The first weeks of your Ph.D. program might not feel that different from your undergraduate experience.
The real job begins when full-time research begins. This requires a lot of independence and self-direction and that needs a major adjustment.
I have been through the journey, paid my dues, got a T-shirt and here are some useful lessons for would be Ph.D. students. These are the things I wish I knew when I started my doctorate.
- Planning is very significant
Most graduate and post-graduate students are an excitable lot, especially in sciences. When the inspiration strikes, the first instinct is to drop everything and run to the laboratory to test out the idea. This is common with first years and to some degree, second years.
Sadly, this means setting up an experiment without grasping fully what the test entails. This can consume your nights and weekends without any results to show.
From experience, I know that one must ask him or herself a series of questions. Step back and get the most out of your time on the bench. To wit: how long will the experiment take? How long will each step take? Can they wait until the following day? Adequate preparation can at times save you a lot of time and enhance productivity.
- Don’t take experimental failures personally
Every time an experiment fails there is a temptation to blame yourself. “I must have done something wrong, and I'm wasting everyone's time and money,” you blame yourself. Later, in your graduate experience you will realize that it wasn’t your fault. It is the science being more complicated than you had anticipated
Also, talk to your adviser about failure. Some fear that the supervisor may say, “Obviously you’re just a terrible scientist and you shouldn’t be here,” but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would imagine. They want you to do well. Actually, your professor’s career progression, promotion and funding depend on their graduate students’ productivity. It is okay when things fail. You just must learn from it and take something useful from it.
Remember, no one knows everything in research. Otherwise graduate school would have no significance if we had answers to all questions.
- Take care of yourself: Hit the gym
The expectations for graduate students are not as clear as those of undergraduates. There are no specific or right answers to a particular research question. You must develop interesting questions and then try to answer them yourself—hopefully with good input from your advisor/colleagues—and that takes a long time. It can be easy to get discouraged when things are not going well, because your esteem can easily get tied up in your research accomplishments. Though you might feel vulnerable, if you talk to your peers, you’ll likely find out that they equally struggle. I think everyone has thought about quitting at one point or another, even the hotshot professors in your department.
Also, give yourself time to pursue non-work-related activities. Do something exciting to completely distract you from upcoming deadlines, frustrating meetings, or anything else that’s bothering you. Gym workouts are productive because they reset your mental stamina
- Beware of workplace politics
You need to learn fast how to navigate the political landscape of your institution. Just because you’re a graduate student does not insulate you from the political forces at play (in the department, between study groups, between researchers, postdoctoral fellows, technicians and fellow graduate students). Do yourself a huge favor and learn fast how to really get things done and to get along with those who matter to your degree attainment.
- Mentoring styles are not always an optimal fit
The dynamics of mentor-mentee relationships in graduate school warrants an article on its own.
I didn't know there were so many different types of mentors—that some people were more hands on and some were more hands off—and you have to find a good fit. My mentor was very supportive, very much “you drive your own project,” and I am very lucky that we got along. Actually, I sometimes felt like she treated me like her son. But she’s so hands-off, not by choice, but because she was busy getting grant money, attending conferences and other significant issues.
This type of “hands-off’ mentoring worked for me because I like to work independently with minimal supervision. I basically like to manage myself. A significant advantage of a hands-off mentor is it prepares one for the necessary independence of a post-doctoral fellow.
Some students would however, like more guidance and conversations of “Let’s sit down and talk about the details and the science behind your project.”
All mentor-mentee relationships have strengths and weaknesses, and it would have been helpful if graduate students are more aware of the different styles of mentoring and if they work with how they learn best.
- Remember that you are good enough to be in graduate school
Pursuit of Ph.D. can be terrible for mental health. You have an intellectually challenging job of doing good science, with the additional pressures of teaching and getting funding. Add in personal stresses such as being in a new place or being away from your extended family, and doing it all on a budget less than what you’d have at a part-time job, and it is exhausting. All of this makes it easy to think we’re not good at science, not good at academics, or overall just not good enough.
So, it’s important to do whatever you need to do, to get over the impostor syndrome. Have a good cheerleader—such as your partner, a friend, or a family member—to remind you that you’re smart, motivated, and hard-working. Accept the compliment because it is true. Also keep in mind that greatness awaits you after completion. The idea that so many are looking up to your success should also keep you going. And remind yourself that everyone has their life struggles and it’s not always as rosy as it looks. Some people are just better at making themselves sound like they know everything. But any excellent academic will attest that they know very little compared with how much is actually out there to know!
Dr. Kariuki, 28, holds a Ph.D degree in Analytical Chemistry (Environmental Science & Nanotechnology) from State University of New York and is currently a scientist in a leading Pharmaceutical Company in USA.