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  • Writer's pictureTimothy Lambden

Lessons on a PhD

Updated: May 16, 2022

Inspired by Raj Pandaya’s article on lessons learned from finishing a PhD, I’ve decided to create a list of advice and tips I've picked up on along the way when undertaking a PhD.

Note: Wait till I finish my PhD for a complete list.

  1. Science and research is a privilege. It’s a luxury to be able to do what we do. Despite all the flaws in the academic ecosystem, always remember that.

  2. It’s much easier to get into a PhD program than it is to complete one. It’s a tough road ahead, get ready for a bumpy ride.

  3. A PhD isn’t the pinnacle of academia. It’s the beginning. There is fierce competition beyond for those who wish to climb the academic ladder, which is rather dependent on luck and timing.

  4. If you didn’t deserve to be here, you wouldn’t have been given an offer (cure for imposter syndrome).

  5. Your supervisor isn’t there to hold your hand, don’t rely on them to do so. Take initiative.

  6. Don’t fear failure. It’s both inevitable and necessary for a PhD.

  7. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know enough to know who to talk to when you get stuck. - Chris Russo

  8. Healthy habits are a must for long term sustainability. Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise, eat healthy, and make time for friends and family. Remember to take breaks too.

  9. The skills need to get into a PhD are not the same skills needed to succeed. Research is very different to studying for an undergraduate degree, it takes time to adapt to it.

  10. Being nice goes a long way, if you offer to take someones plate after lunch, a noble prize winner may just call you a lovely young man.

  11. Speak to as many potential supervisors as you can before you start your PhD. Choose carefully. Your choice of supervisor is more important than your research project. Respect as a human is a fundamental right. A PhD is an optional luxury.

  12. Cross-fertilisation of ideas due to collective interdisciplinary expertise leads to innovation that would be impossible to think of alone. Be that in nanoscience, or business too. Surround yourself with diversity and be open to new ideas.

  13. Be polite and punctual, don’t waste people’s time. You would be annoyed if they did the same to you.

  14. Remember that scientists are human beings, we all make mistakes.

  15. Backup files often! If you get your haircut more frequently than you backup your files you're doing it wrong.

  16. Look after your own mental and physical health, nobody else will.

  17. Write a to-do list at the end/beginning of each day.

  18. You can delegate work, but not understanding. When delegating work or supervising, make sure the students are aware what they are trying to achieve and the big picture that motivates the work.

  19. Make the most of any opportunities that come your way. Serendipity is your friend. Apply and attend every scholarship, grant, research talk and science commercialisation event you can.

  20. Don’t touch anything/tinker with anything that isn’t yours or you don’t know how to use.

  21. “In science, truth always wins” – Max Perutz

  22. Breakdown tasks into easy manageable steps, instead of big scary tasks that leave you checking your email out of avoidance. Find a flow state.

  23. Remember you’re part of a research group, help others out on their research too.

  24. "Romantic workplace relationships are hard. Set clear boundaries and communicate." - Raj Pandya

  25. A PhD is an original contribution to the body of knowledge. Be honest and don’t plagiarize, credibility and respect count for much more than you think. Both in the lab, and outside of it. Shortcuts may seem tempting, but there are consequences.

  26. Fundamentals are very important. Gaps in them halt you. Learn the fundamentals.

  27. You can’t learn and develop skills under extreme stress. If stress keeps building, it will be unsustainable. You need to take a break.

  28. It’s essential to stay with a problem longer than feels comfortable to make progress.

  29. Research is unpredictable. Don’t take experiments to heart if they fail and don’t dwell on it outside the lab.

  30. A PhD isn’t everything, don’t invest your self-worth on the outcome. A PhD signifies nothing about your value as a person or your intelligence, even it if feels like it does.

  31. Talk to someone if you feel physically or emotionally exhausted.

  32. Seek professional help if you are struggling with your mental health. University counseling service is available. Use it if you need to.

  33. Treat PhD work with equal priority even if it feels less urgent. Schedule your work and stick to it to ingrain the habit. Checking emails can be a major time sink.

  34. Ask what is expected of you from your supervisor before you start. If they have 30+ students, do they even have time to supervise you, what interaction will you get with them?

  35. Lack of direct contact can make research a lonely pursuit. The human element of research is very important, and will help keep you motivated and engaged.

  36. Take any opportunity available to discuss and present your work with others. Seek out feedback and criticism, and discuss other peoples work too.

  37. Maintain awareness of your own field, attend conferences, read papers etc. academic twitter is great for that.

  38. Gain practical experience as early as possible.

  39. Simplest way of entering a new field of research is to read just one paper. Any paper.

  40. The challenge isn’t to read everything, but to intelligently select what to read. Follow what you think looks interesting.

  41. Research projects are developed not found.

  42. The most interesting results often arise from the unexpected, bare that in mind.

  43. If you do anything new in the lab, validate your methodology and equipments under controlled experiments before doing anything else. It will only save you time in the future.

  44. Progress is largely determined by reaction to setbacks, don’t give up when things get hard, there may be a breakthrough just around the corner!

  45. Key to creative problem solving is to think beyond the first thing that comes to mind.

  46. Don’t need a perfect solution, just one that works.

  47. Don’t cite something you don’t understand.

  48. Analyse data early before doing any new experiments.

  49. knowing what the results are going to be prior to the experiment is a red flag, play devil's advocate for all your results.

Thanks for reading! Comment below any life lessons you want to share too!

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