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 still ‘just a student’.
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?