So for anyone who hasn’t worked in a lab before I want to give you an insight into the daily/weekly routine you’re likely to encounter. You don’t just spend your days doing your research, there are other requirements as well. Generally your larger lab team (the people you share a lab with, not just your supervisors group) hold lab meetings and journal clubs. In addition, depending on your supervisors preferred set up, you might have a weekly team meeting. My team does this on Friday afternoons (we won’t get into a discussion on how painful it is to have a Friday afternoon meeting every week) although my supervisor is pretty flexible if one of us needs to get away early/on time on a Friday or isn’t here. On top of this, as a first year, I’m required to have a minimum of 12 formal meetings with my supervisor (1/month) and all PhD students are expected to attend seminars put on by the departments and research themes.
Journal club is where one person presents a paper they think is of interest, hopefully to everyone not just themselves or their team. They choose the paper in advance and it’s emailed out to everyone else to read before the journal club. I recently did my first journal club here at Leicester and chose to present this (free access) paper. I chose it because we have a very diverse range of research interests within the journal club group (which is formed from 2 labs one working on bacteria and one on bacteriophage (the virsues that infect bacteria)). This meant I had a bit of an up-hill struggle as the paper definitely wasn’t in my field, but in a way that’s good – it forced me to research and practice what I planned to say. I dug deeper than purely what they had done and looked into why a lot of people seemed to have developed an interest in this bacteria (the answer is American funding). We always put together PowerPoint slides on our chosen paper, mainly of the images and tables. A brief introduction is required and then a breakdown of the results and discussion of the paper. People will then grill you on someone else’s work. Sounds fun right … it did at least make me feel much more confident for presenting my own work in my lab meeting.
So in our group journal club is once every 2 weeks, and on the other week we have lab meetings. These are where you present your own work to the group and get feedback, questions and hopefully ideas about other experiments you could look into. Unfortunately for me the rotas clashed a little and I ended up doing my lab meeting the week after my journal club. I actually feel like I held my own at both of these meetings but I was definitely much more confident my lab meeting, I don’t know if it’s because journal club gave me more confidence in general or if I was just much happier talking about my own work. I was able to answer the questions people asked (although if I didn’t know something it would’ve been ok to say so!) and got some ideas for new experiments (I put one into action this week actually). When there is such a huge emphasis on ensuring you can prove your work is your own, and not your supervisors, getting the chance to discuss possible experiments with a wider group of people is really valuable. I was dreading doing this lab meeting as public speaking scares me but I’m really happy it went so well.
Formal Supervisor Meetings
As a first year student I’m required to have a least one formal monthly meeting with my supervisor, this drops to 1 meeting every other month after the first year. It’s a chance to catch up on my work, update my supervisor, discuss training requirements and talk about what needs to be done next. The reason behind the meetings is that some supervisors are not very directly involved with their students, every supervisor is different and this ensures every student gets this minimum level of contact. However as my team usually have our weekly meetings my supervisor is always very up to date on how my research is going, instead we use the meetings to discuss things such as training requirements. This makes the meetings useful to us and gives us a structure for discussing anything specific to me or my project. After the meeting I have to do a write up on PROSE, I’ve discussed PROSE before in my training opportunities blog. Once written up I submit it to my supervisor for approval, this makes sure we’re on the same page with what’s been discussed.
These are informal weekly group meetings where we discuss what we’ve done that week and what we plan to do the next week. It’s just my supervisor’s students and post-docs and we throw together a few powerpoint slides so there’s always a record of what we’ve talked about. We question each other, offer suggestions and try to develop new experiments. No matter how long we give ourselves for these meetings they always overrun, but they’re really useful to stay up to date with each other.
As PhD students we specialise and eventually (fingers crossed) become experts in our own individual fields, however keeping interests broad by attending seminars is important. We’re expected to attend the seminars of 3rd and 1st year PhD students within the department as well as events where outside speakers may be invited to the university. Sometimes events are hosted by departments, sometimes by research themes. Often these speakers are well practiced in presenting their work which means these seminars can give you a good insight into how to put together an interesting presentation of your own work or in some cases things to avoid!
So as you can see there are a lot of things to keep us PhD students busy from week to week. Keeping on top of things such as monthly supervisor meetings is entirely our own responsibility, so you need to plan. Sometimes you’re genuinely too busy to make a seminar – maybe it falls right in the middle of a crucial experiment that is taking longer than you expected – and this is ok but it shouldn’t be a habit, you can learn from these talks which is why they are put on to begin with.