).
Things I should have done or was glad I did during my PhD:
1. Avoid hazy topics and don’t be overly ambitious. I think its probably the secret wish of every PhD student to find a cure for a disease or make a breakthrough discovery during their PhD. This is not a bad thing but a PhD lasts for 4 years (ideally, that’s maximally how long you want it to last) and if you are not already an expert in the field, you are going to take a few months/years groping around to find your bearing. A topic where many questions remain unanswered or controversial with little progression being made by experts in the field over years, is unlikely to yield to your single-handed efforts. So try to keep your research questions simple. Even if it is in a hazy field, tackle a question in a way that nobody has, i.e. find a different approach. Because it is unlikely to yield any novel results if you are just trying what others have already done.
2. Define your project(s) early on. Due to my mistake with point 1 i.e. having an overly ambitious project, I only started on my actual project late in year 2 of my PhD. So that is 2 years of work down the drain, nearly half the PhD! But this is a surprisingly common trend for many PhD students. It’s not always the fault of the supervisor as well, they may also be caught up with the overly ambitious project 1. But one thing is for sure, you have got to know when to quit if the project is going no where. So best way to do this, is to start with a few projects early on, and LET THE DATA GUIDE YOU.
3. Listen but don’t be waiting for instructions. A PhD project is probably the most self-indulgent time of your life. It’s all about you. Which also means you can’t be waiting for your supervisor to tell you what to do. They might try to, but hey its your project. Which is also why you are supposed to have a counsel of Professors on your advisory board. Everyone is there to give you advice, but you choose what to act on. I once even had advice from another PI to plan my figures down to the very blot before I had even begun. Note that this contradicts directly to letting the data guide you. So sure listen to all advice, but don’t get overly carried away by a particular source.
4. Plan your experiments weekly. This is something I did pretty well and was probably what allowed me to graduate on time with just enough data. Time is so precious during your PhD you have no idea. So writing down what you have to do (mostly experiments for me but you can also set aside time for reading) every week, down to hourly chunks, not only ensures you get things done, it also records what you have already done. I found Outlook calendar to be great for this and it syncs with my phone too.
5. Record, review and secure your data. Your work is defined by your data. You need to make sure you record it in legible format. And you also need to make sure you save it and not lose it when your computer crashes. Occasionally, you ought to look through it carefully to figure out what the heck you’re doing and what more you need to do.
6. Keep up with the literature and read with a focus. Nobody works in a black hole. There are others out there working in your field and you need to know what they are up to. Make it a habit to read at least 2-3 papers a week. When you are reading, know what you are looking for. Usually the objective of the paper, how they did it, and what the results look like (don’t bother with reading through every single word). Don’t read mindlessly, hours can be lost just going from reference to reference. You need to know what you are looking for exactly, if its something you want to learn more about, try recording it/highlighting as you read so you can refer to these highlights after. Get started with your bibliography early, software like Mendeley were real time-savers for me. Also subscribing to email alerts based on search terms relevant to your field is a great way for keeping up to date with current research.
7. Talk, collaborate, go to conferences, meet your friends. I know its hard for scientists. We are a socially awkward bunch. But trust me, do not coop yourself up in the lab. Learning moments are usually when we talk to other people. Even to people in your own lab. I garnered so much advice and ideas just talking to the postdocs in my lab. I also learnt alot from other people in my field and the academic world is actually a pretty friendly place. People give you reagents for free when you ask for it and even the most famous Professors sometimes spend the time to answer an email from a pleading PhD student. Conferences are also great, a lot of intellectual stimulation plus you get to travel. The Society for Neuroscience conferences are amazing, go for one if you have the chance. Talk to your fellow PhD classmates. It helps to learn how other people approach problems and they are a great source of help and advice too. Don’t get freaked out though if their projects are going way better than yours, focus on your own! And finally, try not to work on a Friday night. Release all that scientific frustration in your own way – sport, alcohol, dance, food etc.
A PhD is a great learning experience, but the time is limited, so try to get as much out of it as you can. And don’t forget to find out where you’re going next after the PhD!