Surviving the first days of doing a PhD

There is no doubt that having a PhD degree can make you more employable, boost your prospects, and help to secure your future on the long term. However, no two can disagree that taking the plunge and setting out as a postgraduate student can be one of the most stressful experiences in life, so much so that some people just quit before the first year is out.

However, doing a PhD is just like undertaking any other task in life, with enough preparation and hard work, your chances of successfully completing your studies will improve significantly, I am not saying that  it will be a cakewalk, because if it was, everyone would be getting a PhD!  As a postgraduate student on my third year now, reflecting back towards my first days when starting, I have included here some of the few things you can keep in mind:

1- Stay out of my personal space! : securing a desk and somewhere to work should be on your list of priorities, and when you do, ask yourself this: is this the chair I want to spend the next 4+ years sitting on? Also, those jokes about researchers needing coffee to function did not come out of nowhere. Get yourself a mug, the bigger the better.

2- Papers and forms: I get it, you barged to the lab on your first day all excited to do some Science, but guess what? This is not a 90’s action flick, and you are not the law (90’s action flick reference), you need to complete many boring forms, undergo fire and safety training, fill in more online forms, get your access ID (your badge) before you can use that pipette (your gun).

3- More papers (the other kind of papers): As difficult as it might sound now, by the time you finish you are expected to be the world-leading expect in that narrow area of research you are working on, this means knowing every detail, previous, current, and future studies undertaken in that field. Therefore, it is essential that you familiarize yourself with your topic, make this your first priority; take note of the most important ten papers currently out there on the subject. This must be done well before you meet your supervisor.

4- Meeting the supervisor: When you finally sit down with your professor, it is important that you discuss all of the details of what you think you might be doing, share your expectations and ask the questions you feel the need to ask. Clear any misunderstandings from the beginning; don’t wait until the issue manifests itself as a problem later on.

5-  Keep your friends close, and your lab-mates closer: You are now the new kid on the block (obviously by block I mean the laboratory’s heating block), therefore first impressions matter when dealing with the people that you will have to see for the next half-decade every day. Be respectful to them and their work, and they will be more than happy to aid you settling in and learning the ropes of the work. Wait until a new kid shows up, then you are one of the gang, and you can now be mean to the new guy! Also, being on good terms with your co-workers means you will get an insight to their work, and use that to measure your own progress throughout your project.

6- All work and no play makes jack a dull boy: Spending too much time in the lab? Beginning to talk to your cultured bacteria? Maybe it’s time to get some sun and meet some real people for a change. Try to exploit every break you get to socialise with colleagues and friends. Plus, getting away from work enables you to get back to it more energized, and less looking like someone straight out of the Shinning movie. You should also try to participate in some conferences and scientific events abroad; conferences are not just for showing your research, they are about networking, and  forming new links that will serve you well in the future. Being affiliated with your university also gives you exclusive access to some of the excellent workshops and masterclasses that would be otherwise unavailable to you; do not let that go to waste.

In the end, unseen hurdles can always pop up along the way; your supervisor might bail out on you halfway through, experiments might not work as planned, or you face other issues that are non-research related. However, with a good preparation, working late nights, and a bit of luck, you might survive the whole experience, and be able to look towards the next step in your life.

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