Want to be a leader in science one day? Think you’ve got what it takes?
There’s a lot of advice kicking around about how to do a successful PhD. You can now attend all manner of courses taught by a range of self-appointed experts. You may come away with some good ideas, but the advice may also seem pretty banal and obvious. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll also need a shower and a stiff drink to recover from the cloying potpourri of politically-correct edu-speak. Well done for being you, and so forth.
Some of the advice out there on doing a PhD is excellent and thorough, but I find much to be superficial, obvious, or even misleading. Above all, I’ve hardly ever come across a PhD ‘how to’ guide without getting to the end of it and thinking, is that it? Seriously?
When it comes to doing PhDs, I’m not an ‘expert’, self-appointed or otherwise. What I am is a scientist who operates full-time in the muddy and bloody trenches. Somehow I’ve survived, so maybe I can help you as well.
Before getting to the meat of it all, a couple of home truths.
The first is that, like a career in science, a PhD is not for everyone. It requires a peculiar mix of intelligence, discipline, creativity, rationalism, stubbornness – and sheer nerdiness. Different people have these in different measure, but a successful PhD student has a healthy dose of all.
The second is that a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be hard, not because inflicting pain is necessarily fun, nor because some scientists are ‘dementors’ (see this interesting post by Zuska on that subject), and not because your PhD is expected to solve the mysteries of the universe. It’s hard because it is an apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster.
A PhD is essentially a test. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you pass this test by passing your PhD. Wrong. The fact is that passing a PhD is like getting a certificate of participation. Why? Because almost everyone who starts a PhD and sticks around long enough ends up getting one. No, the real test is what happens after your PhD. That’s when you’ll know whether you’ve really passed. Do well and it will open the door to a career of unparalleled intellectual freedom.
With this in mind I’ve put together a list of pointers. Interestingly, it turns out to be 42 points, which is either random or awesome. It’s drawn largely from my own experience as a PhD student (1999-2002), as a PhD supervisor, and through the countless conversations I’ve had over the years with students and supervisors about all manner of supervision-related issues and dramas. I was fortunate to do my PhD with the best supervisor you could ask for, and during my doctoral and post-doctoral years I became a sponge for information. And I’m still learning.
My tips are designed for science PhDs only, with biomedical sciences in mind (particularly neuroscience and psychology). Maybe some of the tips will translate to PhDs in other disciplines, but I'll let you be the judge of that. They are written in the real-life politically-incorrect language your supervisors use when they’re at the pub talking about you behind your back. Edu-speak verbiage may sound sensible and respectful, but it can also reinforce the fallacy that you, as a PhD student, are a unique and beautiful snowflake. Don’t be fooled – the reality is that PhD students face a stiffer competition for career progression than ever before. To stand a chance of scientific leadership you need to be smart, make the right moves at the right time, and have a thick skin.
WARNING: Read no further unless you’re looking for tough love.
1. Do not under any circumstances start a PhD merely because you like the idea of having one, or because your family or friends think you should have one. These days you can buy all kinds of degrees online, so save the world a headache and go shopping instead.
2. Despite what you may have read, a PhD is not a job, and it’s definitely not 9 to 5. The clock starts ticking on Day 1 and it never stops. A common misnomer among PhD students is the concept of your “own time”. This is wrongheaded because a PhD is entirely your own time, ticking continuously, day-in, day-out, 24/7. If you treat your PhD like a 9-5 job and then find yourself getting passed over for post-doc positions, you’ll have only yourself to blame. If there are circumstances in your life that prevent you from committing to this extent, then consider doing your PhD part time rather than full time.
3. Get to know your supervisor before doing a PhD with them. It’s important to try before you buy. You need to ensure that your supervisor’s research interests, expertise, personality, and availability are right for you.
4. Once you start your PhD, aim to collect data fast. Don’t wait too long before getting started. The longer you wait, the more anxious you will get. This anxiety can cripple you.
5. Ensure that your PhD includes a combination of low- and high-risk experiments. It’s great to be ambitious and aim for high-impact papers, but don’t assume that every study will end up in Nature or Science. Even if your design is incredible on paper, high-impact publications depend ultimately on the results being straightforward and groundbreaking. Treat your PhD like a financial investment and build a portfolio of studies that balances risk, feasibility, and potential impact.
6. Don’t expect every experiment to work, and don’t persecute yourself or others if your experiment fails. In short, figure out why, suck it up, and move forward. Nature does not reveal her secrets easily. Why should she?
7. Don’t obsess over data, and don’t be a perfectionist. How many leading scientists do you know who are perfectionists? Be pragmatic.
