How to PhD: 10 Tips from Hindsight
I received my PhD in Computational Biophysics in 2012 from the University of Western Australia. I am currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia (the equivalent of junior PI). During my postdoctoral years, I have been actively involved in supporting PhD students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). Last year, I was invited to be on the panel of a workshop called “Tips from Hindsight” where four ECRs shared their “survival tips” with students that just started their PhD journey.
Before I share my tips, I would like to emphasize a few things. First, the tips are based on my own experience, both as a PhD student and more recently as a supervisor to postgraduate students. Second, the PhD experience is a deeply personal one and is affected by a lot of different factors. As a result, there is no one size fits all approach to a successful PhD. Third, my tips are inevitably biased towards a PhD in (Biomedical) Sciences in Australia. While some tips are universal, others might not apply to students from Engineering, or Social Sciences and Humanities, or students doing their PhD in countries other than Australia. Finally, I had the privilege to focus on my studies while being supported by my long-term partner and having a stipend that covered my living costs. Students that do their PhD part-time while doing other paid work or having caring responsibilities, will face additional challenges unique to their situation.
- Take charge! It’s your PhD. Be proactive, have a plan, and then be prepared to revise that plan (many times). Listen to others and be guided, but in the end, it’s your PhD, and that means it’s your responsibility.
- Look after your PhD mentor/supervisor. The relationship with your supervisor will have a significant impact on your time as a PhD student. And like any other relationship, it is a give and take from both people. There are different types of PhD supervisor relationships and different approaches to managing this relationship. In my experience, it is important to know your own expectations as well as that of your supervisor. I suggest you sit down together at the start of your PhD and talk about your expectations and potential differences. You might like to have a look at some of the questionnaires that universities use. See, for example, this questionnaire from Griffith University, or the University of Western Australia.
- Monitor your progress. Three or four years might sound like a long time, but time flies when you’re having a good time and working hard. When you set goals, be ambitious but also be realistic. There are plenty of tools and guides out there to help you come up with milestones and to track your progress (e.g. the PhD toolkit from ThinkWell).
- Prepare for things to go wrong, then learn from your mistakes and get back up! Learning how to live with uncertainty is part of a PhD. In fact, uncertainty and the sense of ‘I have no idea what is going on’ is part of research. A PhD is much more about resilience than most people appreciate.
- Get out there and get involved! The days where researchers can just sit in their offices and follow their own work are mostly over. Many research projects include collaborations, often with people from fields outside your area of expertise. That makes research fascinating, but it also means networking and science communication skills are essential. Attend conferences and workshops, gain skills outside your field, or visit another lab for a few weeks. To fund these endeavours, apply for travel scholarships and conference awards. Social media is another excellent tool to connect with researchers and PhD students. Twitter has a large community of PhD students, and in my experience, people are very supportive. Some twitter accounts to follow include @WriteThatPhD, @ThesisWhisperer, @PhDVoice and @AcademicChatter.
- Work-life balance. Treat it like a job. That means when you are at work, you are at work (not on social media every 15 min, or daily 2h lunch breaks). But it also means you get to have a weekend and holidays. Nobody denies that a PhD takes a lot of hard work and commitment, but it is a marathon, not a sprint. Look after your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Find a hobby that has nothing to do with your PhD and where you can recharge your batteries. Several recent surveys and studies showed that PhD students are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety compared to the general population. If you’re struggling, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Most universities offer counselling services, and many online communities provide resources related to mental health issues in academia (e.g., the 100 voices project or Voices of Academia)
- Write early; write regularly. It’s not the fun part of your PhD, but no thesis = no PhD. Experiment with different writing routines and find one that works for you. Think about joining a writing group or find a writing buddy. Some universities offer writing retreats. Many universities offer academic writing courses. Also, talk to your supervisor about a PhD by publication.
- Invest in your career development and expand your horizon. While your PhD project has priority, I suggest you also look at gaining skills and experiences that might not be directly related to your project. Many universities offer workshops or short courses on science communication, media training, entrepreneurship or intellectual property. Another way to develop organizational and leadership skills is to get involved in professional associations or your local student guild.
- PhD does not mean academia. The reality is that most of the people around you with PhDs, will not work in academia. A PhD will equip you with a lot of transferable skills that you can use in a wide range of jobs. I know many people with STEM PhDs that have rewarding careers in industry or areas such as science communication, intellectual property, medical writing, clinical trials management or government policy. Learn how to describe your transferable skills to people outside academia and have a non-academic CV. Once you start looking for jobs, think about joining LinkedIn and look at profiles of other people with PhDs.
- Never forget; you are not your PhD, and your PhD is not you. Work hard, follow your passion for research, but don’t let it define you. Make sure you nurture a sense of self-worth and identity that is not attached to your research achievements. Combined with a healthy work-life balance, this will help protect you from burnout.
Finally, I would like to say that you are not alone. If you experience problems with your supervisor or you find your PhD overwhelming, there is a lot of support out there. Contact the graduate research school or the counselling service at your university. For some helpful resources, see the ThinkWell website.
As the title of this article says, ‘It’s a journey …enjoy the ride’. There will be ups and downs, but your PhD years will form you, both as a professional and as a person.
About me: While you can never summarise the complexity of a person’s experience in a few words, the following ‘verbal snapshots’ from my social media profiles are a pretty good summary of my current academic life: Research Fellow – Biophysical Chemist – Fascinated by the molecular world – Problem Solver and Analytical Thinker – Higher Education Enthusiast – Diversity in STEM and Academic Mental Health Advocate – Yogini on and off the mat – Kindness and Gratitude in Science.
In the interview linked below, you can find out more about me and my passion for science, my journey to becoming a Research Fellow, including dropping out of high schools, and how my yoga practise helps me deal with the stress of my job.
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Creator: Evelyne Deplazes