Survival Tips for PhD Students

by Juliana Ariffin


Everyone starts graduate school for different reasons. Some may have always had a passion for science, others are determined to push the boundaries of human knowledge and discover their inner Einstein. You may even be a bit of an idealist and desire to improve human destiny even if you have to sacrifice yourself, ala Marie Curie. Or maybe you are a go-getter and you think a PhD is your stepping stone to a better future. For many, it will be combination of all the above.

However, the journey through a PhD is hardly ever a straight and narrow road. And amongst the twists and turns and backtracking you will be forced to take, you can easily lose sight of your goals and reasons for starting out on the journey. So it helps to be prepared and well aware of how best to make the most of your PhD. With that in mind, here are ten survival tips to help you on your way.

Survival Tip #1:
Choose a supervisor you get along with.

One thing to be very careful about when starting a PhD is to choose a lab with a suitable supervisor for you. You should not choose a lab simply because you like the lab members in it, because they will leave at one point or another! Even supervisors may leave or even pass away, but those are unique situations, and more often than not, your supervisor will be a constant presence throughout your PhD.

So before you commit to a lab, attend seminars by the supervisor you are aiming to work with, and talk to their current and former students. You’ll want someone whose personality and supervising style is suitable for you. Do they provide enough structure and attention, or are they hardly ever available? Are you comfortable with discussing your concerns with them? A good match will be one where both of you can communicate effectively, and where you get enough encouragement, feedback and direction, but still feel free to voice your opinions and have some say in the direction of your project.

If you have already started your PhD and discover that you cannot get along with your supervisor, change labs within the first year of your project or seek out a co-supervisor you can get along with and depend on instead.

Survival Tip #2:
Choose a project you are excited about, but make sure you have options!

Show initiative and think about what captivates you, then read up on the available literature before deciding on your project. Bear in mind though, that projects do change depending on how the research turns out, or even what your supervisor feels is in the lab’s best interest to work on. You will face challenges for any project you pick, but it is always better to pick one that is not too isolated from the general research direction of the lab (for obtaining guidance and experimental protocols), but not shared amongst a few people (ownership issues can give rise to conflicts!).

If your research project turns into a graveyard of failed experiments and dead-ends, it helps to have a side project to fall back on. However be wary of taking on too many side projects, and always ensure that you and your supervisor agree on which project takes priority.

In addition, when collaborating, take steps to ensure your supervisor is aware of the work you have done so that you may receive appropriate acknowledgement or authorship for the work you do (though determining authorship is usually beyond the authority of a PhD student).

Survival Tip #3:
Treat your PhD like a lifestyle, not a 9-5 job.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a project that lets you clock in 8-10 hour days, and not work on the weekends. If you’re not… well it is normal to keep a stash of caffeine, chocolate, instant noodles and a pillow at your desk for those all-nighters. It is important that you do work longer hours because the more time you spend in the lab, the more experience you have and the more likely you are to make a breakthrough. You don’t have to live in the lab, but do make sure you are getting work done even if you have to stay late. When not doing experimental work, do read research papers and attend talks. Make sure you stay updated on the current research and available techniques in your field, it will save you a lot of time in the long run.

It is said that you need about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, which is approximately the time it takes to complete a PhD. So do not begrudge the time spent working on your PhD, 3-5 years is not that long considering you will have the knowledge you gain for the rest of your life.

Survival Tip #4
Get used to failure.

Even the most interesting project gets dull very quickly if you are faced with constant failure. However all projects worth working on will involve a fair amount of failed experiments, and seasoned scientists get used to and even learn to embrace failure. Ok, maybe not quite embrace failure, rather to accept it. It is of paramount importance that you recognise that 80-90% of what you do will fail. Science is about exploring where no one has ever explored before, and that means the price of discovering something novel is a hefty amount of failure. A good scientist learns from failure, and does not get disheartened by it.

Survival Tip #5
Intra-lab relationships

Now, working all those late hours and embracing failure will likely result in you relying a lot on the people you work with for professional and emotional support. Many scientists will find lifelong friends or significant others through their work and it can lead to many happy endings. But things often can and will go awry, leading to some awkward years ahead in the same lab. So where possible, it is always best to be as professional as possible.

