An Old Tired Horse’s Advice to the Fledgling Research Student

If you’re starting a research degree (at UWI or otherwise), there are a few things you’ll need to prepare yourself for. Doing an MPhil or a PhD is one of the hardest things you will ever do, so it’s probably a good idea to prepare yourself mentally for exactly what you’re in for. (I certainly wish someone had prepared me).

Switching to research from an undergraduate degree comes with a bit of a learning curve, and at first, it almost seems like a dream come true: no more boring lectures and classes, full autonomy to do your own experiments, a stipend that you certainly didn’t have before….

But with this newfound independence and freedom comes way more responsibilities and challenges. If you thought no one cared about you as an undergraduate, then say hello to grad school, where DEFINITELY no one cares about you.laboratory-2815641_1920.jpg

The hardest part about a PhD is that it’s five (or more) years of completely independent self-motivated learning. Five years of getting up every day to read new papers, try (and fail at) new things, retry things you’ve tried a hundred times before, jumping through hoops, and continuing to chug along.

So to help out any fledgling graduate students about to start, I’ve put together some of the lessons I’ve learned along my journey so far

  1. Research is Hard!

Seriously, first of all, know what you’re getting yourself into. Research is extremely difficult and forces you to be self-motivated. If you give up, your project will die.

2. Start with a Project You Love

If you’re going to be spending a considerable portion of your life on a research project, it might as well be something you’re in love with.

When I applied to start my PhD, I wrote a brilliant (and very very very very very expensive) proposal of work I wanted to do with RNAi. I wasn’t able to do the project I initially had in mind (see: expensive) and I was given my current project based on the fact that I had started work in this area during my undergraduate years.

At first, I was a bit jaded because this isn’t really what I wanted to do, and that made it incredibly hard to find motivation to move forward with my work. Over time, I have grown to fall in love with my work, pretty much because I had to. It was the only way to keep going and not just throw in the towel and become a housewife.

As much as you can, find out about work that is currently happening in the department/institution that you want to become a part of. Talk to different researchers and find out what gaps they are trying to fill, and where their priorities lie. This will better inform you as to the realities of what you can propose.

I’m not saying be limited in your vision, but be realistic as to what you can do in the environment you choose. Don’t feel pressured into doing a project you’re really not passionate about. This is your baby after all, so better to start out already loving it.

3. Get a Good Supervisor

Seriously, I’ve seen way too many students screwed over by poor supervisors. I’m blessed enough to have a great supervisor who cares about each of her students as individuals, but not everyone is so lucky. If you’re considering someone as a supervisor but aren’t sure if it’s the right fit, try to talk to some of the students that they may have worked with before. LISTEN to their concerns and use that to make your decision.

Remember, not everyone who is a good lecturer makes a good supervisor. You need someone who will give you guidance without micromanaging your project so you have the opportunity to learn on your own. But you also need someone who will encourage you along the way, and help you figure out the kinks along your way.

And if you feel like your supervisor isn’t giving you what you need, don’t be afraid to speak up! Every university should have a system in place to deal with unsatisfactory supervisors, but students are usually too afraid to make use of them. Don’t be! Don’t sit and suffer, remember you’re wasting years of YOUR life, while your supervisor is quite fine and happy bringing home his/her paycheck.

4. Form a Support Group and Build Camaraderie

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Research can really be an isolating and lonely experience, and I find that some of us grad students tend to retreat into the woes of our own projects when we’re frustrated. But no one knows what you’re going through like a fellow researcher; chances are, they’re going through the same things too.

Reach out to your labmates or colleagues within your department for advice, support, and simply when you need someone to vent to. The support system you build within your research community will take you through the hardest parts of your journey. Seriously, these are the people you NEED.

5. You will fail and fail and fail and fail (and fail).

Seriously, you will fail so many times you’ll have to start questioning if you were ever really smart in the first place. Truth is, most of the “amazing” scientific discoveries we speak about today were happened upon by chance. And after years and years of drudgery and less than exciting results.

I have done so many failed experiments over the past four years it’s ridiculous. No one prepared me for repeating a PCR 20 times trying to optimize the conditions, or for days when my samples just decide not to work.

It’s important that despite the failures, you start fresh everyday and go in with a positive attitude. I’ve found that my experiments can read my moods. No bullsh*t: whenever I head into the lab in a dark mood or distracted by the hurdles, the experiment NEVER works.

6. Take Opportunities to Travel

One of the biggest regrets I’ve had about my PhD journey is that I haven’t had the opportunities to travel outside of UWI the way I wanted to. In my case, this has been due to some very annoying bureaucratic hoops…and of course….FUNDING (which I won’t touch on in this post, because that’s a whole beast onto itself).

airport-2373727_1920.jpgBut any opportunity you have to travel to a conference, workshop or even to do part of your research at another institution will give you amazing experience you’ll have with you for life. It also gives you the chance to network with others in your field and leave your mark for future job prospects.

7. Join A Society

Apart from looking pretty good on your resume, scientific societies (for example, the American Society of Microbiology) can give you access to information and persons working within your field around the world.

Membership to most societies allows you access to recent publications, supplemental material, and just a space for you to talk to people who might be working on projects similar to yours. Membership fees aren’t that expensive, maybe about $30 a year for students, but they’re worth every penny.

8. Be Aware of Department Politics

While my experience in this area is a very UWI-specific one, I suspect that many departments across the world have their own internal politics and sometimes, unfortunately, spills over to affect the students. Many times, professors are having their own little competitions/infighting for promotions, tenure, publications and so on.

It’s important to know the kind of climate within your department before you step in. This will prevent you from putting your foot in your mouth and saying the wrong thing to the wrong person (again, I wish somebody had told me this). And while this should NEVER happen, sometimes it does lead to you losing scholarships, or your funding application being moved to the back burner.

Have a conversation with your more experienced colleagues beforehand to make sure you don’t get caught slipping. And try as best as you can to hear all sides of the argument before “picking a side” so to speak. The way I see it, you’re just a student, there to get in and get out, so neutral is always the best position.

9. Set a Good Example

The primary exploitation of graduate students (yes I said exploitation) usually happens when we are left in charge of labs and tutorials. While we are very grateful to have this opportunity to earn our stipend, we are often forced to go way beyond our responsibilities to undergraduate students, MANY times to the detriment of our own projects. cellular-1352613_1920.jpg

My approach to this is, I go above and beyond for my students anyway, because somebody did it for me. Grad students will turn out to be the ones doing the most hands-on training of the undergraduate students, who will turn out to be the new generation of researchers. So if we train undergraduates with poor techniques, they’ll end up as postgraduates with poor techniques.

I’ve also found that running labs and tutorials keeps my mind challenged and excited, and can be a nice little distraction from my own project sometimes. Plus I always end up with at least one student that inspires me, and tells me how grateful they are for my help, and this reward is far more than the stipend could ever be. (Seriously, it’s really not that much money)

10. Don’t Forget to Live!

A PhD is at least 5 years of your life, and that’s time you will never get back. It can be easy to become consumed by your research and not have time to create a life otherwise, but don’t lose sight of what’s important.

Don’t feel guilty about taking time off to relax, to have fun, to pursue your other hobbies and interests. Use the time to develop areas of yourself outside of the lab.

And finally….

I know I can’t possibly cover all the things that you need to know before starting a research degree, but I hope that these tips will help you if you’re a little unsure about your new journey. Feel free to ask questions or comment on your own experiences.

Now go forth and be awesome!

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