What I wish I knew before I started my PhD!

When starting a PhD, our mind is solely focused on research. Read anything available in the area of interest, probably expand our research horizon to fit and accommodate more ideas, get to the point to form a hypothesis, work on proving or disproving it, write our experimental or theoretical adventures in a thesis and hope we did our good deed towards saving the world. Sure, that sounds like a good plan. If our only goal in life is to do a PhD. Because so far my experience has shown that PhD researchers have other goals after obtaining the Dr prefix, I gathered my thoughts and experiences on what I wish someone told me before starting a PhD. This advice has been categorised into three separate, yet interconnected sections, as it is too much and too diverse to be put together. This advice is part of my personal experience, I am sure that different people have different experience to share and add to these lists. OK, let’s start!

The first section I will touch upon is the “scientific” front of a PhD. What is a scientific front? In my mind it relates to everything around the area of research, i.e. equipment, methods, chemicals, your supervisor, the limits of the selected topic. Having said that, I wish I knew the following:

1. The equipment/methods used and needed for my specific project. Knowing those, I could familiarise myself with the theory/practicalities before “my actual measurements”, not wasting samples or delaying other people waiting in line for the equipment. Let’s not discuss the hypothetical scenario that a piece of equipment would break because I did not use it properly…

2. The need for planning ahead and accounting for arising issues. What would you do if equipment decided to break midway your analysis (not because you did not know how to use it)? The first reaction would be panic. Passing this stage contacting the people who can help is a very good line of thought. Which means being aware of who these people are. Usually pieces of expensive equipment are assigned to specific academics or technicians who look after them, so being familiar with these names and preferably with the people as well is advised. Also, having another measurement or experiment on the back burner can help you feel you accomplished something, even if the “star of the show” failed you.

Where all the labwork happened… – Image taken by myself

3. All the necessary safety paperwork (risk assessment, CoSHH, etc) needed before labwork commencement. Filling up the necessary forms is crucial to set a safe base for lab work and sometimes it can take A LOT of time before having them approved and being allowed in the lab. Although you might be able to slip in the lab and conduct experiments without safety forms in place, this is highly not advisable, as a simple mistake can lead to major hazards and even death (apologies for the morbidity, I am sure my safety officer would find this sentence appropriate).

4. To make sure I am on the same page with my supervisor(s) about my project. Often, supervisors don’t see our projects the way we do, they are too busy to care for the details, too driven to focus on our angle. Keeping them up to date with your progress and talking explicitly about future steps can help both parties avoid disappointment and maintain a clear idea of the overall perspective of the project.

5. Know when to quit following a “dry” avenue. Being focused on getting positive data (whatever that means to various disciplines) means being persistent even when all indications point to a different direction. However, after a number of unfruitful efforts, the time to draw a line and change direction comes. Keep insisting on a specific target might mean not exploring other ideas, potentially more fruitful or more interesting!

Overall, a single line of advice on the scientific front is trying to be prepared and flexible.

The second distinguished part of a PhD is the “professional” front. It relates to everything around the PhD that is not actual research (lab-work, data collection, theory development), i.e. networking, extra-curricular activities, transferable skills. It might not seem as a straightforward part of a doctorate research programme, however, if we do not think about the professional aspects of doing a PhD, then we are missing a big part of the overall experience. Having said that, I wish I knew the following:

1. The importance of networking. Try to attend conferences, seminars, symposia, summer schools (given financial abilities and the availability of such events in your field). Get in touch with people conducting relevant research in your university, or arrange visits to external colleagues. Getting to know the people who work in your field is crucial for staying on top of your game and potentially asking for a job in the future. That does not mean ignoring everyone else, especially if you want to switch fields or do something else. The bigger and the more elaborated your circle is, the better for you in the long run.

2. The importance of joining professional organisations or networks. Similarly to the previous point, being a member of various relevant organisations helps with getting out there, being aware of opportunities or trends in your sector, occasionally gives you a sense of belonging. Also, some organisations advertise jobs internally, so getting a heads up is always good. I will put LinkedIn in the same category, as a professional networking tool. Sarah made a great post recently with advice on how to improve your LinkedIn profile. A good place to start is global or international organisations for the general discipline and then look for more targeted networks. Some of them require a membership fee, but this is usually discounted for students, and the university or your supervisor might be able to cover it on your behalf.

Participating in outreach activities – Image taken by a colleague

3. The benefits of engaging with extra curricular activities. During a PhD there are moments (maybe periods), where you just don’t want to do it (come on, I know it is not only me!). Having other activities requiring your attention and input is always a good way to have a break, put some effort on something else, develop new skills, meet new people (and network!). During my second year where the hard times begun, I got heavily involved with teaching of undergraduate modules and lab demonstrations. Then I got engaged in various committees, and networks, having substantial input. I also became co-supervisor for students in their research projects. I also volunteered for outreach and public engagement activities and became a STEM ambassador. For some of these activities I was getting paid, from all of them I got valuable transferable skills!

