…by Katherine / from Canada / PhD Biomedical Sciences 2015-2018
The Fringe is finally over! I must say that I have out-Fringed myself this year, I went to 9 shows! 9 shows! Little old me who vowed to avoid the Fringe! In my defense it is hard to avoid it when they are set up right outside the office window and the smell of the food trucks waft through the open windows.
This year again, I wanted to impart my wisdom to you dear blog readers. I am officially at the end of my PhD (how did that even happen? Where have 3 years gone?), I am a little older and a little wiser and a lot more resilient, so it is time for round 3 of Katherine’s kernels of wisdom. If you missed the first two versions you can read them here and here.
Time is your enemy
Time is sneaky, it’ll lull you into a false sense of safety, because hey, you have 3 whole years to work in the lab, it’ll be a breeze. Let me tell you, it is definitely not a breeze. It is a full fledged hurricane-force wind. Time management is essential! There will be some quieter times in your PhD, for instance when you first start in the lab, when you are waiting for cells, flies, worms, etc. Although it is tempting to take it easy during this time, take advantage of it to get ahead. Maybe start writing a literature review or format your figures. I know that a break is well-deserved especially after particularly hectic weeks, but trust me, future you will be eternally grateful for any little bit of work that you do now that will help them in the future. Regular meetings with your supervisor will also help you keep on schedule.
There are very high highs and very low lows
Science and research in general is wonderful. There are so many novel things out there to observe and discover. When somethings goes right (like when I finally saw a phenotype after working on the same model for 3 years) you are elated. Absolutely nothing can bring you down. It is important to remember these highs when things stop working. Because inevitably, things will stop working… The phenotype that you were basing a whole chapter on could turn out to just be an artefact of one experiment on one day, the whole day you set aside for electrophysiological recordings could go down the drain because your cells were unhealthy… As a PI once grumbled to me on a Friday night as we were sat passing cells: “Science is 1% joy and 99% sheer devastation”. This is why all little wins should be celebrated.
Have a good support system
Whether these are other PhD students who understand what you are going through, old friends who try their best to make you forget about science when you are with them, parents, siblings or the barista at your favourite coffee shop, it is important to have a social life outside of the lab. I mean, who else are you going to celebrate all your little victories with?
Get out of the lab
I know I say this every year, but I can not emphasise how important it is to have a life outside of work. PhDs take over your life. It is good to have an outlet outside of the lab to put your energy into. Anything that is able to push your research out of the foreground of your mind for a wee bit. It could be yoga, cooking, building a flux capacitor, baking, going to the gym, playing Klingon boggle, knitting, teaching or learning a new skill like how to read Elvish.
Get as much experience as possible
Despite microscopes and stimulators not working, I still think that going to India was a high point of my PhD. Not only did it teach me how the internal components of a stimulator and microscope power supply box work, but it gave me the chance to play the role of expert. Although this can be terrifying, it is such a good exercise. You learn to troubleshoot, you learn the references of all the key papers in the field off by heart and it ensures that you fully understand why specific standards are used in the field.
Any type of work experience in a different lab is a huge asset as it allows you to learn new techniques and new ways of doing things. As I’ve already said, labs everywhere can be very different from each other. The more exposure to different labs you get the more ready you’ll feel when the day finally comes to leave your little PhD lab nest and fly into the world of postdoc-hood.
Speaking of postdoc-hood, if at the end of your PhD, you decide academia or even science isn’t for you, that is okay, don’t let anyone say differently. Sure a subset of skills acquired during your PhD won’t be particularly relevant outside a lab (I don’t know many government officials who do daily transfections or data analysts who do regular genotyping), but there are so many transferable skills that you gain from doing a PhD: time management, attention to detail, perseverance, data management, ability to synthesise information, resilience, problem-solving, good written and oral skills, just to name a few. The years spent on your PhD will not be in vain, in fact, just the opposite, they make you a strong candidate for any job for which you wish to apply.
I hope that my kernels of wisdom throughout these 3 years have been helpful. Doing a PhD is a lot of work, so hopefully my advice can help make it all go smoother. Now, I have used up my self-allocated productive procrastination time for today, back to thesis-writing…