Eight things [a] successful[ish] PhD student [kind of does]


Today a Guardian article titled “5 things that PhD students refuse to do” has been shared widely on social media. While there were good bits, I thought it was, on the whole, a load of rubbish and included some pretty bad advice.

Part of my issue with the article is that the author, Isaiah Hankel, obviously didn’t do his PhD in the UK – based upon his LinkedIn profile it appears he was educated at the University of Iowa. US PhDs are very different from UK PhDs in many respects. The first key difference is that we don’t suffer the “daily grind of going to several classes a day” as we seldom have classes, I have taught more classes than I have taken. The second is that if we don’t finish out PhD within 4 years the University gets annoyed with us, in contrast Wikipedia tells me the median time to completion in the US is 7.

This gives a lot more time to do things such as start up a company, take business classes and attend vendor shows. While I’m sure it would be brilliant if you could start a company, and I know a PhD student this has worked for, I think it is a rather risky route to getting a PhD. If you do decide to give it a go I would recommend taking advice (e.g. from here: http://www.le.ac.uk/biobator/) as you may not be able to submit work carried out commercially for your PhD (especially if you are funded).

Here are my 8 tips for a PhD. Although please keep in mind that I am undoubtedly not the best PhD student.

Don’t become isolated

Refusing to feel like a failure is the best piece of advice from the Guardian article. A PhD is a very isolated experience, unlike when you were an undergraduate and had other taking that awful module with you, or when you worked as part of a team. A PhD often involved you, sitting there, doing your own thing. No one else really knows what you are doing. You are lonelier than that guy on “Take me out” who has to walk up the stair on his own while they play Eric Carmen.

I would recommend hunting out individuals who are similar to yourself and having geeky conversations in the pub. Last Saturday I ended up having a productive conversation with a PhD student from another uni about trouble shooting western blots, I hope her tips work and I’m glad to know I’m not the only person in the world who is haunted by them!

Subscribe to PhD comic, and #Whatshouldwecallgradschool. It is reassuring to know that you are not the only person in the world who has to present at a lab meeting when you have no new data.



Aim for that job in academia – Publish!

If you want that job in academia then strive for it. Put in the hours and dedication that is needed to get there.

The advice about not striving to publish is, at least in my field, is akin to telling fire fighters to not worry about putting out fires. The number of publications someone has is undoubtedly a really poor metric of how good a scientist someone is, the sad fact remains that it is the metric by how jobs, funding and your future are decided. While a number of people say this is having a pretty detrimental effect on research you are probably not going to get the whole of academia to change its mind overnight.

Based upon my experience, the experiences of my friends and the commenters on the Guardian article academia is actually a fairly backwards place. The fact you may have participated in a number of science outreach programmes, had a dramatic effect on student welfare, and influenced policy is likely to actually be viewed rather negatively by any future academic employers. You could probably do away with most sections in your academic CV, just list your papers and maybe your conference presentations.

So probably a good idea to think about papers. If anyone finds an easy way to do this – please let me know!

Remember that you probably won’t land that job in academia

As I said, academia is a fairly backwards place that doesn’t care about the majority of the skills that you are likely to require in any other profession. However, according to the Royal Society 0.45% of PhD graduates become professors and another 3.5% becoming permanent research staff. In other words 96% of PhD graduates don’t [1].

As such it is probably wise to keep your mind open to other careers and to work towards them. Get involved in as many activities as possible! You’re only at uni once…well twice…or maybe more.

Keep records

If you haven’t recorded it, it didn’t happen. Write down everything. What batch number of media are you using? What is your lane order? Where did you read that great fact? If you don’t record it you will only regret it later!

The most important record is of what you have done and what you are doing. I had this epiphany while watching some useless **** on the apprentice. He was hopeless for the entire task but when he came to the boardroom he was able to reel off the two things he had actually managed to do. Being able to walk into a lab meeting and say “I may have no results but I’ve run out X samples and done Y” may remove your head from the chopping block.

Keep Busy and Remember you are Human

I find it amazing how a time pressure makes me more productive, probably because I spend less time chatting! At one point in my PhD I wasn’t producing enough work (in reality I wasn’t producing a superhuman amount of work) so I stopped with some of my extracurricular commitments. It transpires that I cannot work 30 days on the trot, working both days and evenings. It resulted in me procrastinating a ridiculous amount! Now I’ve started up with most of them again it means that if I need to leave at 7, I focus, get my work done, and leave at 7. If I have a free evening, I find myself all too quickly typing “www.face” into my browser.

Don’t Just do it Again

The quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” is widely attributed to Einstein. A 5 minute google has been unable to verify if he said it or not. Whoever did say it was right though. I know of so many PhD students, myself included, who have been advised to continually repeated experiments waiting for them to work.

I don’t think this has ever worked for anyone. If you have failed to show a difference between your controls 3 times, it is unlikely that doing it 4, 5, 6 or even 62 times is going to make a difference. There is probably a good systematic way to trouble shoot this!

Trust No one

That paper that says they saw this effect, the person who says they will split your cells for you, and the sheet that explains what statistical test to do. They all lie. The lie even more when it is absolutely critical to your work. If you do need to trust someone, make sure you record it – then you can blame them when it goes wrong!

Email academic authors

Anyone thinks that spamming academic authors and telling them you liked their presentation is a good idea – give up now. I expect that you would spend a lot of time writing emails that would be deleted within seconds.

[1] https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294970126.pdf Page 14


by Harry Holkham

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About Harry

Harry has now graduated from the University. Hi, I’m Harry, a 3rd (ish) year PhD student in the Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology. My research focuses on looking for ways to find out if a potential medicine is going to damage someone’s heart. Outside of work you are likely to find me heading to the mountains, or generally keeping busy around Leicester.

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