4. Embracing the opportunity to learn. Undoubtedly doing a PhD means learning everything around a tiny bit of science, but what I refer to in this point is be open to learning in a broader context. Discuss with fellow PhD researchers and get an idea of what they do, see the diversity of research around your department, your faculty and your university. Pay attention to those boring (sorry not sorry) group meetings and see what people in your group are doing. You never know, you might be able to start a collaboration, help them if they are stuck, offer them a different perspective, and vice versa. My project was on water treatment via biocatalysis, but I learnt bits and bobs about energy storage, carbon capture, waste valorisation, scale-up and commercialisation, not bad…

Take steps to identify your ideal career! – Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

5. Taking advantage of what the university offers for free. Did you know that majority of universities offer development opportunities for researchers? For example the university of Sheffield offers many seminars and events targeted to soft or hard skills development, professional awareness, employability awareness and career management. Attending them can help you boost your CV, make career decisions, meet people (have I mentioned that enough?) and see what else is out there.

Overall, a single line of advice on the professional front is to be open to experiences, start making a rough career plan and recognise opportunities.

Moving on the last section of advice I wish I was given before my PhD, we will talk about the “self-care” front. What does self-care refer to? It refers to how we can take care of ourselves physically and mentally, how to maintain our sanity and stay on top of our game despite the pressure from various directions. Having said that, I wish I knew the following:

Taking time off and exploring Boston. – Image taken by myself

1. The need for making time for myself. In the fast-paced academic environment where many researchers are working on similar problems trying to surpass each other, it is very easy to embrace an over-working culture. It is common for PhD students to work double-digit hours per day and think of it as normal. I jumped on this rollercoaster during my first year, having super high expectations of myself, trying to make my supervisor happy, trying to forget I used to have a life before engaging to a PhD. And that was so wrong. Although there is no rule or contract indicating how many hours researchers need to work, we need to maintain a balance! Make time for ourselves to relax, be away from the lab or computer, see our friends and family, gain perspective and treat our human side, not only our scientific side. Making time for myself definitely helped me be more efficient and helped me maintain my motivation.

2. Avoid comparing myself with other researchers. Although comparison is needed to keep us aware of our performance and maintain high efficiency compared to our previous “records”, in academia it is very easy to start comparing our performance to the achievements of other researchers, ignoring a huge and usually forgotten culprit. Every researcher is a different person, every project is different and the circumstances in each case are different. Compared to other colleagues who were lucky to work on more fruitful or cutting-edge projects, made the right turns in their research, had support from collaborations and were able to publish a few papers, I was the ultimate nothing. I will not lie, during my second and third year it hit me hard. I felt worthless, bad researcher, not deserving my place, just lucky to be where I am. And then I took a moment to realise the aforementioned, that different people, different projects, different circumstances and motivations, lead to different results. There is no point to compare, everyone works at their own speed and abilities and surely everyone has their own little achievements to be proud of. Unfortunately success in academia is measured by publications and the ability of academics to overpower each other so “bad” comparison is almost inevitable. Trying to keep a positive and focused on ourselves headspace might be very useful. At least it was for me during the end of my PhD!

3. Eat and sleep properly. Similarly to making time for ourselves, eating and sleeping properly is of paramount importance for our functions and performance, especially in such pressing environments. Personally, I always prioritised my sleep and did not discount it during my PhD, but many researchers face disturbance of their sleeping pattern. My nutrition was put on hold due to the research schedule I had and my effort to balance my “other” life and I noticed that my habits became worse over the course of the PhD, relying on snacks and fast food, that eventually had an impact on my weight and made me feel sluggish and craving for more. Although there is nothing wrong with having them every now and then, after engaging more with cooking, meal prepping, learning a bit about balanced nutrition and monitoring the levels of nutrients in my body, I started feeling better. A PhD, research and academia are not worth putting your health at risk.

4. Reflect and talk about what I feel, don’t swallow it. It took me such a long time to start discussing about how certain behaviours, events and situations made me feel and it felt so much better after doing it! Especially given the fact that many other colleagues were experiencing similar feelings. Not talking about how we feel only makes things worse. No-one can provide advice because they do not know what we are going through, we feel bad all the time, this might have an impact on our performance, lead to depression and deprivation of our mental health. Having people around me who were able to understand what I was talking about made me feel “normal” and not unreasonable for what I was thinking. There are many publications showing that PhD researchers can develop issues related to poor mental health during their studies, indicating that there is definitely a problem. So instead of swallowing your feelings, consider talking about them to people you trust or who might be able to help.

Uplifting graffiti work in Sheffield – Image taken by myself

5. Realise my value and hold on it. It was around my second year, where after having a “successful” first year, I started realising that my project would not be one of the “academically successful” ones. And this was a major hit to my self-esteem, as I had tied my abilities and self-worth to the success of my project. I was thinking that if things do not work, it is because I did something wrong, or had not studied the system enough to predict responses, or I was ignorant of basic principles, or I was just stupid. Well, science does not always work in our favour and most of the times, not achieving a positive/expected/successful result has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with unexpected and unmapped scientific details. Having said that, I did my fair effort to develop as a researcher and learn about my topic, learn new techniques, develop new skills and broaden my horizons. And not having scientific papers cannot take that added value away.

Overall, a single line of advice on the self-care front is to take care of yourself, inside and out; it is what you start with and what you will end up with after the PhD, if you do not take care of you, no one else will do it.

These lists are not exhaustive by any means, for sure there is more advice to be added. Talking with other researchers made me realise that they did not receive such advice either. This makes me think that universities, departments, supervisors, even senior researchers, should maybe make an effort to prepare PhD researchers for what is about to come. To my experience, stated expectations for my PhD were to get trained in specific equipment, attend lectures about ethics in research, try to attend conferences and produce papers. Given that there is so much more than that in a PhD, I am sure we can do better in being prepared and prepare others.