Wednesday 9 May 2012

Tough love: An insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD

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.


  1. I think a lot of points can be brought together under one umbrella, a PhD is your own project. Don't expect, or leave it to be micromanaged by a supervisor.

    I know there are difficulties when people feel they are being stifled by overenthusiastic supervisors and I cannot even imagine how frustrating that would be (it would drive me absolutely bonkers).

    Supervisors are invaluable sources of knowledge and support, but at the end of the day it is your own project and it is up to you to manage time (including planning holidays and time off), plan experiments, work and projects. If you do that well it leads to a better work life balance and time to relax.

    The point you make about data is incredibly important... I have found myself staring at numbers pointlessly on Friday nights, not a good way to spend time it’s difficult not to get obsessed, especially if you are very enthusiastic about what you are doing.

    Also, TRY AND ENJOY IT, it’s not supposed to be like a living hell. I have really enjoyed my PhD, my supervisor is fantastic, my project has had its ups and downs, I've had ups and downs trying to get published, but I am very nearly there and have a post-doc position lined up. (see here - )

    Don't take what other people say to heart either, every project, person and supervisor is different.

    1. Hi Heather, thanks for commenting. Agree with all you say and I really like your positive attitude (your supervisor is a lucky guy/gal).
      Good luck for the upcoming postdoc position.

  2. Awesome, awesome post, Chris. Two points I'd like to pick up on:

    26. Get into the habit of asking questions in talks
    In my PhD days I was terrified of asking questions in talks, because I thought I was always going to ask something dumb and look stupid. Two things help with this.
    a) Getting involved in third year project presentations, where you HAVE to ask questions as part of the examination process, helps to get over the hump. b) Organise little mini-seminars amongst PhD students where you can get used to asking questions with people you know.

    23. Minimise administration. I would advise against sitting on committees or organising seminars, unless you are especially well organised and highly motivated

    One potential good side of sorting out seminars is that you can network with people in your area who might be prospective collaborators or employers. If you can organise yourself so it doesn't screw up your PhD, it's definitely worth it.

    1. Yes both good points, thanks for commenting. On balance I would still generally recommend PhD students to stay away from seminar organisation, simply because of the time commitment required - and there are plenty of other ways to network. But I agree that for a particularly well organised student it could be a good idea.

  3. Awesome post. I found myself almost shouting hallelujah with each point. I'd add that PhDs should read science for fun, and read exhaustively and broadly (but also ensure they read deeply into their subject). Read about philosophy of science; read history of science; become a true scholar. Read the shitty science so you learn where people have gone wrong (and hone your critical thinking skills), and the great science so you can see it done right. Don't avoid papers because they are "too long," and do read popular books, blogs etc. I learned so much from becoming a literature-phile; a PhD should learn to teach themselves by reading. Of course, this has to be time managed with getting the damn PhD done, but these two things can be synergistic.

    Another tidbit is to use the PhD to explore who you are, what your limits are intellectually, and which of your limits you can push forward. It is a time for massive, profound introspection. A particularly wide awake PhD student will learn about their own ethics, and hopefully build a good reputation while doing it.

    1. Excellent points, both. It's important that students read widely and also learn the different modes of reading and triaging papers.

  4. 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.

    I would also add here that it is important to do your PhD within a well established group with a well known leader in the field you want to research. It usually gives you more opportunities and head start in your career.

    1. This is true. However, you may also see a lot less of your supervisor than you would like - and you be one of many students. In very large well-known labs (in my field at least) it is not uncommon for PhD students to see their supervisors irregularly and infrequently, and to receive most of their support from post-docs and other students.

  5. Thank you for a very refreshing post and excellent advice! A small part of me wishes I'd seen this earlier although I've definitely learned a lot more from stumbling into many of your pitfalls myself. ;-)

    Also I'm happy to see you encourage a wider perspective on ones PhD, and advising people to read and write a lot. Writing is one of those things that can only be taught by trial and error. Rubbing it in, again and again - and my experience is that writing skills are neglected in more science oriented fields. (I'm in biology so my view is biased)

    1. Thanks for commenting, I couldn't agree more. Being able to write clearly, concisely and quickly is vital!

  6. Truly excellent post. Probably the best I have read so far about giving advice to PhD students. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you! I really like your blog as well, has lots of great advice for researchers.

  7. Very interesting, tho a bit k3rn-y in spots. Attention to detail: that post you reference wasn't written by Scicurious & does not claim all scientists are dementors. Like the general population tho, some subset of them will be.

    1. Hello - Not sure what "k3rn-y" means but sorry for not attributing your post correctly. That was indeed sloppy of me and is corrected. Also, I did not mean to imply that you were saying that *all* scientists are dementors, so I have made this clearer.
      Thanks for commenting.

  8. Great post! Explanation of k3rn-y here:

    -katiesci (twitter)

  9. I like this post because I think it's good to have stuff out there about how things are, among all the posts discussing how things should be.

    1. Thanks - that sums up very succinctly my motivation for writing this.

  10. Great post, Chris. I am starting a PhD stream MSc program in Neuroscience next fall and you've provided answers to many questions I had, and alerted me to others not yet on my radar. Where does co-writing invited review papers with ones supervisors rank on your list PhD priorities? Valuable skill/knowledge building and increased pub rate, or time lost for data collection and analysis? Thanks.

    1. Hi Adam,
      That sounds like an excellent opportunity. It will help develop your scientific writing skills and will look good on your CV. Publications at Masters level are impressive and will set you ahead of the pack.

      Two caveats that come to mind:

      1) If you're doing the lion's share of the writing then you should be first author. I know this isn't always standard practice, but in my opinion is right and proper. Most supervisors in neuroscience/psychology will be happy with this because last-authorships are more important at senior levels. But if you're not going to be first author then I suggest you agree to read and comment on drafts (and to write some sections where needed) but that your supervisor should take responsibility for preparing the first complete draft of the ms.

      2) Early on in any postgraduate course, whether it be Masters or PhD, the top priority should always be getting your experiments off the ground, so my other piece of advice would be to hold off on any sustained writing effort until you are at cruising altitude on Expt 1. Then between data collection sessions, divide your time between any analysis and writing.

      It's also important to know what conditions are optimal for you to write efficiently. For some people this means allocating entire days to writing (and writing alone); whereas others like to chip away at a draft in small bites. Figure out works best for you then calibrate your schedule accordingly.

      Hope that helps!

  11. It is written for PhDs who want to stay in academia. For one, I consider a postdoc position a bad thing, not a good thing. Faculty positions are scarce, and you do not have a stable life or career prospect. Most of the PhDs work in industry. I would add as tip: go network and do not forget to work on your social skills and impression management.

    1. Hello, thanks for commenting. Yes, my post is written for those PhD students who want to pursue the academic path. You're right that post-docs, fellowships and tenure are extremely competitive. But I also think this route is ideal for those scientists who want to achieve maximum intellectual freedom.

      I agree with your advice concerning networking. I still remember my first ever international conference (in the second year of my PhD) and the strong impact it had on my career.

    2. This is good advice .... for full-time PhD students. The vast majority of these types of advice blogs are for full-timers. The part-time situation is a lot more challenging. Here’s the perspective of a part-timer on the advice:

