Earning a PhD is a rewarding experience. You are here because you are curious, love to learn, want to discover and innovate, and aspire to contribute to the advancement of mankind. But, like most things in life, while working toward your PhD there will be ups and downs, and by experiencing both challenges and success you will learn and grow.
If you search the internet you will find a dozen different blogs or articles with tips on how to succeed in graduate school. Many of the tips you read will likely apply to you, and although you will not need to reinvent the wheel, you will need to blaze your own trail to a certain extent. With that being said, here are some tips you can consider as you navigate your PhD (modified from writings of the previous DGS).
- Keep in mind that the majority of the effort you will put into your PhD will be related to your thesis. Therefore, choose a thesis advisor who will mentor you well and a thesis project that you can “own” and that truly excites you. Stay on top of the literature related to your project and critically review the data presented in any paper instead of just accepting the author’s conclusions. Think about what new questions can be asked based on your results and the results of others.
- Learn from others around you and seek input when you need it. Talking through your experiment or result with others can often give you a new perspective and help you come up with new ideas (and vice versa).
- You will have to work very hard. Learn how to be organized, keep your focus, and work smart (do you really need to check Instagram 5 times a day?) because you will also need to be careful to not burn out. Take care of your physical and mental health (see appendix 2 of this handbook).
- There will be times when things don’t go as planned. Take a deep breath and then think about how to keep things moving forward, talking it over with your advisor and others as needed. Being called “resilient” is a compliment. If you make a mistake, own it and learn from it. Celebrate your victories and achievements too.
- Be proactive because you are your own best advocate. But also keep in mind that you also don’t have to do everything on your own. Leverage all the resources at your disposal to be successful.
- Learn to be an effective communicator of your science. From day one you should keep a detailed lab notebook- someone should be able to read your notebook, understand what you did, and be able to replicate your experiment exactly. Throughout grad school (and likely beyond) you will need excellent writing and oral communication skills. Get feedback early and often to help improve your communication skills. Learn how to make a slide show and poster that effectively displays your work while also being visually appealing. Always remember the “why” behind your project when communicating your work in any form. Online sources such as Grammarly can be helpful with grammar.
- Talk to your advisor about (or seek out for yourself, see point 5 above) any funding or training grant opportunities you may be eligible for. Writing a proposal or grant is often an excellent way to improve scientific reasoning and communication skills. The graduate school has a list of funding opportunities. Be respectful of laboratory resources and grant funding.
- Attend local, national, or even international meetings to present your science, learn from others, and network. Travel awards often are available (see point 7 above).
- Think about your future post-PhD. In most situations, your thesis research will be important for landing you your “dream job” but you should also have an Individual Development Plan (IDP) that you discuss with your advisor and committee. Take advantage of opportunities you think will give you knowledge or skills that you will need to succeed in the next phase of your career. Keep in mind that some jobs (e.g. post-doctoral positions in larger labs) may require that you begin the search process well before you defend your thesis.
- Make social connections both within and outside of our program. Sometimes participating in organizations like AAPS have multiple benefits — you get to know people in the program better, meet new people, and also take advantage of opportunities for career development and scientific advancement. Plus, the AAPS welcome event on the Terrace for new students each year is pretty cool.