As I am inching towards, what I hope would be my final year of PhD research, I have been thinking and analyzing a lot of my actions in retrospect. I thought of putting together a list of things I learned and things I wish I had considered in my first year.
1) Finding the “right” mentor.
We spend a lot of time in deciding the right lab or the best PhD supervisor. A lot has been said and done about finding the right fit. One thing I have learned is that apart from the usual parameters we set in finding the best supervisor for us personally, sometimes we forget to consider if the supervisor is right for the project. Sometimes the project may expand in an area beyond your and your mentor’s expertise. In such cases, it is important to consider whether your mentor will make the right resources available to you. Putting together a good research advisory committee, scientists who would have expertise in that specific topic, will come in handy. Research can be quite daunting and grad students deal with intense pressure and stress on a daily basis. Your time should be spent researching and not trying to find the right instrument in the cheapest core facility and definitely NOT YouTubing the workings of a new technique. Make sure to find someone to train you, attend workshops, shadow a technician and make sure your supervisor makes these available to you when needed. A mark of a good mentor is when they don’t hesitate to seek consultation or advise from an external or senior scientist who is an expert in the field.
2) Is this a good career investment?
Turns out most students forget about the crucial thing about spending years in grad school – landing the job! Most of us don’t think about job search or the next move until our final year, which I think is too late. While choosing a topic, you may want to consider things like job market, skill requirement, funding agencies and so on. For example, researching therapeutic drug targets for a disease that has no cure is far better than investing in a project discovering drug targets for a disease with multiple FDA approved drugs. Weigh the pros and cons carefully. Will your project help you acquire technical skills that are translatable to the industry? If you live in a city or country that is in dire need of science policy advisors or climate crisis advocates or good science communicators, will your PhD program give you enough skills to apply to these jobs?
3) Is there scope for collaborations?
Collaborations are a unique way to expand into different research topics in your field, whether it’s a collaboration within your group or research with a different research group altogether. This lets you become more versatile, get a flavor of how other researchers approach their science and if nothing else, learn a new scientific topic up-close. A productive collaboration is one which will take your expertise and enhance another project, without taking too much time away from your project. Inter-lab collaborations are a great way to demonstrate your negotiating, team management and interpersonal skills. Oh, and did I mention it’s good for networking? So finding aims in your proposal early on, that are good for teaming up with other groups is a good idea, especially while conferencing.
4) Will it help you AND your science grow?
I will start with the science part first. Obviously, we all want to learn and become an expert in the respective field when we started off, so what do I mean by growth here? If your research topic is only going to be a repeat of your previous techniques and scientific concepts, chances are, halfway through the project, you’re going to lose interest. It is great to start off the project with something familiar, but if it isn’t exploring in areas that are uncomfortable and challenging to you, is it really worth a PhD? Test new ideas, push your boundaries and give yourself a deadline to fully delve into answering these questions. But be wary not to spend too much time and get distracted. It is good to spend the first two years (in a five-year program) to be adventurous, but if it gets too challenging it really should not be pursued at the expense of your time.
I stress on personal growth next. PhD project is a LOT of time commitment. Especially to one very specific thing, that more often than not, will consume most, if not all of your time. This means one must consider having room for co-curricular activities that will in turn be an asset for your own research project. For example, I love to read about popular science, wildlife, climate science, conservation, policies and history. My program had a structured graduate minor alongside my PhD major and I decided to study science communication for this minor. Now, I get to write, read or watch other popular forms of science, engage with community, organize local events and dissect science policies as part of my curriculum. I have also gotten opportunities where I talked about my own research to strangers and thus, honed in my craft of communicating science. All of this will ultimately reflect in your resume and you know that apart from spending long hours fine-tuning your experiments, you will leave with heaps of useful skills for future jobs. So, I would recommend finding things that compliment your science early on, this will go a long way!
5) Will you need a backup plan?
If you are diving into something extremely challenging, let’s say it will not only require you to learn new, field-specific techniques, but it will mean questioning the dogma – make sure you have another small project to safely rely back on. If your program has at least one first-author paper requirement for dissertation, it is imperative you sit with your supervisor and make sure you will get a paper out in time. No dogma is worth challenging at the cost of your degree!
These are some pointers that I thought of, from personal experience. I hope that you will find it useful and informative.