Do not begrudge the time spent working on your PhD, 3-5 years is not that long considering you will have the knowledge you gain for the rest of your life

Be friendly and learn to collaborate – show an interest in other people’s research and be conscientious about communal lab equipment and reagents. Attend lab retreats or lunches. However when conflict arises, remember that your labmates are colleagues first and friends later, so it is always best to not take things personally, take care not to gossip and seek to resolve issues before they get out of hand.

Survival Tip #6

Do make the effort to establish relationships with other PhD students and researchers from other labs and institutes. Socialise – show up for department seminars and talk to people. A lot of collaborations start over a cup of coffee or beer, and it is always good to know what is going on in other labs as each lab is run in a different style with different areas of expertise.

Talking to people will also make it easier for you to learn more outside your field, and about funding processes, grant proposals and current issues. Do not get so caught up in being a scientist that you find it hard to talk to someone who is not in your own field of research or even someone who is not in science.

Survival Tip #7
Get a mentor

The importance of a mentor can never be stressed enough. He or she may not be your supervisor, or even within your lab. However they should be someone who is in a higher position than you in your field, and who is willing to give you honest, trustworthy advice. They will share their experiences, warn you of the pitfalls to avoid and the opportunities to look out for and grasp hold off. They will also be your reference and your go-to-guide for career questions and choices.

It is not easy to find a good mentor, but the benefits far overweigh the challenge. The best way to find one is to keep talking to people and consider their suitability. Once you have found someone you think is suitable, you could ask if they would like to be your mentor, or keep it casual and drop a line to say you consider them as a mentor. Acknowledgement is one thing however, and a true mentor will be someone you can rely on, who will freely and willingly give you advice.

Survival Tip #8
Plan ahead and keep yourself motivated

Many PhD students concentrate on lab work until they forget to lift their noses from the grindstone to search out opportunities. This is very unfortunate as there are very many opportunities to be had for PhD students!

So keep your eyes open for travel grants, scholarships, conferences, workshops, training opportunities, etc. Do not ignore them, thinking you will utilise them in your third or final year when you have a complete story to tell, or will be able to job search as you travel to overseas conferences in your final year. The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and you should be looking out for conferences from the start, and job-searching a year in advance of graduation.

Part of the joy of a career in science is also getting to travel to international locations and learning about exciting new advances in research. This will give you new perspective on your own project and keep you motivated.

Survival Tip #9
Build your portfolio and look into alternative careers.

No matter how wonderful your project is at the moment, the reality of science is that it is a tough field to be in. Work contracts are short, the hours are long and the competition is fierce. So it is always best to make sure your skills are updated and that you are aware of the alternative careers available to you.

Many PhD students concentrate on lab work until they forget to lift their noses from the grindstone to search out opportunities

Take the time to tutor or supervise students, join community outreach programmes and public speaking or demonstrations at schools. Also, take advantage of career guidance talks and communicate with people in science related jobs outside research, or with those who have left science altogether. Do not be afraid to approach someone for an informational interview* or an internship.

Most importantly, do not underestimate the skills you have gained from pursuing a PhD, which include project management, time management and problem solving skills. Do not be a wallflower or too humble, instead be confident and learn to market yourself and your abilities.

Survival Tip #10
Take care of yourself and have fun

It is easy to get caught up in the race to publish or get disillusioned by the seemingly neverending onslaught of failure. There will be times when you curse the day you decided to pursue a PhD and question the worth of a project that hardly anyone (not even your own mother) is going to fully understand or be interested in. When those days come, remember that it is a privilege to explore the frontiers of science. View it as challenging and exciting work and be confident that you can handle it. Do not fall prey to imposter syndrome**.

Make sure you find time to get out of the lab and pursue your hobbies. Exercise to relieve your frustration – you will need the extra energy it gives you, and the accomplishment you feel at conquering an hour of heart attack-inducing cardio. Eat healthily and sleep regularly or you will burn out, and always remember a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint.

There will always be ups and downs in science but try to find the humour and the silver lining in each situation and you will survive and even enjoy each moment… most often in retrospect.

Infobox by Kong Yink Heay
Infobox by Kong Yink Heay

*Informational Interviews

**Imposter syndrome

Resources for more tips (or time wasting):

The Thesis Whisperer

PhD Comics

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

About the Author

JULIANA ARIFFIN is a final year PhD student studying human immune responses at The Institute for Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Prior to beginning her PhD, she worked for a year as a research assistant following her Honours degree. Find out more about Juliana Ariffin by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *