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December 31, 2012 / neurograce

Blurring the Line: A collection of advice for completing a PhD

Earning a PhD is a lot like having a baby. It’s time-consuming, messy, and can cause a lot of sleepless nights. Importantly, it also doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Grad students start their program with a list of course requirements and the charge to “do research.” But what that actually means and how to do it well is conveniently, and possibly intentionally, left out. Essentially, the process of earning your PhD is meant to teach you how to do research. But, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, I think it would be helpful to offer some more concrete tips that can make the process a little smoother. Now, since I have a whole one semester of grad school under my belt (hold your applause), I may not be in the best position to give advice. I am, however, perfectly-suited for pestering older grad students and PhD holders for their words of wisdom and scouring the internet for help (by the internet I mostly mean Quora. Do you Quora? I Quora. If you don’t Quora, you should really Quora). So I’ve collected some of the main themes agreed to be necessary for a successful PhD by the people who have done them and present them to you here (in no particular order):

Organize. Your notes, your lab book, your time. Organization is a fuel for productivity. It doesn’t matter if you spend all night running experiments if your lab book is so messy that the next morning you don’t even know what variables you were manipulating. And there’s not much point in frantically taking notes during a lecture or while reading a paper if you have no meaningful way of referencing them later. Also, in grad school, just like in life, time is your most valuable resource so you want to make sure you’re spending it wisely.

Luckily, in this digital age we live in, there are plenty of tools to help you organize just about everything. I like Mendeley for papers, because it can actually save notations you add, is accessible from anywhere, and makes it super easy to compile citations. Endnote and Citeyoulike have been highly-recommended for paper and note-organizing as well. I’m a big fan of toodledo or other online todo lists sites for keeping track of tasks and nothing beats good old Google calendar for a visual representation of your time. Of course, all these services only work to the extent that you use them and use them well. So remember to actually import your papers to Mendeley, categorize your notes appropriately, and set realistic time tables for your tasks. And don’t get too carried away with all the technology, or you may need to get a service to organize your organizational services.

Stay Healthy. Mentally and physically. It is quite possible for graduate students to get so wrapped up in their work to the point of neglecting important things like eating, sleeping, and moving. While this dedication seems potentially beneficial, the fact is that such habits are not sustainable and will, sooner or later, catch up to you and your PhD progress. You are unlikely to think up any significant breakthroughs when stressed, hungover, and/or depressed. If it helps, think of yourself as a piece of expensive lab equipment that needs proper care and maintenance to produce good results.

Having a few hobbies completely unrelated to your work can keep you grounded, sane, and in-shape. Something like team sports or dance lessons have the dual benefit of physical exercise, a well-known stress reliever, and some (probably much-needed) social interaction with non-scientists. Engaging in external interests can also spark your creativity within your own line of work and guarantees that your happiness isn’t completely tied to the current state of your research. Maybe you haven’t gotten an experiment to work in a month, but you did learn how to whittle an awesome spoon and planned the perfect birthday dinner for your significant other (yes, they count as hobbies). This will keep you energized and motivated enough to keep at your work. So basically, for the sake of your PhD, you need to have some occasional time away from it.

Read. Keeping up with your field is an important part of being a researcher. You don’t want to waste time working on a question that’s already been answered or developing a method that already exists. So read papers. Within your exact line of research read all kinds of papers, old and new, and especially the ones that your adviser constantly references. More broadly, know the seminal works in your field and keep up to date with current trends. Subscribe to email or RSS feeds from the main journals and actually look at them. Try to read papers completely outside your field if you think there is some aspect to them that might be relevant to you, or if you’re just interested. Basically, you should get really good at being able to read any paper, assessing its merit, and understanding its importance to your work and/or the field as a whole.

Of course, all this reading can conflict with your above-mentioned attempts at time management. So another important skill for grad students is to know when to stop. You can’t know every experiment that’s ever been done, and eventually you need to start doing your own. Pick your papers wisely, get good at reading them quickly, and learn to accept when you’ve learned enough. Attending talks can be a good way of getting a lot of information fed to you in about an hour, but they should also be chosen wisely. Since you can’t skim a talk to get to the good parts, you should avoid those with only limited potential for keeping your interest. And if you do take the time to attend them, make sure to stay attentive and awake (not that I’ve ever had any kind of problem with that whatsoever).

