After the 7 things I wish I would have done during my PhD, here is an opposite list – of things I’m happy I did, and I would recommend to others. It is also a bit of a “trip down memory lane” of this blog, as I realized I have written about most of these experiences before, but never connected them together. Enjoy!
1. Choose based on people, not on project
I applied to only one lab for my PhD (an earlier post about this). I applied there because I knew I was going to have a great time for four years, and that is largely because of the people in the lab.
Of course I was interested in machine learning, but within machine learning, most topics would have been interesting. The topic of the position I was applying for – “Dissimilarity-based multiple instance learning” – did not tell me much at the time. It was already during my PhD that I got really excited about it, and that is why I have a thesis with the same title now.
I also have to note here that in my experience, if you are in a good place, you will have freedom to pursue your own ideas as well.
2. Treat it as a job
Although this seems to be a controversial idea (e.g. professors tweeting that PhD students who don’t put in 80 hours a week “should not be there”), it is entirely possible to treat a PhD as a “normal job”. You know, with things like weekends, sick leave and holidays.
A factor that definitely played a role in my attitude is the system in the Netherlands (and several other countries) where PhD researchers are not students, but employees. It is of course easier to go on vacation or take sick leave, when you don’t have to worry about paying your bills or getting fired.
But perhaps more importantly, I was fortunate not to encounter anybody with the 80 hour mindset. I set myself the same hours as that I saw my supervisors in the lab (roughly 8:30 to 17), and went home after that. I realize now they probably worked at home too, but I never felt the pressure to do so. See also the point above on choosing for the people, not the project.
More generally, I think it’s good for your mental health to have an identity that is separate from being a researcher, to help deal with failures that will inevitably occur.
3. Go to a conference early on
For the first month of my PhD I actually worked on the topic of my MSc thesis, to write a paper for a small conference. It’s not a “big deal” conference, but I cannot stress enough how important this experience was.
First, this meant that I started practicing writing papers (and getting feedback, from supervisors and from reviewers) very early on. Although the topic of my PhD was different and so I couldn’t use the publication for my thesis, the skills I learned still applied.
Second, just a few months into my PhD, I went to a conference where I recognized all the senior people from their badges. And, it being a small conference, several of them talked to me and complimented me on my presentation! This is huge deal if you are, like many PhD students, dealing with some form of imposter syndrome.
Last, I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the conference in general. This motivated me to do a lot of conference paper writing in the following years (such that I was a bit late with realizing I had to also write journal papers, which I do not recommend).
4. Do not only do research
- Give you experience that will be valuable later on (possibly also outside of academia)
- Give you a productive thing to do when your writing just isn’t progressing
- Help you stay motivated
In the end, although I spent time on these types of activities, I think I gained time because I could return to my writing with more energy, rather than beating myself up and starting at the screen for hours.
With that being said, also do not do too much – maybe one extra project at a time. If you start doing these things and people realize you are able/happy to do them, you will get more requests, so prepare to say no (something to add to my “should have” list).
5. Have an online presence
Although I regret not using Twiter or blogging more, I did do my best to be findable online. I kept my university page and Google scholar profiles up to date, and uploaded my papers to the university website and ResearchGate.
When submitting papers to journals, I posted them on arXiV. For example, I submitted 3 journal papers in 2013. They were only published in 2015 and 2016 (!), when I was already a postdoc. However, these papers have been gathering citations since 2013 (not many, but I’m very proud/excited about it nonetheless). In 2015 and 2016, as recent papers with already a couple of citations, they might have been seen as “important to cite”, leading to further increases in citations and allowing me to benefit from the preprint citation bump.
If you are thinking “none of this is necessary if you just do great research”, evidence suggests otherwise. For example, you are less likely to be cited if you are a woman in international relations or astronomy.
6. Visit another lab
Visit another lab for a few months – most would recommend going to a different country too, but if your situation doesn’t allow that, I think going to a lab in a city close by would also be valuable. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning new things, collaborating on a project, and sharing your research, for me visiting another lab has been essential for finding mentors and becoming a more confident researcher. I wrote about this in the post “A few thoughts on mentors”.
7. Bring your own lunch
Yes, it costs time in the morning or the evening before. But it is healthier and cheaper, and much more rewarding!. Lunch in the Netherlands isn’t that great anyway – the standard is to eat bread with something on it (typically not avocado).
The better alternatives are probably at least EUR 5 – I would estimate 2-3 times more expensive than my (sometimes even containing avocado) lunches. If you do this for 4 years you probably still won’t save enough money for a deposit, but you will gain a habit that will in turn help you adopt other useful habits – writing, perhaps?