8. Don’t be sloppy with data. Your supervisor shouldn’t have to check your raw data for errors. Don’t expect smiles or a good reference if your supervisor loses trust in your data management skills.
9. Don’t take holiday leave as though you have a paying job. Only take time off when you achieve a major goal or reach an important milestone. Using holidays as a reward will avoid feelings of guilt that prevent genuine relaxation. And during your time off, do absolutely no work whatsoever. Reward yourself when you do well. You deserve it!
10. If you need to take time off for other reasons (e.g. bereavement, serious illness etc.) then do so, and be sure to speak to your supervisor for advice. S/he can help you arrange a leave of absence and may even be able to extend your stipend.
11. Stay physically fit and healthy throughout your PhD, and watch your alcohol intake. A sharp mind requires a healthy body. During a PhD it’s easy to become dependent on unhealthy forms of stress management (e.g. daily drinking).
12. Publish as you go. Do not wait until the end! In the competition for post-doc positions and early-career fellowships, nothing counts more than publications. C’est tout.
13. Don’t procrastinate, and learn to detect the signs if you are. By procrastinating and being lazy you are not only flushing your own career down the bog but possibly your supervisor’s career too, especially if s/he is toward the junior end of the academic scale and needs to cultivate shiny successful PhD students. If you do waste time, then don’t expect your supervisor to write you a glowing reference at the end simply because you think you got it together when the submission deadline loomed.
14. Don’t get distracted by pointless, time-wasting crap. Minimise time spent on Facebook and expect a growly look if your supervisor finds you pissing around leaving messages on your mate’s wall at 10.30am on a Tuesday. Join Twitter (it’s a fantastic resource), but learn when to turn it off, and avoid pointless crowd-pleasing tweets to boost your follower count. Above all, quit smoking. Smoking is a colossal waste of time, money, and life. Even ignoring the health consequences, smoking for 30 minutes a day during your PhD will cost you nearly a month of wasted time by the end. Smoking is just stupid.
15. If you share an office, buy a set of beefy noise-cancellation headphones and stock up your music collection. Don’t be afraid to shut the world out when you need to think, read, and write.
16. Write. And then write some more. Then keeping writing. Many PhD students are initially very poor at writing but they get better with practice. Blogging can help, but you might want to do it pseudonymously at first. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of letting your PhD thesis be the first thing you ever seriously write.
17. Don’t be a schmo: learn a programming language and automate your analyses. It will save you valuable time and could even provide a technical publication or useful resource for other scientists. Last year, one of my PhD students published an impressive technical paper based on equipment and software that he designed and built himself. Look for similar opportunities in your area.
18. Be mindful of your weaknesses. Own them and target them. It is human nature for people to take the path of least resistance, avoiding doing the things we find most difficult. But successful people recognise their frailties and do the opposite: they force themselves to do difficult things precisely because they find them difficult or scary. If you don’t seek to overcome your weaknesses then you will never reach your potential. So if you are afraid of public speaking then volunteer to give more talks. If you hate writing then start a blog. Be mindful, self-critical, and proactive.
19. In your third year, start taking courses that will help prepare you for the future. Depending on your plans, this could include media training, commercialisation, or even project management. Talk to your supervisor about it.
20. If there are opportunities available for small grants during your PhD, take advantage of them. Several of my PhD students have applied and won grants for research and travel. They look great on their CVs and have provided them with extra resources.
21. Be active in public engagement and outreach. It’s fun and it needn’t take up much time. It is also increasingly important for your CV.
22. Don’t do too much teaching. Do enough to keep your department happy and to show prospective employers that you know how to teach. But no more than that. If you want a post-doc position or a fellowship, publications count far more than teaching experience.
23. Minimise administration. I would advise against sitting on committees or organising seminars, unless you are especially well organised and highly motivated. Administration takes up valuable time and, for the most part, is meaningless on your CV.
24. Don’t get drawn into sanctimonious supervisor bashing. There will always be someone in your network of fellow PhD students who has an axe to grind about their supervisor. Yes, their supervisor may be an arse, or maybe the student is. Or both. Whatever the situation, you aren’t going to solve their problem so avoid getting drawn into it, and don’t let other people’s negativity wear you down. It will waste time and mental resources you cannot afford.
25. During tough times – and you will have them – remember two things. The first is the passion and enthusiasm for science that got you where you are, right now. This is your guiding light throughout the PhD. The second is to remember how darn competitive it was getting on a PhD programme in the first place. How many applicants would chew their arm off to be in your position? Suck it up, stop complaining, and move forward.
