What I wish I knew when I started my PhD

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Eleonora Lugarà
2nd April 2019


This article is part of our PhD Survival series. Here, we devise a roadmap to navigate the rocky terrain of the doctoral degree path.


The beginning of a research doctorate is an exciting moment in the life of any student. It means that you were appraised as competent, motivated and resourceful among other candidates and that you expected to significantly contribute to the knowledge of your field.

These characteristics are not just a mere decoration in your motivational letter and they did not just serve the purpose of being selected by an automated “Resume Bot” during the online application. Your supervisors mean it. Despite the fact that carrying out and achieving a PhD varies enormously among institutes and countries, there are some untold ground rules I wish I’d known when I first started.

The first is competency. The sweet undergraduate life is over. If you were thinking that preparing for exams, assays and presentations was stressful enough, you haven’t seen nothing yet. The unspoken rule is to act as if you were alone from moment zero, but let’s call it being independent. Supervisors are there to guide you, but most likely they will be busy with other research projects, more students, several papers to review, grants to write and lectures to prepare. The life of an academic is busy, do not take it personally. The best thing for the beginning of a PhD is to make sure you do your homework and know exactly what you are talking about. This is not different from creating a business, in which you have to know everything about your product, the market and the competitors.

In practical terms, give yourself a month to read as much as possible of the literature available about your research question. Write down who, where and what has been done beforehand in a clear way in either a Word or Powerpoint document. Clearly identify and target your research question(s) and make sure to be up to speed with the novelties that are coming out. To do so, you can now use alert services, such as NCBI and pubcrawler, which will send you regular and free updates of the papers that just got published with specific keywords. PhD candidates will depend enormously on knowing what to search on Google!


"Doing a PhD is not different from creating a business, in which you have to know everything about your product, the market and the competitors"


Secondly, be technically and theoretically capable in the method(s) you are using. Do not just limit yourself to perform a protocol or to turn on a box, but read the theory behind it, dig the technicalities and specifications of each setup and of each material used. This will initially take a considerable amount of energy and time, but it is going to pay off and make a difference when you will have to troubleshoot – because you will, oh yes you will.

Being competent and knowledgeable are critical skills, but sometimes experiments just do not work the way you want and there is a chance you might be scooped during these long years of work. Do not panic. Apart from resilience, there is another critical skill a PhD must have: dynamism. It will be extremely likely that your initial aim will evolve during the years and this is perfectly fine. Looking back, you will realise you have evolved too.


"Apart from resilience, there is another critical skill a PhD must have: dynamism."





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