Write. The main output of any research is a journal article. If you can’t write about your work then you haven’t finished the job. And if you can’t write a thesis then you haven’t finished your PhD. So you need to get good at writing. And the only way to do that is practice, practice, practice. Take any opportunity to write. One great idea is to periodically create a writeup on your project as you’re working on it. Not only does this give you practice, but it keeps you focused on how what you’re doing at that time fits into your overall narrative, and lightens the work load at the end of your project when you’re looking to submit. A key component to good writing in science is, of course, to convey complicated concepts in as simple a way as possible. And the best way to practice that is to try explaining what you do to someone completely outside the field (family usually works well for this). These kinds of exercises don’t just help your writing, they help your science. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Think. Possibly one of the simplest yet profoundest pieces of advice for a young researcher. It can be tempting, especially as a graduate student with a weekly meeting with an adviser looming, to simply churn out whatever kind of results you can possibly attain, without giving much thought, for example, to why you’re doing a particular kind of analysis or what the results really mean. This kind of rote work rarely leads to meaningful findings. So, allow yourself time devoted to just really thinking about your work. No multi-tasking, just quiet thought. Think about what you’re doing and why and how it fits in with your knowledge of the rest of the field. Brainstorm potential solutions to the problem you’re working on, and ways of testing each of them. The ability to entertain multiple possibilities at once and coping with ambiguity are important traits in successful researchers. Engaging in deep thought (and writing down those thoughts) helps develop these and other meaningful skills in ways that superficial work never could.

Ask Questions. Ask questions at talks, ask questions in class, ask questions to your adviser, ask questions during journal club, ask questions to other grad students. Just, for the love of whatever you think is holy, ask questions whenever you have them. There is a common fear, especially amongst students, that the question you want to ask is going to betray your ignorance. The answer, you assume, is so obvious to everyone else in the room that your very asking of it is going to get you kicked right out of graduate school. The odds of this happening, however, are very small. The odds of someone else in the room having a similar question that they are equally afraid of asking is probably much higher. So be the hero and ask it. There is no way to get answers otherwise. And if graduate school isn’t the time that you get to ask unlimited (possibly stupid) questions, then when is? For younger grad students its especially beneficial to get information from older students that you can’t get elsewhere: advice on classes, advisers, administrative hurdles, etc. So worry less about looking smart, and actually get smart by asking as many questions as you need.

Network. Yes, that terrible n-word. To most scientists “networking” brings up images of people in suits exchanging business cards over power lunches. To us, there is just something phony about it. But the fact is that collaborations are a huge part of science, and you can’t have them without the ability to branch out to other people in your field. It’s easy enough to get to know people you work with regularly, but it’s also important to meet people with similar interests outside of your institution. Conferences are a great opportunity for that. The key is to follow through concretely. Get the email address of the person you had a really engaging conversation with at SfN. Follow the work of the labs you like and email authors when you have a question about their paper. As difficult as it can be for a typically solitary scientist, socialization and self-promotion are necessary. You want to get your name out there for when opportunities in your field open up, and you want to know who to contact when you need someone with a specific set of skills. Take your natural desire to talk about work that interests you and push it just a little bit further into the realm of “networking.”

Overall, it’s important to remember that you are not a PhD-producing robot. You are a person doing a PhD, and so the habits you develop need to be sustainable and keep you interested while still allowing you to achieve your goals in a timely manner. You will need to work hard, since at this level intelligence is a given. But if you’ve gotten to the point of working on a PhD, the research questions themselves should drive you. As Arnold Toynbee said, “The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.”


Leave a Comment
  1. dylanlevac / Jan 5 2013 12:11 am

    This has to be one of the most well written summaries of essential skills for succeeding in graduate school. I was going to compose something on this topic, and I’ll probably write something more specific to my experiences, but would you mind if I link to this? There’s really no point in re-hashing the same points in multiple blogs, and I know of many graduate students in dire need of this advise.

  2. neurograce / Jan 5 2013 4:37 pm

    Thanks so much! By all means, link away.

  3. s. / Apr 10 2013 4:12 pm

    thank you! it’s hard to remember the self-care bit, sometimes.

  4. ailab yu / Apr 24 2014 11:59 am

    Thank you very much for this!
    I am a first year graduate student and am currently in a big dilemma whether to continue doing phD or not. The time-consuming factor and the no-instruction-manual are among my fears, but these guidelines helped me a lot in imagining what the life might be like, and how to cope with it.

    Thank you very much!


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