We all join graduate school with rainbows and butterfly ideas in our minds. We will cure cancer, do research in interesting topics, learn a lot, oh! the scientific method, meet smart people.
Guess what? Life as a PhD student is much different.
Here’s what I discovered during my PhD that was totally different from what I had imagined. This is my graduate school advice for new PhD students.
Graduate School Advice 1: Your #1 Goal Is To Publish Peer Reviewed Articles
Assuming that you want to finish your PhD and become a “doctor”, you have to publish peer reviewed articles. This is the one thing that if you do, you will get your title hands down.
Isn’t the goal to be an expert in your field?
Being an expert without peer reviewed publications equals to being an expert without a PhD. Click to tweet
It sounds materialistic, specially when compared to this romantic idea of doing science for the progress of human knowledge. Sadly it is how the game is played. This is the rule. Publish or perish.
People are trying to change the game with Open Access, Open Data, Open Science, and writing their results in blogs (if you do not have one, start a science blog right now). These are all very needed initiatives that are changing the scientific game. But still, in order to win the game you need publications (in The Netherlands, where I do my PhD, you need 4).
So the best graduate school advice you could get is write, write, and write some more.
Graduate School Advice 2: The Most Difficult Part Is To Stay Motivated
Since a PhD involves diving very deep into a topic, one might expect that learning very complicated stuff would be the hardest part. If you don’t learn fast enough and well enough, you will not finish your PhD. Right? Not true.
The most likely reason for not finishing a PhD, despite not having publications, is … don’t laugh … quitting your PhD. Click to tweet
What can make you quit your PhD?
It happens usually half way a PhD’s duration. You won’t feel you had enough progress. You will be lost in the middle of an ocean of uncertainty. You will still have in front of you a couple of painful years to endure. The alternative of a bigger pay-check in industry will look really tempting at that point.
That period is called the Valley Of Shit or the Phase 3 of PhD Motivation, the “Crisis of Meaning” . Almost every graduate student goes through this existential crisis.
You just need to realise that it happens to everybody and that you can overcome it. Focusing on constant little progress helps more than evaluating if a bigger goal has been achieved.
Something that worked for me was to start your science blog and share with others my experiences (see how a science blog saved my PhD). It helps to put all your troubles in perspective. If you need help starting a science blog and growing your academic footprint check our videotutorial.
Graduate School Advice 3: You’d Better Finish Your PhD Fast
As you see it sucks to quit your PhD half way. Such a waste of time for going away without a PhD tittle.
Do you know what sucks even more? To spend 4, 5, 6 years and not finish your PhD. Ouch!
I have seen this happening to many people and it has to do with two causes.
One, you realise a bit, just a bit, too late that this is not going to work. Seriously, do you really need 5 years to decide you won’t have enough results and papers to defend your thesis?
Please, evaluate every 6 months if you are still on track, if you are going to make it and correct direction if needed.
In a PhD you should track progress and correct direction regularly, don’t wait till it is too late. Click to tweet
Two, after 4 years you are almost there, you have enough data to write those two last articles and the introduction of your thesis. It feels so close and obvious you are going to get your PhD title that you decide to start a postdoc or a new job.
Excellent Wrong choice, Sir!!!!
The stress and pressure to integrate in the new position won’t leave enough room for you to write those last pages. Sure, you are Superman and you are going to write after dinner and during the weekends. I have seen many people failing at this to believe it is a good strategy.
So finish your PhD fast and on time, avoid delaying it. And please, do not start new job until you really finish your PhD.
Graduate School Advice 4: You Are The Expert In Your Field Of Research
We all regard our supervisors, principal investigators and promotors as a source of infinite knowledge. They are like superhumans.
One common source of frustration is to ask your PhD supervisors for help and realise they know as much as aunt Martha does. If these brilliant guys can’t answer your problems, how are you expected to answer them?
This is why you are here. To answer those questions your bosses cannot answer.
At the end of your PhD you should be the expert on your topic, and not your professor. Click to tweet
You can very well approach your superiors with a problem and propose several solutions. Give arguments for each one. In this context, they might be able to use their scientific instinct, the so called educated guess, to give you a hand.
Graduate School Advice 5: You Won’t Make A (Big) Dent In The Universe
We know you are not in graduate school for the money. Probably you want to contribute to the knowledge of mankind, fix a problem or discover something new. Fair enough.
The sad truth is that for the majority of PhDs, their research will get noticed and used by a handful of other researchers. And that is fine. Most of scientists make big contributions after a lifetime of research, not in a couple years.
The contribution of your PhD to science will be as noticeable as a fart in the middle of a tornado. Click to tweet
Then why do it a PhD in the first place? Well, you need to start somewhere and a PhD can give you the tools and skills necessary for achieving higher scientific goals.
Graduate School Advice 6: Key Skills In Graduate School: Reading, Writing, Networking
In kindergarden you learn to read, write, paint and play with other children. Ah those relaxed days when your only worries were choosing the colour of the crayon or if you were going to play hide and seek.
Graduate school is the kindergarden of scientists. You learn again to read, write and interact with others. Click to tweet
That’s what you need to learn as a PhD school.
