Some surviving strategies and tips to face your PhD

The AMAZING tips of Alicia Rojas. Alicia is a brilliant PhD student at The Koret School of Veterinary Medicine.
If you are half as organize as Alicia, you will do just fine!

I started three years ago with my PhD in a project that didn’t have any funding and with no defined topic. So, from the first meeting with my supervisor, I knew that I would need tons of motivation in the next years to keep it ongoing.  It has not been easy, but the following pieces of advice have helped me through the course of the program.

Be in love with science-  Alicia Rojas

Be in love with science 

Sounds silly, but you really need to be. Only like this you will be able to take fiercely every challenge. The PhD is a roller coaster of emotions; very good days with results, weeks that nothing works, stressing courses, periods of apparent calm, and so on. As in any relationship, to be in love means to take the decision “to love” each morning.

Motivation 

To me, this is the most important and most recurrent point I have needed to remind myself every 3 months. Ninety percent of your planned experiments don’t go as you planned them. That´s the sad truth about research.  Everything is written perfectly in papers, but when you try to replicate the same experiment, for some reason nothing works the first time. Therefore, you need to motivate yourself and persevere to keep trying until it works, or you get to modify the technique. The motivation needs to come from yourself only, and not from the outside.  Let´s face it, you might have a strong disagreement with your supervisor, you might feel your projects are not moving on, maybe the conditions in the lab are not great or the courses you are taking have not been interesting enough. All these elements might boycott your PhD. However, if you remind yourself why you applied in the first place to the program and what motivated your entrance to the specific research group, you will find a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, you will.

Organization

Organize yourself, and by this, I mean set a routine for your daily basis. When I think to myself if I am an organized person, my answer is always “yes, but I can improve my method”. Notice here, that I used the word “method”.  This is because of two reasons: first, I am a super methodic person (for the good and the bad); and second, it is a method to keep a balance in your PhD research, side-projects, courses, significant other, kids, family, and overall, LIFE.  The organization will help you be more efficient in the lab and with your courses.  The following points apply differently to the stages of your project.

Before you start a project read as much as you can. This point might sound obvious to you, because this is what we do: read, read and read.  When I started my PhD program I read E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G about my subject (a super interesting dog parasite, if you are wondering!). I thought that since I didn´t know anything, I should read everything. I read in three weeks 219 articles about Spirocerca lupi, made a hand-written summary of each paper and printed key figures in tables. After this, I figured out the gaps or unanswered questions that the articles had and wrote them out. Yes, I am geek…! But that let me have a very intense and meaningful brainstorming. When I showed these imaginary projects to my supervisor, he was impressed and thought that my PhD should be focused on all those gaps. For some fields is impossible to know everything, but read as much as you can.

Finish what you start. Set an internal and realistic deadline. Probably you have read this in every “be a better person” blog. This keeps you working motivated to finish your experiments. It happens to me all the time that I start doing some experiments, something doesn´t work and then I put them in a dark and secluded drawer in my brain.  However, when I started to set deadlines for my different projects I worked more efficiently and kept track of what I did. Finishing doesn’t mean to end with great and positive results, it can also mean not finding anything, but at least you know!

Keep an updated lab notebook. If you don’t have one, buy one, it’s absolutely necessary (and actually mandatory) since theoretically, it belongs to your lab, future students, evaluations, papers, etc. This is the moment to bring out your hidden obsessive-compulsive disorder. Number the pages, make an index, for each experiment set a title of what you are doing, color code, label, set columns, refer to other pages, write your protocols, number the steps. Every time you run an experiment, take a few minutes to write what you did. These minutes might be annoying in the beginning, but in the future, when you are looking for past information, they will be completely worth it, which leads me to the next point.

