What I wish I knew before the PhD

We recently ran a huge social media campaign calling all past and present PhD researchers to share what they wished they knew before embarking on the academic journey.

(Read Furaha’s personal story on her journey with mental health, losing loved ones, and more – Things to know before the PhD)

A big thank you to everyone who responded!

Although, some points may be quite doomsday-esque, remember that others’ realities do not exactly have to be yours. If you are about to embark on a PhD, don’t feel discouraged; just know that these situations exist, and should they come your way, you are now in a better position to slay.

phd1 knew

We have sorted the responses from Twitter & Instagram into the following broad categories:

  • Managing expectations 
  • Job situation & career choices 
  • Supervisors 
  • Lifestyle 
  • Independent study 
  • Time management
  • Academic writing 
  • Motherhood, marriage and family 
  • Health 
  • Subject-specific 
  • Community 
  • Others 

Managing Expectations

  • You aren’t expected to already know how to do everything (constantly reminding myself of this.
  • Almost everyone has more failures than successes.
  • It’ll never be perfect.
  • That feeling that everyone around knows what they’re doing except you: Everyone has felt that. Everyone!
  • You may fail at things on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make you a failure.
  • I’m learning now that starting out goes smoother if I admit what I don’t know as often as possible.
  • It’s not about the perfect thesis, it’s about having a go, learning new things and meeting people. Then get out the door!
  • Don’t try to compete.
  • Knowing everything and working hard may not always equal success, but that’s ok!
  • You’re not expected to know EVERYTHING. Thats what we have other academics for.
  • If it doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean you failed. You learned sth abt yourself and adjusted your trajectory
  • It’s OK to change your focus bc PhD is start, not end.
  • Wish I knew how much I would question my abilities & how much support is actually out there. Seek it out!
  • All the people who look like they have it together … they’re all faking it ?
  • I wish I knew pre-PhD that sometimes, done is better than perfect.
  • I wish I knew that making mistakes and not knowing everything in first year doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy of the doctorate.
  • I wish I knew it won’t be the best work I do, and it’s a ticket to join the club.
  • It’s OK to have whole days & weeks where it just doesn’t happen.
  • The infamous “imposter syndrome”, don’t let it consume you! If you reached this far, you’re phd worthy ?
  • Don’t beat yourself up WRT productivity – you can only do the best you can do.
  • Best way to defeat imposter syndrome – fake it.

Job Situation & Career Choices

  • Wish I had known I will forever be haunted by not having attended an elite institution.
  • PhDs are like starving artists: highly skilled but always hustling to stay viable.
  • Learn many skills.
  • Wish I knew that there was a general thought that not wanting to become a PI is a sign of “failure”.
  • I only needed an MS for the job I wanted. I could have saved years and lots and lots of stress.
  • I wish I had known the academic job market….and how to market my skills effectively.
  • Don’t take teaching (e.g., TAing) lightly if you want an academic job, even at an R1 university.
  • Your PhD topic is not be-all and end-all of your career. Cultivating side projects in your field important.
  • Research skills are useful for ‘real life’, regardless if the PhD gets finished. Plan B’s are good for you.
  • Consider all possible post-grad careers.
  • I wish I had known how bad career options in academia are after the PhD, and that true stats are that only 5% get to stay after the PhD..
  • I wish I had known about the bad job market and bad jobs culture; hidden mental, physical and financial costs.
  • Wish I had known that my passion will not protect me from crises of faith or a stunted job market
  • The competition never ends.

Supervisors

  • A good supervisor is key (w/ a compatible working style.)
  • No, your advisor doesn’t know how you are supposed to do the project. tell your PI what you need from them. take charge.
  • Your adviser isn’t perfect.
  • Learn how your supervisor wants you to write.
  • It’s ok to have multiple “advisors” for difft things – research, career prep, how to survive failed experiments, etc.
  • By year 3 (at least), student should know more about topic than advisor does. Transition from asking to telling.
  • Your advisor doesn’t know everything and has faults.
  • Don’t just do what yr supervisor tells you, fundamentally the PhD is yours – make a brave decision if you need to.
  • You’re probably very low in your supervisor’s priorities. Get used to doing a lot without any help.

Lifestyle

  • Go to happy hour-it will help your academic performance
  • Celebrate successes
  • Work-life balance is a challenge
  • Remember that doing your PhD is a choice.
  • Have a life outside your PhD
  • Take time out, read nonPhD books – it’ll come back.

Independent Study

  • You better really really really like to read and write, even when you’re not in the mood. Your job entirely depends on it.
  • I wish I knew not to spend months ‘reading around the topic’ to fill perceived knowledge gaps – don’t be afraid to focus in from the start, rest follows
  • I wish I knew- to always keep a paper in mind & that you’re the boss, so own your project, PI is only for guidance
  • Keep detailed notes, organized data/files.

