Pursuing a PhD is a fun, rewarding experience. It’s perhaps the only time in your life that you can get paid to dedicate 100% of your time doing research, discovering new things and exploring new areas without any administrative constraints or other encumbrances. Those who stick it out do so because they can not imagine doing anything else. The intellectual challenge and achievement, the thrill of discovery, the freedom to make your own work schedule, the opportunities for travel and becoming part of an international scientific community and the potential to contribute to the advancement of mankind are just a few of the many rewards experienced by successful scientists.
Below is a list of ten recommendations to help you launch your successful scientific career. If you don’t think you can meet most of the expectations described below, this is most likely the wrong career path for you – so think about this list carefully [adapted from Chenevix-Trench G. Nature 2006, 441, 252].
- Choose a thesis advisor whose work really excites you and who is well supported by grants and departmental infrastructure.
- Take full responsibility for your project. This is perhaps the most important (and often most difficult) transition an undergraduate must undergo. Focus immediately upon taking full responsibility for the direction and implementation of your research projects. A PhD scientist is expected to be an independent scientist and an expert in his/her field of study. Recognize that your advisor may not have all the answers, and be prepared to prove him/her wrong.
- Work hard, be persistent and multi-task but also play hard. Science is extremely labor intensive and thus, successful scientists typically work long days all week (including at least part of most weekends, ~ 60-70 hour weeks). If research is your passion, this should be easy, and if it isn’t, you are probably in the wrong field. Scientific research is also prone to failure and thus you must develop the ability to run multiple experiments simultaneously and be persistent to expedite your level of success. Always have something running at the bench but learn when take weekends and/or reasonable holidays off, so you don’t burn out.
- Read the literature and develop strong writing and presentation skills. You can’t possibly make an original scientific contribution unless you know what has been done. In your spare time (not in lieu of running experiments) read all current and past literature even remotely related to your research. A successful scientist must also be able to effectively communicate their work through both written communications and oral presentations. Your ‘sales pitch’ could very well make or break your next grant application, manuscript submission, and /or job application/interview.
- Be meticulously organized and set ambitious goals. Efficient experimentation begins with a clean bench, fresh reagents, well-maintained equipment and a carefully planned strategy. A sloppy experimentalist will quickly fall behind their meticulously organized colleagues. Keeping an up to date, detailed lab book will simplify manuscript and thesis writing, help others repeat your work and will also protect valuable intellectual property. Maximize your productivity by setting ambitious goals, making daily/weekly lists of what needs to be done to achieve these goals and sticking to your lists!
- Be creative and critical. Think about what you are doing, why you are doing it and whether there are better ways to go. Don’t be afraid to think big and outside the box. When reading the literature, attending seminars, and thinking about your own work, approach it as a skeptic. Effective scientists are critical thinkers with the ability to quickly identify weaknesses in scientific logic and/or experimental strategy without personal/professional bias.
- Actively seek advice and new avenues. Seek technical information and advice from scientists in your lab, department or on campus. Don’t waste time re-inventing a protocol when ten minutes with a nearby expert will get you the protocol and all the insider tricks. Also, if your supervisor doesn’t seek you out regularly, go and talk to him/her. When you are inexperienced it is very easy to get off track and waste valuable time and resources.
- Appreciate your research funding and look for funding opportunities. Your research is predominately funded via extramural government and/private support both of which are extremely difficult to obtain. Try to conserve resources by thinking carefully about every experiment. Also, work with your advisor to target predoctoral funding opportunities (even small ones like travel grants, etc.) — these add $$ to your lab and value to your CV.
- Keep an eye on the future. If you hope to stay in research you should be aware that you will be judged almost exclusively on your research productivity and publication record. This judgement includes the number of papers, your position in the author list and the quality of journal in which the work is published. If considering a top tier postdoctoral position (essential for an academic career and increasingly important for industrial positions), work toward positioning yourself enough with lead time to apply — waiting lists for entry into these labs can be years in advance.
Ultimately, to be successful you need to be at least four of the following: hard-working, motivated, creative, smart, skillful and lucky. Focus on the elements you can control (i.e. don’t depend upon luck to save the day).