      2.Balancing PhD with a full time job makes the 9-5 meaningless. It’s now mid-May, and this year thusfar I have taken Easter weekend and St Patrick’s Day off. I’ve had 2 other work-free days because of sheer inability to get my head together. If I finish work before 8pm I feel I am finishing the day too early. There’s a reason work colleagues no longer engage me in the so-how-was-your-weekend conversations on a Monday morning.
      4.Agreed but free time to actually go and collect data is curtailed
      5.Publishing? What’s that?
      6.As well as investing my own time in this, I am also self-funding. Try applying for grants as a part-timer and see what happens. It hurts like hell when things don’t work – that’s how much precious time and how much precious dosh!
      8.Agreed but errors creep in when you’re working on the eleventh hour of the day
      9.Holidays – what are they?
      10.Life happens, and yes it’s rotten but you still have to keep on truckin’
      11.Disagree – chocolate and coffee are a needed crutch
      12.Publishing – what’s that?
      13.Who has the time to procrastinate?
      14.Disagree – downtime is absolutely needed if the head to be kept together – and if that involves indulging in a double episode of 2.5 Men with a double bowl of Rice Krispies then so be it
      18.Time to do this would be great
      19.As a part-timer, taking courses is completely out of the question
      20.I like that you started this one with “if”
      21.“Engagement and Outreach” in what and when?
      22.Given that the day job involves teaching and lots of it…………. and apparently it doesn’t count for much, #grrrrr
      23.“Administration takes up valuable time” Enough said!
      25.Maybe I’ll print this one, having changed the font to bold and font size 40 first
      26.What talks?
      27.What talks?
      28.What presentations?
      29.Having an alcohol allergy this one is a non-runner
      30.Parental / Infantalising – crikey!
      31.Disagree with this one
      32.Given that I rarely get to the lab before 7pm by which time most people have gone home…..
      33.What partner? Haven’t had anything resembling a partner since prior to the PhD days
      34.See number 32
      38.Fair enough
      39.Fair enough
      41.Money and time – and lack thereof – a theme that crops up again and again
      42.I’ve run out of steam now. Writing this has taken far too long but it’s been hugely cathartic – thanks for the opportunity – it’s appreciated.

    3. What an awesome comment, thanks for dropping in!

      It's fascinating to hear what life is like when you need to balance a PhD with a work life. I always suspected it would be difficult but I'm pretty ignorant about the details.

      It sounds extremely challenging, and one thing that strikes me is that you must have exceptional time-management skills. Doing a PhD your way is definitely not for the timid.

      I can see why many of my points are either irrelevant or unimportant when put in that context.

      "keep on truckin’". Hell yeah. Thanks so much for sharing this - and best of luck with your ongoing double-life!

  12. and this one too:

    1. Thanks for posting this link. A very interesting article. There is unquestionably a great deal that can be done to improve gender equality in academia.

      The generally low appeal of academia among PhD graduates is also interesting. I'm not sure if it is as troubling as the author of that piece suggests, however. As the article says "the constant hunt for funding for research projects is a significant impediment for both men and women. But women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive."

      I very much doubt that is ever going to change. Science, by its nature, must remain intensely competitive, otherwise it wouldn't work. And it certainly verges toward "all-consuming", so you do need a strong internal drive. Is it solitary? Certainly not in psychology and neuroscience, where it is highly collaborative. I personally enjoy many of the aspects that others may find aversive, including the competition. It can be frustrating, yes, but also extremely rewarding. There are few careers that can rival the intellectual freedom and sense of discovery that one can attain through an academic career in science.

      The good news, of course, is that nobody is forced into an academic career. There are plenty of other good options for PhD graduates.

    2. We'll see, but at undergraduate at least some people who did well worked weekends, but some who did very badly did too. Personally, I floundered until someone said NOT to work weekends and evenings, and try and work less and more intensively. You can't make the ruthless decisions necessary in getting a paper together if it is your life as well as your work.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Both. In my experience it is bordering on impossible to complete an excellent PhD in three years in a 40 hour week. If I think of all my colleagues who went on to successful post doctoral positions and beyond, they worked most weekends. During my PhD and much of my post-doc I did at least some work in 12 of 14 days. As the saying goes, science never sleeps.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Hello:

    Thanks for this lovely and encouraging article. I'm writing taking some risk that I might sound a bit stupid, but I really need to ask you hoping you would answer.

    I've been pondering on starting my phd as it would help me ascend in my career in Academia. But one inconvenience that I'm particularly beset with is the decision on my area of specialization. How do you select your area of research (phd topic)?