- Reading: you need to skim over a scientific paper and in a few seconds decide if you should invest the next 30 minutes reading it in depth. If you do, you should easily find what is the novelty of the research presented, if it can be useful for your work, and how does it compare to what you are doing.
- Writing: in academic papers you need to get to the point. You need to be comprehensive and concise at the same time. You need to be technical yet readable. And if your mother tongue is not English you should work hard not to sound like Google Translate.
- Networking: although some scientists would love to work in a cave away from the rest of the community, you should interact with other peers. Networking can bring you possible collaborators and chances of writing more papers, your new postdoc position, new ideas, or understanding form fellow PhD students that are also going through the Valley of Shit.
Graduate School Advice 7: Pimp Your Online Reputation And Grow Your Academic Footprint
Traditionally scientists would grow their network and get exposure by publishing papers and attending conference. In this new world, a great piece of graduate school advice is to take care of your online presence.
A PhD student should take care of his online reputation from day 1. Click to tweet
While you should still do these things during your PhD, you could make use of some digital tools to be a better scientist and to grow your online reputation, visibility and academic footprint.
There are 3 key online tools that you can use to grow your online presence as a scientist: a science blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn, aka the social media trinity for scientists.
If you use these three tools you will stop being invisible for Google. People will find you and discover what your research is about.
You can use a science blog to share your opinion about your field of research. You can also share materials like posters and presentations. Or even a description of your papers in simple words.
If you what to start a science blog but don’t know how, check check our videotutorial “Grow Your Academic Footprint With A Science Blog”.
With Twitter you can connect with fellow scientists, share your news and also discover new research related stuff.
LinkedIn can become your online CV, a place where others can easily see your skills, publications and education.
In Next Scientist we are crazy about the digital world, but do not forget to transfer some of these online relations to the physical world. Try to meet face to face with some of your online buddies, either invite them to visit your group, go for a coffee, or arrange that you will meet in a scientific conference.
Graduate School Advice 8: Time Management Rules From The 4 Hour Workweek That Change The Game
If you haven’t read The 4 Hour Workweek yet, buy it, devour it and apply it to your PhD. It is stuffed with great ideas that you can turn into graduate school advice, it will revolutionise the way you see the world.
- You want to be effective, not just efficient: being efficient at something unimportant is useless. Being effective at finishing important things makes a big difference.
- Pareto’s Law 80/20: focus your efforts in that 20% of tasks that bring 80% of the benefits (like writing papers). Remove the 80% of tasks that only contribute to 20% of the results (like revising constantly your time management system).
- Parkinson’s Law: set tight deadlines, the last minute rush will activate your creativity. If you decide you can do a task in 2 days, guess what? It will take your 2 days to accomplish it. If you would assign 3 hours to it, you would still finish it.
- You are scared, so is everybody else: when talking to other people, giving presentations, applying for that position, it is scary, but everybody else would be scared.
- Have near-impossible goals: these are the goals that motivate you and that are worth working hard and walking the extra mile. When would you work harder? When you have to prepare a poster for a regional meeting or when you have to give a talk at an international conference in New York? I thought so.
Graduate School Advice 9: Deliver Fast And Often, Get Feedback
A great piece of graduate school advice I got when I started was:
At the start of a PhD get some little results fast to boost motivation, don’t go first for big results. Click to tweet
This is great advice because having some small results will a) give you a sense of progress, so your motivation will go up and b) give you something to present (maybe as a poster) and discuss with other scientists.
In your daily work, you should aim at “good enough” and “deliver soon” instead of “perfect delivered in a few more days”. If you deliver intermediate results or a draft of a paper, you have the chance of getting feedback soon and correct your direction if needed.
Bear with me: done is better than perfect.
Don’t wait till you have the perfect figures or till you are not ashamed of the quality of your work. You need to make progress and you need the feedback of your supervisors to do so.
Get rid of your shyness and “move fast, break things, deliver, ship” on a daily basis.
Graduate School Advice 10: Enjoy The Ride
The graduate school advice we shared might sound a bit too harsh. We just want to point out how a PhD really is, so you are not surprised later on. But do not let this discourage you.
Graduate school has many perks that make it a great experience. You will meet interesting people and you will have the chance to explore your own ideas and to be creative.
Remember that you are still a student, so enjoy life like a student. Do not take everything too seriously and make use of your free time.
In some cases you might get a salary or stipend. Isn’t it great to be a student but with money?
For those cases where you don’t get paid or your salary is microscopic, you can easily make a second income in graduate school and enjoy the life of a student.
You have the chance to travel. Get results and present them in conferences. Ask your boss to pay for the trip or apply for a travelling stipend for students. Find collaborators and get them to invite you to visit their lab.
Graduate school is a great time, make good use of your chance of being here.
Now you know how it really is at graduate school. You have almost everything you need to succeed in your new PhD life. What’s missing? You will find in the following posts of these series.
Thinking Of Applying to Graduate School? Check These Sample Letters For Graduate School
When applying to graduate school you are going to submit several letters. The goal is to give a good impression and get invited for an interview. You should adapt to your needs a sample letter that has been successfully used.
Additionally you can get sample letters you will need throughout graduate school, for instance when you are submitting your first scientific paper to a journal or when you are applying to a scientific conference.
Check the letters for graduate school here.