A year of firsts (and advice for new PhD students) …

So I am now officially at end of the first year of my PhD. As well as being terrified at the prospect of being 1/4 of the way done (so… when do you actually start getting data?), I am also proud to have made it this far. Coming straight from undergrad, it was certainly a baptism of fire and there were a few bumps in the road. However, looking back at the year I’m really glad I stuck it out. Highlights of the year include attending the Guarda grant writing workshop (see previous blog post), the ESEB conference in Lausanne and giving my first ever conference talk at EMPSEB21. Not to mention organising the Ashworth panto (low points include the ingestion of the infamous “panto punch”. Note to self: never consume anything that is fluorescent green).
Since this is the start of my second year (and I’m feeling all grown up and sentimental) I thought it would be a good idea to compose a list of tips/advice from what I have learned over the past year.
1. Imposter syndrome is real … and it’s okay! In the beginning, you will feel like everyone in the world your department knows more than you (and usually they do) but that’s what’s great about a PhD. You are here to learn. Take advantage of the fact that you are surrounded by smart people and pretty soon you will realise that you do have something to give.
**Inspirational quote: “If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room.”**
2. Take time to build your knowledge base. Go to classes (you can usually sign up for masters/undergrad courses) to get a strong grasp of the theory in your area of research. Get some textbooks and spend time in the library. This will set you up well for the next few years so don’t be tempted to rush into lab/field work if you don’t fully understand why you are doing what you are doing.
3. Socialise. Get to know the people in your lab/department. These relationships are really important, not only for your sanity but collaborations are the key to good science. Most of these work relationships begin over a coffee/beer, not in a meeting room or via an awkwardly formal email.
4. Keep track of the papers you read. This is probably my most practical tip but it’s such a time saver! If you read a research paper (which I really recommend you do if you want a PhD …) make a little summary of it in a word document, nothing too time consuming, just a few sentences. You will thank your past self for being so organised when it comes to writing up 1st-year reports/papers etc. This habit is easy to slip out of but DO IT!
Finally, the most important piece of advice I can give:
5. Don’t fear failure. Let me set the scene: I had an interesting project, a great supervisor, a great department and things were going reasonably well … cue an out of the blue breakdown! I just couldn’t shift the feeling that I wasn’t good enough. This is something that I imagine happens very frequently in science but people just don’t talk about it and so you end up feeling like the only person who is struggling. Let me tell you-you are definitely not. If you are worried or feel like you want to quit, don’t shy away and remove yourself from the situation, this will only make it worse. Talk to someone you trust (Tip 5b: Get a mentor!) and really think about why you want to leave. One of the main reasons many PhD students feel that they want to quit is fear of failure. To get a PhD studentship, chances are you have been quite academically successful and this means that the switch to research can be a rude awakening. But let’s be honest, that’s a rubbish reason to quit. I understand that sometimes people have legitimate reasons for leaving a PhD programme and that’s fine, but just think carefully and talk to someone you trust before you make any major decisions.
Just to add, this feeling of “not being good enough” is not something that magically disappears (especially in academia) but you can control it. Don’t let self-doubt ruin your opportunities… and remember you’re not expected to be an expert in everything!
So those are the 5 pieces of advice I think are most useful for beginning a PhD. I’m off to officially start second year …

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