As a second year PhD student, I’m always on the lookout for advice on how to thrive while working on that Dr. title. I know there will be times when the research isn’t going great and I’m so frustrated that just getting through the week without moving to the Grand Canyon to be a river guide is all I can hope for. But in general, I’m hoping that the next few years will be one of the exciting, stimulating, challenging, and rewarding periods of my life.
I recently attended a panel of more senior bioengineering PhD students (and one recent grad!) and got a chance to ask some of my burning questions about happiness, productivity, and making important decisions. The four students on the panel had very different opinions on almost everything, but there was one thing they could all agree on: PhD work is more emotionally than intellectual challenging. Oof! That was tough news for my starry-eyed, optimistic 2nd year self.
They also all agreed that culture and personality are some of the most important aspects when picking a lab. ‘You can be doing great research and not be happy’, they all warned. ‘It’s easier to get interested in a new project than get happy’. Ok, got it. Make my happiness my top priority. But how do I decide between two advisors who I think would be great? One student had this to say about picking an advisor: “As a rotation student, if you really want to figure out what your advisor is like, have an argument before you join the lab.” She went on to say that the student has a lot of responsibility for her relationship with her PI, “You really have to know yourself well to know what you need. Don’t go in there expecting them to run the show. If you need frequent meetings, ask for frequent meetings. Whatever your lab starts out as, you may have the ability to shift the norms.”
Ok, got a great advisor. Now how can I be more productive? One student emphatically stated, “Don’t put off stuff if you can do it today! If you’re really dreading it, do it now!” That same student plans out all of her experiments four months in advance and gives herself hard deadlines. She communicates the deadlines with her PI, but gives herself some cushion time. “‘I might tell him, ‘I’ll have this to you by March 1’, but really I know it will be done by February 10th. That way you are always getting things done before you say you will.” Because I tend to work best right up against a deadline, I’ll probably end up not giving myself that cushion time, but I like the concept of setting deadlines that will help you to work at your most efficient pace.
One of my favorite pieces of advice on productivity was from another student: “Start to trust yourself more. It can take a while to learn to trust your opinions and thought process, but as soon as you tackle that, you can move on to more interesting problems.”
Hopefully by the end of this multi-year journey, I’ll have some gems of wisdom to offer like these students did. Until then, I’m going to start planning my experiments and pick a fight with my advisor…. just kidding. I’m going to work on that top priority, my happiness, and rub my golden retriever’s belly.
And here are some pictures of my puppy that might make you happy too: