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Things I wish I’d known before starting a PhD

I have been in full time education for 22 years. That’s 22 ‘first days at school’. As we start the new school year, I thought I’d take some time to think about what I wish I’d known when I first started my PhD. Usually, it’s a difficult time. You’ve just moved to a new city, probably have a new flatmate that you don’t know, and your friends from undergrad have all started ‘proper jobs’ while you’re stilljust a student’.


That’s me on the top row! My very first year in school…22 years later and I’m still here.

The whole process of studying for a PhD takes a lot of dedication. I already knew that when I was applying, but I underestimated the amount of effort it would take mentally. Making sure to take time away from the lab, and not doing any work while I wasn’t there really helped me with this. After an intensely stressful first year, it took me a long time to get into the habit of not checking my emails every few hours. My old supervisor was quite needy and liked to ask questions at all hours of the day, regardless of weekends or holidays. Made much worse as she had my phone number. Once I got out of that situation, I made sure to limit the number of people that have access to my number from work. If somebody needs you, they can email you. If it’s truly urgent, they’ll do it themselves or find an alternative. I had to learn the hard way that you need to take a step back sometimes for your mental health.

Continuing from that, it’s OK to say no. If your supervisor has unrealistic expectations of your time, or you won’t be able to meet deadlines they’ve set for personal or professional reasons, let them know. If you don’t they’ll continue to ask more of you, thinking that you’re managing just fine, when in reality you’re struggling. Its at this point that you can really begin to resent the process.

Picking the right supervisor, and the right project, is no easy feat. You’re being thrown into a totally different environment than you’re used to. Take your time. Three years is a long time to put up with a decision that you made badly because you rushed it,or didn’t look at all the options. If you can, speak to other students and post docs in the labs to see how they feel. Make sure to ask lots of questions, not just how many conferences do they get to attend. What does the supervisor expect from them? What kind of support do they get? Is the atmosphere a good one? From personal experience, if you have a choice, don’t ask British students. We’re way too polite, and we will always put a good spin on things.

Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. You will have to repeat that experiment with 100 variations just to get it to work. That’s OK. Everybody has their own techniques for things, and everybody will take this time to tell you their secret tip that will definitely make it work every time. For me, Westerns work best on Wednesdays (I have a 100% success rate for developing on Wednesdays, I don’t question it). Unfortunately it’s an annoying fact that science doesn’t work most of the time. When you finally get that positive result, it carries you through all the times when things didn’t work and makes it (sort of) worth it.

What things did you wish you’d known when you first started PhD life?


Dr Mike‘s reading of this blog post here.

2 thoughts on “Things I wish I’d known before starting a PhD

  1. Crispin McDuck says:

    The picking the project is ridiculously important in fact. Moving on to post-doctoral positions, you realise that turning down a position that just isn’t right for you will be the best decision you can make, regardless of if it’s the only one you’ve been offered and seems like gold dust at that moment of time. Always remember, you’re picking your supervisors as much as they’re picking you.

    But my big piece of advice? Don’t be afraid to take charge of your project. If it’s anything from countering your PI on their opinion (they are wrong a lot, so don’t be afraid to call them on it – it’s your project, they’re just supervising. You’re the expert in this, not them. If you disagree, speak up or you’ll project will suffer otherwise) to going out for a bender on a school night and taking a half day the next day. If you’re hard-working, producing results and are consistent at doing so, then manage your project and your time (especially how you take and spend your own time) how you see fit. You’re not gonna get kicked off the programme if you work every Saturday for 6 weeks straight, then come in hungover at 1pm on a Thursday afternoon.

    (Written in a bar in Copenhagen, where I am currently working on my thesis and meeting PIs for potential post-doctoral positions – it’s a tough life eh?)

    Liked by 1 person

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