Time Management

  • Keep regular hours: work during the day, see friends & relax evenings/weekends. Don’t sleep in the day & work at night. That = depression!
  • Published != right. Time management is huge
  • Time management is the key to progress & a healthy work-life balance

Academic Writing

  • Write a little every day
  • I wish I knew the importance of writing; the isolation you may feel as nobody else is studying exactly your topic
  • Make footnoting/end noting a priority from the beginning. My supervisor told me that someone failed due to poor footnotes.
  • When your writing & ideas are edited, it isn’t personal.
  • Co-authors can be unreliable, plan for it
  • Writing everyday is important – criticism is a great form of academic development & a life beyond the lab healthy
  • Always and remember to date all your work! Try and write a little everyday

 

Motherhood, Marriage, and Familyphd2

  • If you’re married it will test your marriage to a degree you never thought possible. Be prepared!
  • When people said “don’t get a PhD, it will destroy your relationships,” they weren’t being cute. They meant it.
  • Having a child during PhD will provide ++++motivation & +delay; he’s still convinced graduation was actually Hogwarts ?
  • That awesome project may take more time from your loved ones than you actually want

Health

  • Don’t work so hard you forget to stay healthy and exercise
  • Sleep is optional – Coffee is not (Sarcasm Alert)
  • Self-care is critical to mental health
  • Your PhD is not your life. Taking time off and resting IS OKAY. ‘Being busy’ is overrated
  • I should’ve known that the basics still apply: never take myself or the system too seriously. Also, sarcasm helps.
  • Take personal time (hobbies, etc) – You are in control
  • Working weekends is for emergencies You can do it!
  • Work-life balance = making time to not work Stress/time in lab =/= productivity Hobbies are critical for success
  • Build a healthy relationship with yourself. no amount of work, no amount of success will let you escape from the dark places.
  • Get your flu shot early. Need best chance at immunity at exam time. Many (most?) profs don’t offer extensions or makeups.
  • I’m just getting started and all this talk about mental health and wanting to quite is depressing (pun not intended)
  • The mental anguish you will regularly feel and the feeling that you must be doing it wrong. You’re not. It’s HARD
  • Finishing a PhD isn’t worth your health
  • Depression/anxiety-v common, many students suffer in silence. These should be taken seriously. Please consider counseling/meds if possible
  • In choosing a PhD program, consider the quality of their mental health support. When in school, take advantage of it early & often
  • Regularly schedule time for yourself right from the start, and guard that time with your life
  • Protect your health

Subject-Specific Responses

  • In ecology, don’t try & answer everything / be too broad in scope, rather choose a key question & answer it well using complimentary methods
  • I wish I knew that if I cloned some random “microbial immunity nuclease” called Cas9 from S aureus, I’d be a famous millionaire now
  • Replace that last course in molecular biology with tactical training to fight against the war on science
  • The higher you get the less doing science for the love of it is valued. Know what your values are, as they will be tested

Community

  • You’re not alone. Find your tribe. See a psychologist. You’re not stuck, if you’re not happy you CAN make a change, best thing I ever did
  • Talk to and visit potential advisers/labs. Personality fit is key. (And ask the graduate students how things are, they’ll tell the truth)
  • Make as many things automatic as possible, when to shop, what to eat. Make and stick to a budget (YNAB). Maintain friends.
  • Your grad student peers will likely be your most valuable professional network
  • Keep up with your undergraduate advisors and mentors.
  • Get to know others in your field (especially postdocs and faculty) outside your institution whenever you have the chance
  • Talk to committee members (frequently) between meetings and use them as mentors
  • Don’t be afraid to approach faculty members for no reason other than to build relationships
  • Maintain important relationships. Find a PhD community; Twitter is a wonderful space for it
  • Collaborate
  • Many accomplished people in your field are actually people and many of them will happily give you pointers if you ask
  • YOU ARE NOT ALONE. All[?] others go thru similar thing
  • Developing a social support systm is top priority AND networking
  • PhDs are mega lonely, as it makes you become obsessed with something noone else in the world cares about or understands
  • You’ll meet some of the brightest people you’ve ever met. And get to keep some of them as friends for years after
  • It is okay to ask people for help
  • Ask for help, you are a trainee! Demand training.
  • Find a trustworthy cohort
  • Twitter can actually help you work
  • Make friends with your peers, they need you and you need them.

Other  responses…

  • It’s not worth it. You can learn as much at a real job while being paid. Don’t do it
  • I feel like I’m solving a puzzle and the pieces aren’t all accessible to me unless I ask for them
  • Explore outside your research
  • Take every opportunity even if it delays completion slightly..
  • Wish I had known that nobody would give a damn what I thought only what I thought I ought to be thinking
  • The poverty — both during and after
  • The higher you get the less doing science for the love of it is valued. Know what your values are they will be tested
  • Do a blog or tweet about your PhD as you go along
  • For conferences: be brave. Speak clearly. Shake hands. Look people in the eye. Learn their names. Be interested. Listen.
  • Wish I knew that realizing value of a PhD often means moving.
  • Remember to enjoy it. Never again will you get to focus so much of your time on something you love.
  • Wish I had known it’ll take longer than planned (12 years ?)
  • Don’t get distracted
  • Finishing is the BEST feeling ever (up there with having my son), and passing is even better!

Coming soon “Things I wish I knew before my PhD” by Furaha Asani (Orisirisi) | Feature Photo: Kosol Photography (used with permission)

 

What do you wish you knew before starting the PhD? Please comment below.

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