Make an index

Make your work reproducible and traceable. This will help other people to replicate your experiments when you are no longer in the lab (because you finished your PhD, of course!). But it’s not only for this reason, it will help YOU keep track of past experiments, repeat procedures, find old samples and reagents, quickly explain what and why you performed a protocol, etc. For example, when I extract the DNA from a sample, I write in my notebook which kit I used, in what volume I eluted the DNA, which protocol I used and the modifications, the DNA concentration and quality and finally, in which box and freezer I stored the DNA sample. For those students working abroad, write in the notebook in the universal language of science, ENGLISH. It happened to a close friend of mine that she wrote her notebook in Spanish. When she was about to leave the lab she had to take some days in order to translate the whole notebook. So, make sure this doesn’t happen to you and write everything as if someone else needs to replicate what you are doing.

Buy a small notebook that fits in your lab coat and start your day by writing a “things-to-do” list. This has helped very much in organizing my day since I have clear from the morning the tasks that are pending and the experiments I need to do. In this little notebook I write down notes regarding experiments, contacts, phone numbers, meeting summaries and reagent quotes.  Moreover, in here I make all my calculations regarding the reagents I need to prepare and the samples I am testing.  You can also organize the tasks for next day.  Basically, this small notebook has the “during-the-day mess” and in my lab notebook I have everything clean and “official”.

Alicia's small notebook- the “during-the-day mess” notebook.

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Communication

During the PhD, you will not be working alone, you will need in different levels other people (supervisor, lab mates, lab managers, collaborators, committee members, etc), THUS a clean and clear communication is essential… Read your emails carefully before you send them. Be sure to keep yourself polite and clear. It happened to me that I sent an email without being polite enough, and the recipient got offended in some way. Remember that a flaw about written communication is that it doesn’t have intonation. Therefore, the same email can be read in many ways. This is why, when you are writing, you need to think that the other person is having a bad day.

Keep your advisor updated (and hopefully happy????)

If you have time, show your research updates to your supervisor in a small PowerPoint presentation. Nothing too complicated, just show important pictures, graphs or tables that can aid in explaining your results. Keep feeding your advisor with your work. For sure, she/he will appreciate this effort.

Share your knowledge and results

This is basic in science and the reason we ultimately publish something. But wait wait! Before rushing into writing a manuscript, share your results with your lab mates, you will be surprised by their input. Since they are not 100% involved in the project as you are, they see your results with different eyes. Therefore, they can be critical and give you some ideas to further confirm your experiments or help you solve a trouble you have.

Don’t get too comfortable

When you dominate a technique, don’t get too comfortable, you will make mistakes. It happens all the time. Suddenly you forget to remove the bubbles in a membrane for Western blot or adding water in a master mix for PCR. Why does this happen? When your brain starts to get used to something, in the next times it will do it in automatic mode. It’s like writing, you have done this million of times but if your mind is not fully connected with the pen, you will start writing Hieroglyphics.  So always connect yourself 100% with what you are doing.

Until here you might have an idea about my psychological disorders haha.
Well… As I said in the beginning, this comes with the good and the bad.
What is “the bad”? Sometimes you become too strict with yourself and others.
Remember that you need to keep a balanced life, so don’t overthink your emails, don’t obsess with the lab order or be too annoying with your lab mates.

The PhD is a journey that needs to be pleasant, exciting and interesting.
So, if you are in one of the two extremes, either too lazy to organize your stuff or too gripped with your things, I tell you, you are in the right way by looking within yourself to see how you can be better.
I did it, and I felt the difference.
Good luck, and don't worry, everything will be fine!

If you liked it – share it with a PhD or a Master students and they will thank you forever 😉

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אודות רלי בריל

מי אני?
רלי בריל, מקימת האתר "סטודנטים שיודעים", מייסדת קהילת "אמהות באקדמיה", בוגרת האוניברסיטה העברית, מרצה ומנחת סדנאות לעידוד לימודים ומניעת נשירה, שדרנית ברדיו החברתי הראשון בתוכנית "קול האקדמיה" ובכללי- לא נחה לרגע.

2 thoughts on “Some surviving strategies and tips to face your PhD

  1. Alicia thank you !

    You helped me alot to understand my personal journy keep up the good work. I am sure there is no montain you can't councer in your personal journy and thank you Rellly Brill … the one and only Relly for making that excellent confidence shot which is your exprience shared

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