Now that Christmas is just around the corner, and us first year students have settled in to the swing of things, I thought it would be nice to write a short piece on what it’s like starting a PhD.
Reflecting on my experience so far, my first thought was to remark at how I’d only been a PhD student for a little over two months. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much in quite so short a time before. This was an encouraging thought, because often in the moment progress can seem very slow indeed. However, when you put it all together and zoom out a little, you realise how far you’ve come. If you feel like you’ve wasted a day lost in code, or just generally lost, it’s never wasted; it’s your PhD and is a constant learning process. I’ve found it really rewarding sometimes to simply explore what I find interesting, or practice different ways of making figures. I would recommend that if something, anything, sparks your interest, investigate it, and read up about it. If it comes to nothing, or if you’re not ready to write a journal paper at the end of the day, well, the skills and familiarities you picked up may eventually go towards doing so! Don’t be afraid of not doing the perfect job first time or making a mistake.
The day-to-day life of doing a PhD is also very dynamic. Perhaps I thought I would only spend long hours sitting at my desk in front of a monitor, but every day is different. Research groups, seminars, and social activities really add variety and inspiration to each and every day, even if it means pulling myself away from my data for a small amount of time! I’d recommend to any first year to get involved as much as possible. It is the best way to get to know people in your department and beyond and how they do science! I will admit it took me a little while at first to treat all these different aspects of a typical day as “PhD work”, but that’s the right mindset to be in.
Finally, getting to know other PhD students and researchers has been one of the best and most eye-opening elements so far. In fact, I would say it is almost a crucial part of the process. I am always grateful to those higher up the academic chain, who, despite being busy, are continually happy to offer advice from the small to the big things. At first, I felt like I would be some sort of annoyance asking other people for help on something, or that I should be able to work it out for myself. However, one comes to realise everyone is delighted to help and share their expertise with you. That’s what being a scientist is about, right? As Google Scholar reminds us on each visit: “Stand on the shoulders of giants.” Those older PhDs may scoff at being referred to as giants, but to someone starting a PhD, daunted at how far there is to go and how much there is to do, well… they’ve done a large part of it!
It’s not possible to always see the positives all the time, especially with research. However, one thing is for sure: you not only grow huge amounts as a scientist, but generally as a person, and I think if you keep that in mind, it all makes that little bit more sense.