Every so often there are threads on Twitter about what people wish they would have would have known before starting their PhD, or would have done differently in retrospect. Here is a recent one with lots of great advice by David Schoppik:
OK friends: what's one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting grad school?
— David Schoppik (@schoppik) August 24, 2017
And another one by Jennifer Polk :
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently during grad school to make life & work easier/better/etc. after it? #withaPhD
— Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) August 29, 2017
I haven’t responded to either question, because there is so much to say that I can’t fit into 140 characters. However, I have already been keeping a “wishlist” of sorts, so I thought this was a good opportunity to finally turn them into a blog post. Here they are, the things I wish I had done during my PhD.
1. Having a lab journal
I somehow managed to miss out on this concept completely. Maybe I had heard about it, but dismissed the idea because I didn’t work in a lab. I only really found out about it when I was about to start my tenure track position, and was reading “At the Helm” in preparation.
Sure, I had a notebook. I would use it to make notes in meetings, draw toy datasets, write down tasks as they came up… anything, really! But none of these things were intended for anybody else, including the future me, to read.
In retrospect, it would have been helpful to have a central place to record ideas, different (failed) experiments, and where I ended up storing my data and code.
2. Having a todo list
This might be a surprise to many, but I didn’t have really have a todo list during my PhD. I would write down tasks as they would come up – for example “prepare presentation for lab meeting” – in my notebook. If I didn’t get a task done 2-3 pages later, I would copy it over to the current page I was on.
I don’t remember forgetting to do anything important and I didn’t miss any deadlines, which probably gave others (and myself) an impression that I was an organized person. But the 2017 me is overwhelmed by the idea of this “organization system”.
3. Spending more time with other PhD students
I don’t mean with this point that I didn’t spend any time with friends or colleagues. I did my PhD in in the same city as where I got my other degrees, so there were lots of friends around. And I was in a great lab, where we would often do social activities together, and would see each other as friends. I realize that I’m very lucky to be in this situation.
But most of friends were not doing PhDs, and with my colleagues, often it was more relaxing to talk about topics outside of work. So it was great to meet other PhD students, for example during courses, and share experiences about writing, teaching… anything that might have been challenging. I should have done that a lot more! Maybe I would have learned about “lab notebooks” and “todo lists” 🙂
4. Seeking out more mentors
As I wrote above, I was in a great (though perhaps small) lab. My supervisors were both inspiring scientists, and very kind people. But even despite these favorable circumstances, I didn’t always dare to tell them what was on my mind. How was I doing with my research? Was my CV maybe good enough to apply for this scholarsip? Did I have good chances of getting an academic position? Questions I was too scared to ask, because I thought I would be laughed at, even though I logically knew that wouldn’t happen!
But things changed a bit when I did an internship, and met two very different mentors. They were closer to me in age and career step – both postdocs at the time – and were women. They saw right through my self-esteem issues, and made me a bit more confident that I wasn’t entirely delusional about my aspirations.
5. Applying for all the things
In the Netherlands, as a PhD researcher you are an employee, not a student. I had a salary and my travel expenses were reimbursed. Therefore I never felt the need to apply for any financial support.
As for awards, most of the time it either didn’t cross my mind I should apply, and if it did, my imposter syndrome didn’t let me. It didn’t help of course, that the one scholarship I really thought was a good fit (Anita Borg Memorial scholarship) was rejected three times in a row.
In retrospect, I think applying for more things would have made the applications I really wanted, like the Anita Borg one, a lot better. Not to mention the benefits for applying for larger grants later on.
6. Joining Twitter
Although I had an account for years, I didn’t start using it until half-way through my postdoc. Maybe a funny story is that this all happened because of a grant I applied for. The best submissions would be advertised via Twitter, so I thought I should at least see what people are saying about my submission (not much). But since I was now checking Twitter every day, I also started following more accounts, engaging in conversations etc – and never left.
Being part of the (academic) community on Twitter has been pretty awesome. From excellent advice about applying for jobs, to thoughtful threads about academic culture, to cat pictures (#academicswithcats), there’s always something to motivate me or cheer me up. Through Twitter I found many friends, role models, and from time to time, even people who were somehow inspired by me. I cannot stress how essential this has been in times of existential crises almost inevitably associated with being a postdoc.
I had a blog on and off during my PhD (see My relationship with blogging), but I didn’t really dare to write anything, let alone tell other people that I have a blog. I had a blog, but I wasn’t blogging.
And that’s too bad. Because since I really started writing and sharing posts (although I still find I’m often outside my comfort zone), lots of interesting things happened. Next to improving my writing and getting me invitations to give talks, blogging has given me a bigger sense of purpose. Related to the Twitter point above, this has been essential for dealing with setbacks.
I hope these are useful whether you are doing a PhD or are already done – it’s not too late to start! If you have any other advice you’d like to share with others, please leave a comment below!