26. Get into the habit of asking questions in talks. This insight by a commenter on Dorothy Bishop’s blog says it all. Being shy is only protecting your own fragile ego.
27. Don’t attend too many talks. Pick and choose. Sitting in a boring or peripheral talk is usually an unholy waste of time. Don’t turn up to talks merely as an exercise in presenteeism.
28. When you give a presentation and get asked a difficult question, don’t make the classic student mistake of being defensive. Doing so will make you look scared, foolish, and childish. Never view a question as an attack on your character, even if it is intended to be. When the meanest crustiest professor asks you a left-field question from hell, focus on content rather than style. If you need to clarify then reflect the question (“So what you’re asking is…”). Never be ashamed to admit you don’t have an answer to hand, and always say that you’d “be happy to chat about it afterwards”. You will learn a lot from engaging positively with your critics, and it will build your confidence.
29. Never get drunk in front of your supervisor. While your supervisor will find it hilarious, it is ultimately quite embarrassing for you, and you can expect several months of smirks from your supervisor and his/her colleagues when they pass you in the hall. [Case study of what not to do: A colleague's PhD student once got trashed on a night out, and in the space of two sentences declared loudly to me that (a) he was a libertarian; and (b) he wanted a job in my lab]
30. Don’t infantalise yourself. The supervisor-student relationship is, in many ways, peculiar and unnatural. It’s a bit parental, a bit collegial, a bit managerial. But that doesn’t make you a child: it is a professional relationship between intelligent adults. If you act like a child, your supervisor will probably treat you like one. Is that what you want?
31. Don’t become “best friends” with your supervisor. There are times when your supervisor will need to be your boss, and being pals can get in the way. Save the friendship for the years after you’ve graduated and the power dynamic is gone.
32. Don’t have sexual relationships with other members of your lab. If the relationship goes sour, it could destroy your PhD and theirs too. And though it pains me to say anything so obvious, don’t even think about doing the dirty with your supervisor!
33. Many a romantic relationship has been sacrificed on the altar of PhD-dom. Be aware that if your partner hasn’t done a PhD then s/he may find it hard to understand WTF you are doing and why. This is a completely understandable sentiment, so try and involve him/her as much as possible (think of it as outreach). Just don’t expect your partner to ever understand why in same way you do.
34. By all means help other students solve problems (that’s what labs are for), but don’t get duped into doing other people’s PhDs for them. Just because they’re struggling and you’re cruising doesn’t make it your job to save them. That’s between them and their supervisor.
35. Most universities in the UK require PhD students to have more than one supervisor. But, in my experience, few students take full advantage of multiple supervision, instead focusing attention on their main supervisor. Build links with all of your supervisors and become a sponge for knowledge.
36. Set realistic goals of what you want to achieve and stick to them. Have short and long-term goals. I recommend setting weekly, monthly, six-monthly, and yearly milestones.
37. Be prepared for supervision meetings. Send an agenda beforehand and always take notes. There are few things supervisors find more infuriating than repeating the same meeting week after week.
38. Don’t be jealous of students who may appear to be getting more attention than you are. Don’t assume you know why, and don’t fool yourself into thinking it is any of your business. Focus on your own situation and what you need. If you need more of your supervisor’s time, be a squeaky wheel but, above all, be a positive force. Never ever (ever) say “You give more time to X than to me”.
39. When your supervisor asks for a draft of a chapter or paper, don’t hand over some piece of crap you threw together one Sunday with a hangover. Always stick to agreed deadlines or, if you must miss a deadline, provide an advance warning and a reasonable explanation. Don’t make the mistake of viewing your supervisor as some kind of middle manager who just needs to be placated.
40. Don’t rely on your supervisor to rewrite everything you write. You can expect to learn a lot about scientific writing during your PhD, but don’t expect your supervisor to teach you how to write. That’s your responsibility.
41. Expect everything to take longer than expected. It is wise to save money early in your PhD, in case you need an extra few months beyond your stipend to finish.
42. Above all, remember that you and your supervisor are in this together. Those three years can be an energizing, productive, and career-making partnership. But they can also be a frustrating waste of time and energy. If you want your supervisor to go above and beyond for you, then lead by example and work your butt off.
So there it is. If any of this pissed you off, don’t blame me – I warned you about that.
Got any stories you want to share as a student or supervisor? Got any problems you want to discuss? Feel free to leave a comment.
** Update 15/5: Don't miss the following insightful responses to my article, here and here.
** Update 15/5: Don't miss the following insightful responses to my article, here and here.