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Shit I learned during my PhD

Doing a PhD is one of the greatest trials you will ever experience in your life. It is physically and mentally grueling, you will be challenged and pushed to the limit every single day, and the pressure levels are so high they will bust you right into the sixth dimension if you’re not prepared or strong enough.

So yeah, they are not for the faint of hearted. That is, if you want to succeed by pushing yourself to the limit, excel in everything that you apply yourself to, and grow to become more powerful than you can possibly imagine (compared to the wimpy undergrad you used to be). But I imagine you wouldn’t even be doing a PhD if this wasn’t your mentality anyway.

I’m a strong believer in committing yourself fully to something if you believe in it, and doing everything within your power to achieve your goals. A PhD is basically a 3-4 year long single project that you can, and should, dedicate yourself too. Now that I’m nearing the end of my own challenge, I wanted to share some simple things with you all that might help in some way.

    1. Don’t compare yourself to other people, especially researchers
      Every day, you will see other people achieving their own things. Encourage the success of others, but do not think that this means your own work has any less value. I think this competitive nature of academia is one of the main causes of Imposter Syndrome for researchers. Acknowledge that others will succeed, and that your own successes will come too. Which leads on to..
    2. Be content with your successes
      Celebrate all the things! Get a paper published? Awesome! Abstract accepted for that conference? You’re amazing! Get some code to run? Get a beer! Accepting that your successes, no matter how big or small, are meaningful is a great step towards acknowledging your personal worth. Both to yourself and others. That doesn’t mean rub them in other people’s faces; simply allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of completing something that meant something to yourself or others. It took me about three and a half years of my PhD to get there and realise ‘Oh. Maybe I’ve finally done something good.’, and then it was like a cascade from there where every achievement began to mean something and excite and motivate me even more. My only wish is that I’d realised this sooner.
    3. Social media is a doubled-edged sword
      Social media such as blogging and Twitter are amazing to learn for personal development, networking, and science communication. The negative side of this is that social media emphasises point 1 in this list. People basically pump out all of the good things in their lives, and it’s like having 1000 marginally interesting success stories pummeled into your face on a daily basis. That is not healthy, as it becomes too easy to see this as a single timeline of success that you could not possibly live up to. This is why it is so essential to know that if you do use social media, what you’re looking at is a multitude, and not a single narrative of another person’s life.
    4. Challenge everything, especially that which seems normal or is the status quo
      Universities are places where freedom of thought and freedom of expression are standard. Note that this doesn’t mean you are at liberty to be a dick, and simply do or say things without thinking them through. If someone tells you to do something ‘because that’s the way it is’, challenge it. Conforming to expectations is not only boring, but changes nothing. Research and academia are places to unleash yourself and your creativity in ways that you will never get in a standard workplace, and you should embrace the opportunity. Rules are meant to be broken.
    5. Having a relationship during your PhD is insanely difficult
      A PhD is so time consuming it’s ridiculous. When people say they work 45 hours a week, a PhD student replies “Oh it must be nice working just a part time job..” This impacts quite a bit upon the hypothetical ‘work life balance’. I’m not gonna sugar it up, there is no work-life balance. Work becomes your life. Even when you’re not working on your PhD, you’re thinking about it. Trying to reconcile this with a love life is insane. If you can find a significant other who understands this, keep them for life. If they don’t, it’ll make the relationship all the more difficult. It’s not about placing one person/thing above another, but recognising that at certain times there are certain priorities that have to take precedent.
    6. Take every opportunity to travel
      PhD students can be blessed with unparalleled chances to roam the planet. We get to attend conferences, workshops, talks, and do our research in some of the most exotic, weird, wonderful, and exciting places on the planet. Embrace this chance, as you probably won’t get it ever again. Never be afraid to try something or somewhere new, and embrace every opportunity as a new learning experience.
    7. Take every opportunity to learn
      A PhD is a learning experience. Don’t ever feel stupid for not knowing something – no-one knows everything, and the whole point of research and education is that we’re forever pushing our boundaries by discovering new things. What is obvious to some people is clearly not to others, and you should not be afraid to ask questions, or be made silly for asking them. Over the course of 3-4 years for a PhD, you will be constantly learning new things, expanding your knowledge horizons, and acquiring new skills. Some times, you won’t even recognise that you’re picking up or developing skills. Often it’s worth going out of your way to try new things: a foreign language or a new coding language, creative writing, yoga, art, baking – anything that helps you to enhance yourself.
    8. Use your spare time to learn ‘secondary’ skills
      By ‘secondary’, I refer to those which are not strictly to do with research. These include learning how to write for non-specialist audiences through blogging as a form of science communication, learning marketing, advocacy and community building skills as a form of networking and promotion, and social media usage in order to more effectively communicate with a diverse range of audiences. These skills are invaluable and can open up a multitude of new opportunities, and if you learn to integrate them into your daily workflows can become valuable extensions of yourself.
