Letter to new PhD students & my past self — What I wish I had known when starting the PhD

Four years ago I was moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone, to embark on a self-funded PhD. I knew it would be hard, but I could not really picture what it would be like. Would it be just like my 5-months research placement, but longer? Would it be like a job? Would the project go as planned in the proposal? There were also a few worries: Did I know enough? What if, in the end, I failed? I remember that when I left my home (and my sweet cat) that day, I thought “You’re about to start the new chapter of your life”, and I could not have been more right. [However, I also remember that when I opened the door to my tiny room in the student hall a few hours later, my first thought was “Girl, what have you done…” Different atmosphere]

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For the first few months of the PhD, I just wished someone had told me what to expect. Something, anything, to help me picture what the next 3 or 4 years of my life would be, to help me figure out which path I should take. I guess that I’m not the only one who felt that way.

To help newcomers, I’ve asked fellow fresh new doctors and finishing PhD students what they wished they had known at the start of their PhD. This is our reflexion on the start of the PhD, from the other side of the journey:

- Read, and understand how valuable reading is

You might think you’ve already done a lot of reading when preparing for the interview or writing up the project proposal, but in reality, the first few months of the PhD will just be more reading. Read papers to refine your ideas /theories / methods / analysis plans. Read because others have made mistakes so you don’t have to. It’s OK (and pretty normal) not to generate results within the first 6 months . It’s more important to build your reading and note-taking skills, as these will follow you for the next few years. Build the habit to read every week during the PhD because believe me, starting the write up with a “To read” folder with a few hundred papers isn’t nice.

- Be prepared to work independently

Your PhD is yours, and yours only. Your supervisors are there to guide you and to help you make decisions when you feel stuck, but the best supervisors let you take the lead and be the captain of your own project. It is often scary, and you’ll probably often feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s normal, and it’s actually great. It is not OK to only be able to answer questions with “my supervisor told me to do that”. It is OK to make mistakes, as long as you can justify your decisions and you can show you’ve learned from them.

- Be flexible, don’t be stuck on your topic

No matter how well defined you think your project is at the start of your PhD, probably about half of it (if not more) will have changed within 12 or 18 months. Actually, we’d be worried if it doesn’t. Let your project grow, and if need be, let your topic change. Your project does not exist in a bubble. You learn more things, you acquired more data, all of which will inform the next step of the project. Maybe you’ll have an unexpected collaboration opportunity. Maybe your first data will be so unexpectedly amazing and raise new questions. Maybe you’ll randomly read something that will make you slightly shift your approach. You can’t do everything, as if you did you’d never complete anything, but you can seize opportunities that make your research and/or your PhD experience more meaningful.

- Learn about and try out as many things as possible (Translational skills!)

You’re here to learn how to do proper, robust, meaningful research, but that’s not only in the lab, and anyways, that’s not all you can learn. Maybe learn how to code because the graphs are stunning (and also open science I guess). Learn how to make good slides because you know you always loose interest when presenters use ugly slides. Learn how to give talks precisely because you’re scared of giving talks. Do public engagement because showing people that researchers are just like you and I might help them trust us more. Tutor because nothing makes you understand a concept better than having to explain it in an exciting way to undergrads who may or may not care / still be a bit drunk (also for the money). Attend events about things you know nothing about because you are surrounded by a bunch of bright and passionate people. Never think you don’t like something or you’re not good at something if you haven’t given it a proper chance. Never, never think you are above learning or trying out things. Being a good researcher is all about being open to new ideas, simply follow the same rule with yourself.

- Find a mentor. Or even two.

If you have a plan for your future, find someone a few years (like 5–10) ahead of you doing something you’re interested in, and ask them for guidance. Learn from their successes and failures. If you don’t have a plan for your future, don’t worry, you’re here with peers. Think broad, find several mentors in different potential fields, including people who have left academia. Afterall, having a PhD is not a sentence for a life in academia, and a lot of people combine both worlds, when they don’t leave academia altogether. Unfortunately, universities rarely provide students with adequate training for a life outside their walls. Finding mentors outside academia can broaden your perspectives and prepare you for any option coming your way.

- It’s going to be a different kind of stressful (but you’ll get through this)

I’m talking about a whole new world of stressful. Stress and anxiety are a reality for a lot of PhD students. However, it is not like that all the time, it’s mostly just phases (like when you’re wrapping up a study + designing 2 posters and 1 talk for 3 consecutive conferences while also moving flat). Knowing this, you can try and identify ahead of time phases that could potentially be difficult for you, and seek adequate support. You’re not alone in this, your peers, your university, and your friends and family will help you through this (even if they don’t understand what it’s like). A PhD is just very, very hard, but it is not impossible. Sometimes it’s normal to hate it. Take a step back, remember why you’re doing this, why you’re passionate about it. You can do this. You may not believe it sometimes, but you can do this.

And our final word: It’s worth it. You’ll see, you are going to amaze yourself.

Bisous,

Bérengère

The Chronicles of Morningside: The Tower, The Farm and The PhD