Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thirteen things about doing a science PhD...

...that I wish I could tell my younger self:

1. It’s not going to be easy or, at least, it won’t feel easy. At some point, you’re probably going to start doubting everything about yourself, from your ability to generate high-quality data to whether that old lady on the bus moved seats because the stench of E. coli DH5a has somehow impregnated itself into your very soul. Of course, make it to post-doc status and you’ll look back on your PhD days with a mixture of nostalgia and nausea—how could you not have realised back then that pretty much everyone passes? I suppose it is a kind of rite of passage. Like the Satere-Mawe Tribe of the Amazon who endure the agonizing stings of hundreds of bullet ants to prove themselves men. Awesome.

2. Be prepared for failure. Things don’t always work in science. Even when you go it right. Don’t take it personally. Instead, add the phrase ‘optimising the procedure’ to your dictionary and whip it out any time someone asks why you have no results.

3. Don’t expect to know everything straight away. And it’s alright to admit that. By the end of the PhD, your little brain is going to be so full of esoteric information that it may have purged large portions of your childhood from your memory. But you can’t miss something you don’t even remember.

4. Take responsibility for your mistakes, and don’t try to come up with explanations until you know enough to not look like a twit. Occam’s razor—the simplest answer is usually the correct one. If your culture is contaminated, you’ve probably got your mucky little fingers too close to it. The autoclave is not the problem—it works for everyone else. If your digests haven’t worked, I can bet it’s because you’ve forgotten to add an enzyme. It’s highly unlikely that the air-conditioning is causing temperature fluctuations that set up convectional currents within the tube thus preventing access to the enzyme’s active site. Own your mistakes and then deal with them. No one else wants to sit through an hour-long lab meeting in which you describe how DNA from the air has floated into your ligation and caused mutations. Learn to do it right before you decide Science is the one who's wrong.

5. Don’t cry in the lab. How I love undergraduate project time. It always feels like a lottery—what if we get that student. Not the one who uses the last Miniprep column without ordering a new kit, or who leaves all the antibodies on their bench for several weeks. Or even the one who doesn’t actually turn up to the lab. I mean the student who (brace yourself) cries when their experiments fail. Scientists are not always known for their interpersonal skills so we have absolutely no idea how to react to a sobbing undergraduate who has just accidentally murdered ten billion bacteria by adding formaldehyde instead of glycerol to their culture. Once you get to PhD level, it’s time to get really good at learning to fix your own mistakes—the post-docs don’t need to know and we certainly don’t need to console you and tell you it’s all going to be OK. It’s not.

6. You’re not an undergraduate anymore so don’t act like one. That ‘I’m still a student’ safety net is great, don’t get me wrong. But now is the time to take responsibility for your own work and start acting like this is a real job. That means turning up on time when you need someone to help you, solving your own problems, and coming up with your own ideas. Asking lots of questions is one thing but you need to ask yourself if they generally take the form of: "I did [insert something dumb here] to my experiment, will it still work?" This is basically asking for reassurance in the same way that a freshly xmas-fattened person asks if they have put on weight: it's not something a co-worker wants to discuss with you and you don't want the real answer anyway. Just do it again. This brings me on to…

7. A post-doc is not your mother. Post-docs have their own jobs to do and supervising students in the lab is not top of their priorities. If you can’t find something in the freezer, what makes you think they will have any more luck? OK, yes, they will probably find it because they’ll do this amazing thing known as ‘looking properly’. Lost your lab book? Same answer. Expecting someone else to drop everything to do something for you that you could do yourself is kind of crappy.

8. If you think all your work is brilliant, it probably isn’t. Self-criticism is the best skill you can learn. No one likes an arrogant PhD student and we’re unlikely to be sympathetic when your viva examiners rip you to pieces. Mwah ha ha.

9. No one else is responsible for your PhD, but be thankful for any input you get. When it comes to the viva, you’re pretty much on your own. So what if your supervisor came up with the original project and the post-docs made suggestions for what controls to include? Your examiners won’t care if you can’t defend the work. ‘Because I was told to’ is never a valid answer. However, there’s a fine-line between taking control of your own project and walking on the faces of people who have helped you. Failing to acknowledge someone else for the work they’ve done for you doesn’t make you look more productive, it makes you look like an ass.

10. Cutting corners will come back to bite you. Think it doesn’t matter that some of your graphs have error bars the size of the moon? You think you’ll have so many brilliant results after 3-4 years that none of the setup will make it into the thesis? Think again. A PhD thesis is a weird document—you may well end up including all those negative results that would never make it into a paper. Attempting to use Photoshop to reconstitute the seventeen pieces of your protein gel into something that doesn’t look like cack is not going to end well. Just run the gel again to start with. Or don’t drop it in the sink in the first place.

11. You might be stressed but so is everyone else. Your PhD, your mini breakdown. I remember starting my PhD and thinking everything would be alright once I finished. All those post-docs had it easy, didn’t they? So why weren’t they helping me All The Time, and putting off their own experiments so I could finish mine? But, trust me, it doesn’t get less stressful. Everyone is scrabbling for a handhold on science’s crumbling cliff face and pounding your little fists in fury only loosens the rocks. 

12. 9-to-5 isn’t a bad thing. Have you noticed how working long hours often makes a person intolerably smug about their work ethic, regardless of how many results they actually have? Yes, getting into the lab at 8 am and staying past 10 pm is all well and good, but not if you spend half that time on Facebook or go insane from never seeing daylight. Having a life outside science is not something to be ashamed of and adequate organisational skills will always trump long hours. I personally like lists—see, I even turn my angy rants into lists. Bringing me on to...

13. Those bitter post-docs – you’re probably going to be one of them. If I could go back in time and talk to my 22-year-old self, I would warn them that science is not a very reliable career path. It's all short-term contracts and far more post-docs than there are permanent positions. Hard work is all well and good, but there is sometimes a fair amount of luck involved and failing to progress past a couple of post-doc positions is not always a comment on someone’s abilities and intelligence. A backup plan is always a good idea.

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