    9. Learn to code. For the love of God learn to code
      Coding is frickin’ difficult, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Some people have a knack for it, others don’t. In the modern age though, the ability to code, or at least read or execute code, is so damn important. I’ve only learned how to use a bit of R during my PhD, but this basically saved my research just by learning the basics. Websites like CodeAcademy are super duper useful for picking up coding skills, and good fun and free too.
    10. Some people are assholes, and there’s nothing you can do about it
      The common asshole can often be a difficult species to find. Common traits include: 1. Talking about others negatively behind their backs; 2. Only ever talking about themselves and their activities; 3. Interrupting you to tell a story that’s just oh so much better; 4. Poisoning the way you think and act so that you begin to question yourself, but not in a good way; 5. Sapping all of your time and energy to deal with them and their problems; 6. Taking everything from you, but never giving something in return.One thing I’ve learned is not to engage with people like this. People who are not helping to build you are not people to surround yourself with, and are best removed swiftly and painlessly from your life. This also accounts for serial harassers, some times even people under the facade of ‘close friends’, and those who refuse to be held accountable for the words they say and the actions they perform. There is a whole world of amazing people out there, and do not settle for people who act like shit and treat you like anything less than you deserve.
    11. Be there for other people as much as you can
      I might have mentioned this once or twice, but doing a PhD is fucking difficult. Some times, those most in need are those who hide it most. Learn to read the signs of when people might be struggling, and be there as a stone pillar for them when they need it most. This is just part of being a good friend, and some times for people simply knowing that someone is there for you can make all the difference.
    12. Don’t sacrifice your mental or physical health for research
      At Imperial College, almost every grad student I know was suffering from some sort of mental or physical health issue. Alcoholism, depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia – the list goes on. The pressures of academia are insane, and don’t harm yourself just to get out a paper or do another experiment. Everything that needs to get done will get done with time. You work more efficiently by pacing yourself. Staying healthy in body is also a path to staying more healthy in mind. I started running during my PhD, and found that after a while I was able to focus more, sleep better, and not be so damn exhausted all the time. Also, don’t over-caffeinate – quitting ten shitty cups of coffee a day was awesome, I gained the ability to think again. If you’re a coffee fan, have one or two a day strategically. Drink a glass of water in the morning as soon as you wake up, and stay hydrated during the day. Don’t binge on carbs, and try and have a healthy diet. This shit actually works, is ridiculously simple, and you’ll feel a positive difference. Meditation can also be a powerful method for clearing your mind and helping you to focus – apps like Headspace are great for starting with this.
    13. Publish the shit out of your PhD as much as possible
      I’ve written about this one already here.
    14. Learn how to empathise with others
      This is a ridiculously powerful way of thinking, and very difficult to grasp. I’m not sure I’ve got it yet fully, but is something I try all the time. My parents always used to say to me ‘treat others how you would like to be treated’, and being able to place yourselves in the shoes of others and understand their feelings is important for this. By doing so, you’ll be able to understand the problems of others more easily, and generally perceive everyday issues in life from a more enriched diversity of views. It also means that you’re not thinking about things selfishly, shallowly, or narrowly. I got sick of people in London being so self-centred about their thinking, when it came to personal and academic issues, and is actually one of the key reasons why I left London and Imperial College in the first place.
    15. Learn how to think about problems from a range or perspectives
      Problem solving is an intrinsic part of academia. Shockingly, problem solving is not easy, either to do with research or real life situations. Being able to consider problems from as diverse a range of perspectives as possible is a very powerful tool for understanding and resolving them. Learn to be solution-oriented, focus on the positives, and consider how other people are perceiving a situation and what the implications of this are. Follow thoughts and actions through like a web – consider all possibilities and all implications of this. Through this, often the optimal solution will emerge, and you will be braced for all possible outcomes.
    16. If you recognise that you have a weakness, do everything you can to overcome it
      Part of self-development is recognising that you are not perfect. Everyone has weaknesses, or parts of themselves that can improve – if you can’t think of anything, think harder, or stop being so arrogant. Learning what these traits are is the first step towards building upon them. For example, if you have an issue with approaching new people and initiating conversation, slowly build up your confidence in smaller steps by approaching groups, people who you know from social media, or by planning out the first few lines of a conversation in your head in advance. For every problem, there are a thousand solutions – you just have to find that which suits you the most!
    17.  

      DISCLAIMER: These views are based on my own experience, and might be utter bullshit.

37 thoughts on “Shit I learned during my PhD

  1. I like a lot of the points here, especially the secondary learning and the social media ones. One point to nit pick, though: Points 7 and 8 seem a bit at odds with 9, especially the comment “Some people have a knack for it, others don’t.” That seems, in the words of Carol Dweck, to be very much in the “fixed mindset” as opposed to the “growth mindset” that 7 and 8 talk about.

    1. Hey Superfly,

      Thanks for your comments! All I meant by that is that some people have an original talent for coding, and can pick it up and learn fast. Others, like me, have to work a bit harder. It’s the same for any skill in life – we all develop our understanding at different paces.

      Jon

  2. Also: It’s ok to make mistakes, if you learn from them. No one is perfect and especially in a PhD one is still learning to do proper research and position yourself in academia (no wonder PhDs are nowadays sometimes arranged within Graduate Schools!).

  3. Not sure I agree with #3. I tweet and facebook about my miserable failures all the time, and can always find someone to share their own and cheer me up a bit.

  4. Overall, a great list. Perhaps this has been said, but in my own words:
    One thing that I think is very important is stability. Make as many things inherently stable as you can.
    * Work out a budget, stick to it. Now money is stable, and you don’t have to worry about the power bill when you’re trying to learn about ryanodine receptors.
    * Have food available – when your journal club presentation doesn’t go so well, you can take comfort in knowing there is food in the fridge for a good meal when you get home.
    * Make and work to keep friends (real, in person friends, not Facebook friends).
    * Use routines to take the thought out of as many things as you can. Yes, it’s not exciting to have microwave rice and two pouches of tuna every day for lunch, but it’s one less thing to think about.
    * Use the resources available to you. Many universities have physical and mental health services available, and often for no extra cost – use them.
    With a large stable base, the ups and downs inherent to learning to learn and do research will be a smaller percentage overall.
    I find this very helpful, and hope it might help someone else.

  5. Nice list, Jon. I think an important point for PhD students is to understand the skillset that a PhD gives them and be able to articulate those to future employers. Obviously most PhD students won’t end up in academia and even if they do, won’t be working on the very same specialisation. Think about those other skills – communication (verbal and written), project management, critical thinking etc as well as technical stuff like coding or lab skills. And despite the demanding nature of a PhD, its still important to have wider interest, both for your own sanity (literally) and also when considering future employability.

    The big difference I’ve noticed in jobs since my PhD is the need to be able to “let go” control of work. Its not true to say PhD students can’t work in teams, many will do so often during the course of their research. However, as a PhD student you have far more autonomy and control over your work than you find in most other jobs. Having to learn to rely upon and trust colleagues to do work for you, to negotiate responsibilities and accept that others have different ways of reaching the same objectives can take time and adjustment.

  6. “there is no work-life balance. Work becomes your life.”

    Nope. If you don’t have a life outside of your work, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying it’s easy to fit both into your life, but it’s definitely achievable. You have to work at it. You have to prioritize it. And you have to figure out how not to spend your working hours not actually doing work. Making sure you have work-life balance is a key in avoiding mental (and physical) illness.

    1. “DISCLAIMER: These views are based on my own experience, and might be utter bullshit.”

      You can’t say my experiences and opinions are wrong. This is what it was like at ICL for me and many of my colleagues. You lived, breathed, and slept your PhD.

      My point is that finding the balance is difficult, and becoming more so all the time as we have to try and make ourselves stand out in an increasingly competitive environment. If you find the balance, it’s awesome, but many don’t. I’m not recommending that people don’t find a balance either, just acknowledge that it is damn difficult. Otherwise, I agree with your point entirely – see point 12.

      1. I cringe at the idea of work-life balance. Work is part of my life, like other things, Life-life balance more like it for me. Different things dominate more or less at different times. I try not to feel that I ‘give up’ on one side, but rather try to deliberately trade based on what is a priority for me. During my PhD my priority was my PhD and I traded that for things, that at the time, I considered less important. And I don’t consider I am ‘doing it wrong’. I am perfectly capable of making my own choices. The trick is to make sure it is ‘me’ rather than external forces, that are in charge of the prioritising.

          1. Yup. Life is work and work is life. I finished my PhD many, many years ago and I never snapped out of that mode. If you are passionate about your work and know it makes a difference, then that work “becomes” your life and there is nothing to apologize for. What better way to be remembered than to have lived to contribute to humanity, and enjoyed the time too!!

            (You can see I’m getting old!!)

      2. Thanks for sharing your experiences. To me, point #2 is one example of finding (or at least starting to find) balance. I’ve looked at many resources about managing the PhD *process*, and they tend to agree that the PhD should be the #2 priority in your life as you study. They argue Priority #1 should always, always be “self-care”. This includes eating, exercising, taking time out, and nurturing important relationships. My observation is that PhD students usually feel guilty for spending time on these things – unless we take deliberate and active steps to change that thinking.
        To me, Point 2 is a move in that direction!

  7. I’m not sure about #4. Universities are supposed to be places of free thinking, and yes a tenured academics in theory have freedom of speech. And yes, I agree that a PhD student can also challenge norms in their field through a PhD. But to be awarded a PhD, your work still has to meet strict criteria and confirm to university requirements in order to be accepted. Even the most straight-forward PhD is an arduous journey, with huge mental and physical challenges. I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced that the PhD is the best time to be disruptive. I would rather take the path of least resistance and actually get my PhD done, rather than use all my energy fighting and never finish.

    1. The only problem with that, Kitchern, is that it leads naturally to thinking during your postdoc “Well, this isn’t the time to rock the boat, I need to keep my head down and concentrate on getting the work done”. And then when you get a job, you think “This isn’t the time either, I need to concentrate on getting promotion”. And when you finally make it to a prestigious, secure job, you’re going to be tempted to think: this system has worked for me, why should I rock it now?

      My experience has been that those who are ever going to meaningfully rock the boat, tend to start doing it early on. See for example Mike Eisen, Erin McKiernan, and indeed Jon Tennanrt.

      1. I’m not doing a post-doc so can’t comment on how much “boat-rocking” I would or would not do during one. People of many ages drive change across industry, non-profit, government, and universities. It seems independent of what they did during their university studies or their time as a PhD candidate. My observation is that many students struggle enough already during the process, and it’s quite OK put boat-rocking aside for those years.

  8. “Take every opportunity to travel” suggests you could access funding to do this, e.g. attend conferences and meetings. Was this capped – on either the total for each trip or total over the course of your PhD?
    My uni gives each PhD student around 3000 AUD, although full time students can apply for additional funds. Depending on the conference and location, just one international trip from Brisbane could easily use up these funds.

    1. Yeah, these things are highly situation-dependent, and I’ve been quite privileged to have quite a bit of cash for travel at Imperial College. If you’re fortunate to have funds, use them! Many institutes have grants for research travels, and sponsorship from learned societies and for conferences are quite common. And there’s crowdfunding if all else fails!

  9. “Doing a PhD is one of the greatest trials you will ever experience in your life.” I thought so too, by then my wife left me for two days home alone with my two little girls (1 and 2.5 years experience in making your live a living hell)…

    Other than that I totally agree! 😉

  10. If anyone scrolls this far down and wants some respite from this seriously intense post, I would like to add that my experience of my PhD so far is very pleasant and involves working around 5-6 hours a day, 5 days a week. And I often feel as though I am working too hard. Yet, I am on track. People forget, perhaps out of arrogance or self-aggrandisement, that a PhD is not meant to be hard. It is a logical progression from previous degrees that you are expected to complete without particularly heavy time pressures, and, if you are lucky, money worries.

    1. Australian PhDs are officially 3 (and a bit) years full time, but often work out closer to 4 years. I studied part time and took 7 years, 3 months. As a mature aged student, I can say that it was intellectually the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but not the hardest life experience I’ve had.

  11. Speaking as someone who’s about to finish graduate school, I agree with everything, especially G, H, I, and J. Especially I and J.

    Double-over-9000-critical mass ESPECIALLY J. With pictures of flaming-skull-and-crossbones all over it.

  12. I agree with most of these points, but I really disagree with “Having a relationship during your PhD is insanely difficult”! Of course, Jon, as you’ve already pointed out in replies to comments above, this is all based on your own experience, and no-one can or should expect you to write from any other perspective. So I am really not having a go at you here – but I guess my comment is aimed at the newbie PhDs who may read this post and freak out when they read that sentence…

    You *can* have a successful relationship during your PhD. I have managed it, and many, many people I know have too, with little difficulty. Granted, I was in a long-term relationship before starting my PhD, and can see how starting a new one may be hard when you’re already involved in a different kind of committed relationship with your thesis…! And like others have commented, there really can be a work-life balance. You just have to work at it a bit. I set out to maintain a good work-life balance when I started my PhD, because shit went down during my undergrad degree and I realised life was too short not to have, well, a life (more detail on my own blog post on the subject, here: http://wp.me/p2pjD9-fl). I don’t think you should set out thinking that you cannot have a life outside of your PhD, because all that will do is set you up for feeling incredibly guilty every time you take an evening off.

    But, of course, this all depends on the kind of person you are, and the situation you’re in. I simply wanted to relay my own experiences here so that any new PhDs reading this are aware that there is a choice, and you’re certainly *not* expected to work every waking hour, despite the pressure that your lab/supervisor/social media may appear to put on you to do so.

  13. I agree with all but the last. From the perspective of getting job, unless the weakness is a complete showstopper, I’d say forget it. Rather, if you know you have a strength, do everything you can to emphasize it and extract every piece of value from it. No one will hire you on the basis of your fairly well patched weaknesses. They hire you for your strengths. Don’t try to cut against the grain, spend your time getting better in the areas where you’re already good

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