    1. I kept a note pad (well smart phone) with me, and whenever I had an idea for a thesis title/topic I wrote it down. Eventually it was apparent I kept falling on the same themes.

  15. Here's one for PhD advisers:

    Don't spend too much time whining about how your (brother, cousin, significant other, mother) makes so much more money than you and doesn't have to think as hard because they went to law school.

    This may make some of your PhD students go to law school, even some promising ones.

    As a successful scientist, your weakness is thinking you should be paid more because you are smarter. As you say "How many people would chew their arm off to be in your position? Suck it up, stop complaining, and move forward".

    1. "As a successful scientist, your weakness is thinking you should be paid more because you are smarter. As you say "How many people would chew their arm off to be in your position? Suck it up, stop complaining, and move forward"."

      - And that attitude is precisely the problem with academia.

  16. Try doing it for 6 years, like we do in America. Three years - I could have survived a POW camp for three years .. As for the "why" of it, why go through this kind of torture (make no mistake, at times this is the best unprofane term in English for your PhD) if you're going to do a very "alternative" career like law school anyway? Just do an MS and go to law school!

  17. Hi, great comments. I have a different situation, which is outside the ‘common’, but as a PhD fact might be of interest?
    My main supervisor and I got in great conflict. I have integrity written down my spine, and was forced to scream out loud when on the board outside of my office, where it says the names of the people in the group, she put a red circle around my name and wrote: ‘THE REST OF US WORK.’ Not once during the whole year, she mentioned it in our meetings, since I was the one in the group working the most. Everyone, the whole department of 70 people plus the other 6 floors, including the next building, passing by saw this. I saw it in the morning when I came to work, erased it and went with a red face to her office.

    A whole series of freezing me out, sabotaging my work and other mind-blowing things happened. After two years, before doing my half time, I was told (in the beginning of 2010) that I could not complete my PhD.
    Her telling everyone that ‘my work is a joke’, ‘I am worthless’ and ‘I am creepy’ gave me an ambition, which I didn’t know I owned. I was so happy to see that this year’s Nobel laureate John Gurdon had framed above his desk the note from his supervisors saying: ‘You cannot do research.’ With my own note, I thus walk in the path of John Gurdon…☺
    The rest of the department who knew her, all backed off. I went mute, emotionally battered and in shock into Christmas vacation that year of 2008.
    The examples all range from me getting the wrong salary for three months to prohibiting me to enter the building. Finally, they were all standing stupid and questioned after I returned their shit, making them instead look petite and scared, as they wanted me to feel.
    I have only two first-author papers and one second-author paper that will go into my thesis. No publication and will have only one at the time of my PhD dissertation.
    Try to get rid of the dirty reputation, and prove to everyone that they are wrong. Last year we (me, supervisors, dean) had to sign a paper written by her, that I was not allowed to do any laboratory work in October and November 2011 because I was supposed to write on my thesis. On what manuscripts? My last experiment on a project was thus given to another girl. One year later the work has been lying on the shelf and nothing has been done.

    The years of my PhD I conclude, was a time period of struggle against sabotage. It is with bitterness I accept that I was given the chance to do a PhD, only to sit during the majority of the time to watch my colleagues work.
    I have learned how to speak, write and to acknowledge the importance of the little person I am. Science for me is not so much a job now. It is I. To take me out of research is like killing a piece of my personality, throwing away my capacity. It defines my thinking (but how could it not?). It is like taking out the musical creativity in me, an equation that lies. It is not about publishing a paper, putting together a material and method, or getting a great image of immunofluorescence. That’s just practical stuff. It is everything, like on a Tuesday after noon, when you observe the reflection of buildings in the cars that pass by on the street. Of course I know, that without funding the technical part we have nothing but assumed philosophy.
    In times of thesis writing I am frustrated, that my first page will start like all other 100s of theses, presenting the years of research with: ‘Herpes simplex belongs to the family of alpha-herpesviridae…’
    It would have been a pity to let them continue power playing for personal fulfillment. Actually both directors of studies from instit. and univ. resigned their posts after this event. One took sick leave for half a year too before going back to her old position, and the other passed his position forward to another guy. My last meeting of the last person was like a scene out of: The girl with the dragon tattoo (w/o the actual physical part). So I now call myself in best wishes:

    The girl with the dragon tongue.

    Thank you for giving me space here!

  18. Very useful tips.Thanks for sharing..I like it..

  19. Great article to have come across at suck a timely stage. You have raised a few questions in my mind.

    Regarding point 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?):

    Should all experiments in your PhD show some significance and, if not, what percentage should? I guess at least enough so that you can publish something. On that point, how many papers should you aim to publish, or at least have accepted, by the end of your PhD and of those, should they mainly be on your experimental findings or is it fine to mainly have papers on other things (e.g., replicating other studies (regarding your March 2012 post - you can't replicate a concept) ?

  20. I have a question. I am at my last year of my Ph.D. and I feel that even though my supervisor is working hard and trying to help me. He is controling too much my research and lately making comments that things are taking too long to finish. I am working very hardto furfill all my tasks and some experience Ph.D. supervisor mentioned to me that my Ph.D. could be easily divided into two. Also for the past years I have not taken any vacation. So my question is: what do you think that I should do for my supervisor to understand that he is been unfair? He sees me every day working in the lab or in the computer. My motivation is really going down because I feel that my work is not being appreciated. Also that instead of focusing on my research this is making me think more about the bad steps of my work and I feel that he is Des motivating instead of "pushing " me to go further.

  21. Thanks for your advice. I am half way through my PhD but couldn't see where I was going.
    I will get back to it! :)

  22. Oh god, the number 8 is eating me alive! I just went through a week of making several mistakes on my data one after the other that eventually made my otherwise great supervisor go berserk. He openly mentioned the same trust issue you are talking about here. It makes me feel so powerless and ashamed. I am not a beginner so there is a high pressure to not have these sorts of errors, that seem like plain carelessness happen any more. And I think no matter what I do they will always continue to happen. It makes me doubt my intelligence and whether I should do this at all. The worst is, I feel like I am putting extra work on him, and I just don't know what to do to change it.

  23. Thank you for posting this. I am going through a hellish experience in my PhD. I don't know what to do. But maybe someone else will benefit if I write a little about my experience, so they can try to avoid the same thing.

    Sexual harassment. Threatening, physical harassment.

    Do get to know everyone before starting. Ask whether anyone has quit, or been fired. Find out about reputations. Remember that there is no HR department, and your legal rights are extremely limited as a grad student. Remember also that your supervisor will write letters you never will get to see about you, and can ruin your career merely by not stating the requisite number of positive things. This is ultimate power, over someone who must do as asked and *maybe* receive support and opportunity (or avoid being a whipping boy/girl), and is not paid more than the most minimal amount. Your career can also be ruined by someone who simply is good at finding excuses to provide you with no assistance whatever, and convincing others that that is your fault. You can spend all your time begging in emails, and repeating in meetings that you keep getting stood up for, for any help, to no avail. I advise if this happens to change supervisors very early-- if you wait, as I did, you will not be able to get a letter from someone able to comment on your work. So many years wasted. It's very sad. Do take advantage of the free counselling, of course, and see the Ombud. But the Ombud can really do very little. If you make a formal complaint, your career is over.

    1. I had this experience at the master's level in a different discipline and my degree ended without one. 3 years of my life and tens of thousands in debt later, my dream is impossible, it ruined my life, and it wasn't even my fault. My reputation isn't trashed (somehow), and I strongly suspect, that even they would now admit I got screwed.

      They misused their ethical obligation to remove me (for something they couldn't identify, describe, or tell me how to fix) as an excuse to traumatize me. Even they told me, "It was nothing you did wrong." I confronted and fought them every step of the way because I knew what they were doing was wrong, and so did they; that's why they dragged it out.

      Once they decide you're done, these professionals who claim they "care" will turn on you faster than you can exhale, twist what you say into something you NEVER said, lie, duck and dodge what they're doing to you while telling you to "take responsibility"for yourself. Everything they do wrong will somehow become your fault, and then used as their "evidence" to kick you out in the name of your best interest.

      If I had a nickel for every person who offered to defend me or said they "couldn't believe so-and-so did that, it's not like them at all." I could pay off the massive debt I racked up for no reason. If you can tell you're getting screwed with or being treated differently than everyone else, GET OUT!

  24. Some very important advice here! So many people continue on in education, spending huge amounts of money so that they don't have to get a job, and ultimately if you're not going to go into academia it's hardly worth it!

  25. This is an interesting article to read. I am a current PhD student in a branch of experimental condensed matter physics and I have a few problems with some of these points.

    The biggest problem is the 3 year 40 hour week aspect. I simply do not care enough about the research to work evenings and weekend. It takes everything I have willpower wise to put in a consistent 40 hours a week of work. Believe me when I say this, but I would rather commit suicide than work more on my research.
    I simply do not comprehend how you and so many others seem to maintain interest in their research for such an amount of time.

  26. Awesome guide, it is really helpfull and includes so many important topics.

    My personal addition:

    Whenever setting goals in a meeting with your supervisor allways take notes and send them a resume of the meeting/ most important points to their mail afterwards.

    In this way you will have the opportunity to reflect on your goals and more importantly help to make sure that you and your supervisor are on the same page. Imagine going back to your supervisor after a month or two of hard work to present your progress and they had something completely different in mind/ forgot what you had agreed on. This can also help when you have more than one supervisor and avoid misscommunication.

  27. What a great post (and definitely not the work of a dementor). I'd add to looking after your health-- get enough sleep. Obvious and trite but when you start saying things like "after my son was born, writing papers was so much easier because I was more well rested", something was clearly wrong. One thing I wish I had done early on in my PhD was seek help for persistent sleep problems rather than assuming it was normal or inevitable.

  28. Thanks. I guess based on what you have said, I've wasted one month of my PhD.

  29. It is a really excellent post. Thanks, Chris. Could you give more advice to intentional PhD students? I found the cultural background make it even harder for PhD life, including the way of thinking, language problems (a really huge problem, especially for writing), et al.

  30. The article was quite insightful. Thank you

  31. What does it mean when your supervisors say you don't ask critical questions?

  32. Interesting read. I think one thing that should be mentioned is the feeling of inadequacy. Being left in the dark when stuck with a dementor... not knowing if you're analyzing data correctly because no one is willing to set aside time to help you. As a student in a lab with a mentor who is no longer at the bench, he has a tendency to bark commands then say, "I know it's easy for me to say go do this 5 day experiment, but it would really strengthen blah blah blah." He has no knowledge of the newer protocols that are done in the lab and the junior faculty's English serves as a barrier that prevents her from actually giving some worth while help when she does take the time to explain things.

    In theory I think I'm a good scientist, as I've learned how to think critically and design a project with limited to no instruction, but in practice I'm not confident in my abilities because I don't have anyone who is telling me I'm doing the protocol correctly or that I'm analyzing the results the right way. It's been a lot of guess work, praying and asking other labs how they do things. I shouldn't have to go to another lab across campus or at another university to learn how to do an experiment we've published on. I shouldn't know that going to ask my mentor a research question is going to result in me spending 30 minutes to an hour sitting in his office and getting absolutely no where. I shouldn't have to be jealous of the new post-doc who is being trained properly when we (grad students) were thrown to the wolves, told to read and come up with something.

    Granted we will probably be capable of transitioning into an independent work place easily, but how beneficial is independence if you've taught yourself the wrong way to do things?

    -Sincerely... a frustrated PhD Candidate.

    I suppose if I've learned nothing in these 4 years of hell, I've at least learned what type of PI I will not be.