You might have seen this advice for PhD students, which myself and others thought were problematic for a variety of reasons. Here’s a fresh take.
1. You can have as many picnics during your PhD as you think will help your mental health.
Hanging out with friends and sharing your stories of emotionally challenging moments is a great way to ward off stress and anxiety. In fact, here’s one of the many picnics I enjoyed during my time in grad school:
2. The landmarks of a PhD can be ambiguous.
It’s likely you’ve had pretty strict deadlines and expectations for your education thus far. PhD programs tend to be more flexible, especially after the first two years of coursework.
Before you start, decide how long you’d ideally like to be in your PhD program. If you’re pursuing a PhD so you can be qualified for a job outside of academia, you might be shooting for 4–5 years. Or perhaps you want to publish as many papers as you can, and don’t mind spending 6–7 years as a student. Your timeline isn’t entirely in your control, but you can choose a program and advisors who are more likely to support your plan. These are good conversations to have with yourself and your advisor before jumping in.
Your advisor and program won’t impose every deadline for you, so you’ll need to figure them out for yourself. When would you like to be done data collection? When would you like to submit the paper by? Telling your labmates about your deadlines, or posting them at your desk, is a nice way to hold yourself accountable.
3. One of the hardest things about doing a PhD is that you need to be your biggest believer.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have an amazing, supportive advisor who will congratulate you on your successes and encourage you through the tough moments. But the chances are that you’ll need to find positive feedback from small successes and labmates who can reassure you that you’re on the right track.
In my PhD lab, we set up a brief weekly meeting with all of the graduate students where we could check in with each other about our projects, and share advice and encouragement. It was a great way to get positive feedback and identify areas where I could make changes.
There will be moments where you have creativity, flow, and self-confidence, but there will also be moments where you’ll doubt yourself. Hang in there — it gets better as you learn more and gain more experience. Remember that you’ve gotten this far in your education (which is already really far!) and that everyone feels this way at one point or another, even if they don’t show it. Humility and mindfulness will serve you and your community far more than arrogance.
4. You can learn how to do anything.
If you’re not a big fan of learning, a PhD isn’t for you (okay, you knew that). But if you’re constantly craving new information and striving for better ways to do things — great! The desire to learn and grow will serve you really well during your PhD, regardless of what field you’re in.
There are a ton of resources to learn new techniques and theories, from online courses and forums, to your labmates and local community. If you’re not sure where to look, just ask. The most successful trainees I’ve worked with actively seek out information and resources.
As you’re learning new things and collecting new data, skepticism can be helpful. In Anne Churchland’s words, “a lack of certainty about one’s own data drives one to re-examine & double check. Feelings of confusion over science literature lead to reading more and engaging colleagues to discuss subtleties. I would be leery of any scientist without self doubt.”
5. You’ll have to read a lot.
It’s really easy to get caught up in experiments or writing without keeping tabs on the literature, so it helps to dedicate a few hours a week to reading. Personally, I like reading in the morning before I get caught up with other things, typically while enjoying coffee in the company of my rabbit.
Signing up for email alerts for journals in your field is also super helpful, even just to get a sense of what is being published. And science Twitter is tremendous. Find the active scientists in your field and follow them!
Whether you’re “more well read” than your advisor depends on who your advisor is and how your project aligns with their background — I wouldn’t use this as a metric for your literacy. Instead, consider this as a metric: If someone asks you a question about your project or about related work, you should have an answer, or at least know where to find it.
6. Your PhD is yours, and yours alone.
If you’re the kind of person who signs up for a PhD program, I doubt you need to be told that you need to work hard. But there’s a key qualifier here: you get to choose what you work on.
Maybe you’ll pour all of your effort into getting more papers. Or maybe you’ll pour your time into a mix of research, teaching, and outreach. It’s your life, you get to choose. Communicate with your advisor about what their expectations are, so that you can work to meet those expectations and shape your PhD to suit your needs.
7. Nobody is perfect, with or without all of the neurons they started with.
You’ll make mistakes, your advisor will make mistakes, your rabbit will distract you endlessly… no one is perfect. Between securing funding and managing a lab, your advisor has a lot on their plate — this is not an excuse for poor or completely lacking mentorship, but it does mean that they might not always be available to help you out.
Learn as much as you can from all of the people around you and be kind. My favorite scientists are the people who are willing to stand up in a room and humbly admit that they’re confused or surprised. Respect and kindness will get you far.
This post is the beginning of a conversation
This piece is part of a series that will eventually morph into a book, tentatively titled “So you want to be a neuroscientist? An honest account of life as a researcher” (Columbia University Press). The goal is to offer aspiring neuroscientists honest, informative insight about our field as well as education and careers in it. Most importantly, it will reflect the opinions and experience of our entire community — so, I’d greatly appreciate your feedback. What did I miss? What do you disagree with?