There are loads of things I wish I was told before starting this PhD. The list is so long that I am not even sure where to start with. Apart from the obvious things, like making sure to find a supporting and understanding advisor (really learned this the hard way), familiarising with the wellbeing facilities like the health centre, gym etc, or finding your community of people, either by joining societies, book clubs, becoming member of sport and more professional clubs (will talk about this later on this month).
After four years in grad school and 10 in academia (yeah, I am an old gal), I have come to learn that you will not get any amazing recognition for your PhD thesis! No Nobel Prize, no Plank Medal or Reaxys Prize. Unless your name is Donna Strickland. And also in that case, you will see the recognition ages after you handed in your doctoral thesis.
I see loads of young researchers and scientists getting upset for negative results, negative experiments, broken flasks, or flasks dropped in the rotavap bath! There’s nothing wrong with that as many of us choose a path in science for passion. The problem comes when you define you self-worth, confidence as a scientist, self-esteem and mental health according to the outcome of your experiments in the lab. This is an unhealthy approach to research, in my opinion, as all aged scientists know that research rarely leads to a positive outcome. We are discovering the things that none has done yet, establishing new protocols, inventing the equipment that doesn’t exist yet! We don’t have instructions to follow, we create our own instructuctions!
Do not define you self-worth, confidence as a scientist, self-esteem and mental health according to the outcome of your experiments in the lab.
Based on my own experience, I learn how to disembody myself from my research. It took a couple of years and I got into this grown mindset after loads of pain, sleepless nights, anxiety, weekends spent in the lab to feel better about myself (welcome impostor syndrome!)
A few tips:
Please, please, please. Do not compare your progress to anyone else’s. Everyone learns at a different speed and pace. Some folks pick up new stuff quicker than others or just spend more time doing research. Also, when you start your research, you’re just an early-stage researcher. Some people around you might have been around for years and it is normal that they show more confidence when doing or talking about science.
As a scientist, believe what you can directly observe. This does not only apply to science but everything around you too. I have seen loads of people talking about their upcoming papers, their cracking data, claiming that they needed just a few more data to publish a patent etc. I am still waiting to see their papers and patents published. Loads of folks with big egoes, will make everything to make you feel like a failure, you don’t belong, undermine your skills as a scientists. Forget about them! This is by no means a reflection of who you are, most likely a definition of who they are!
Do not believe to those who claim to have papers in the pipeline after a few months since the beginning of their PhD.
If you are lucky, you will see some positive results only the last few months of your PhD. Before that, it’s all about learning, not only about science! You should take this opportunity to step up with your higher education and grow as a person and professionally. Doing a PhD is a unique experience to become the person you want your kids to look up to in the future!
Finally, please do remember that a PhD is just a slice of the pie in the broad scheme of your life! It is important indeed but doesn’t have to drag you down either!
A PhD is not a sprint, but more like a marathon (this is why it lasts 4 years). You train constantly every day (going to the lab) and you get to see the final result only the day of the race (oral defence). Plus, none has ever run a marathon after running once (you will not publish anything the first month). And along the way, despite every inch of your body hurts, JUST KEEP RUNNING!