academic / Adventure in Normal Life / career

10 Things I Learned During my Ph.D.

I’ve been in this degree program for about 6 years, and while I’m looking at the end of this stage of my education soon, I wanted to share some tips and thoughts that might be helpful to someone considering a Ph.D., or earlier in their journey. The idea is to help one another to think about what makes you be the best version of you while you are in your Ph.D. I really hope it will be at least a little helpful to someone. If there are any questions you all have about being in a Ph.D., send me a note and I can see if I can field it. #community

  1. Not a lot of people can get a Ph.D.

You’re special if you’re in it. If you’re stationed in a place of academic repute like me (Boston), it is hard to go out to lunch sometimes and not think that everyone here must be a genius. I was out at lunch one weekend and literally heard two neuroscientists talking about brain surgery, the next table over. When that happens, do a reality check and realize that you are worth being in this place, in this program, and that you are going to do some great work.

  1. You have to remind yourself why you chose this path – often.

Let your initial inspiration be your guide for all those times when you’re extremely tired, bleary eyed, looking at samples in wells or under a microscope, or a collection of spreadsheets, papers, or documents on your computer, and wishing you could go from 90 degrees at your chair to 180 on your bed.

  1. Start exploring careers early – in your 1st or 2nd year   

Seek out your post-doctoral affairs office or career counselors. It is helpful to just check in with them, but make sure to go to some of the events that are offered. I went to one to learn how to structure my LinkedIn account early on, well before I would need it for seeking a job, and I saved myself an overhaul right before a networking event or career fair.

  1. Think about what you might miss after graduate school.

    • Is it access to most any paper you might fancy reading through your university library system? Is it access to people who are willing to train you or meet with you on campus?
    • Is it seminars with speakers who come regularly to present from elsewhere?
    • Is it student rates at conferences?
    • Is it the camaraderie? Is it the opportunity to learn new skills or take classes?
    • Is it the professional development workshops?
    • Is it what you are “allowed” to wear or look like? This one is kind of silly – but when you think of the kind of career you want to have later, and the kinds of people who are often in those roles, there may be limits on the kind of style (clothes, hair, etc) that are appropriate for those roles. If you are dying to dye your hair pink, you might want to take that chance now, rather than later. : )

Thinking of these things will help you figure out if you need to prepare yourself mentally for a big lifestyle change after the Ph.D. (which is possible after many years of a certain lifestyle). It also gives you a chance to take full advantage of any of these special perks you have of being a graduate student.

  1. Make business cards that have useful information on it.

Make it easy for someone to contact you, and make sure that the style matches YOU, and is also clear, clean, and professional.

     6. Practice networking.

“Keep in touch” is said more often than done. Be the one who keeps in touch more often.

  1. Join a professional society.

    Then, join and be active in an interest subgroup. These can become a part of your network. Pitch in and volunteer to review abstracts, or help with a meeting and you will grow in some other professional skills.

  2. Make a list of your mentors and what you’ve particularly learned from them.

    They could be people you know, and even people you look up to. These become a part of your research heritage.

  3. Take care of yourself.

    Just because you’re young now and pretty healthy doesn’t mean that will be the case later. Your body might remember what you put it through, so be kind to your body, your mind, yourself. Make a system for your basic needs that you can fall back on. I’m talking about sleeping, eating, exercise. I learned that my body and mind have limits and no amount of coaxing can make it run on turbo, long-term. During the first couple of years of grad school, when most Ph.D. students have the bulk of their classes, balance is tough to achieve – there is often more reading than you can physically read, projects, exams that come up quickly, and there isn’t much time for rest. I wish I had known then that a system could be helpful.

People are different, so I won’t be too specific, but here are a few tips:

  1. Write a list of at least 10 meals that you know you like and can prepare. Keep that list handy so that if you pass the grocery store on the way home, you can pull out the list, pick a meal that sounds OK and make it. This will save you from a life of potstickers, frozen pizza, and snack-meals. I’m in nutrition research, so I worry about your cardiovascular health J.
  2. Take some time to notice what your best-functioning hours are and test if you need more time to rest, exercise, etc. now so that you are very productive later, or can power through at particular times of day.
  3. Keep a well-stocked desk at work and at home. Keep things you need to reach organized and close by – a note pad or post-its for quick thoughts or diagrams or a dry erase board for ideas in the works, things that make you happy like photos or a plant, your favorite tea or mugs, art, things that inspire you, hydration, healthy snacks that will give you energy between meals (if they’re close, you’re more likely to consume them, so think carefully!). I particularly like having noise-canceling headphones at work so I can really get in the zone and focus and not listen to the latest gossip in the office.

10. Find out, and then make time to remind yourself of the particular aspects that you like about a Ph.D.

Is it the thrill of investigation? Do you like to read and learn about what others think on a topic and link it to your own thoughts and hypotheses? This will help you when periods of time get tough. While there isn’t usually a consistent start and stop time to research and it follows you wherever you go, even that could be something that you might miss intellectually later on.

I was inspired to put together my own list after reading The Science Beauty’s list. What helps each of us get through a Ph.D. might be different, but I really appreciate the experiences that others in similar shoes have had. I’m participating in a photo challenge over on Instagram with the #WeAreSTEMSquad, with women scientists all over the world who are sharing aspects of their journey based on daily themes below all of March, in celebration of #InternationalWomensMonth. I encourage you to check it out and share with friends and family (even younger folks) – these brilliant folks are opening science and communicating it with everyone, and it is really neat and inspiring.

click the photo to go directly to @thestemsquad

Also find me on Instagram here @BlueBootsGo


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Headshot Photo Credit: Katrina McCardle, Bonjour Katrina – a soon to be Mom of 2 with a lovely blog

8 thoughts on “10 Things I Learned During my Ph.D.

  1. Taking the time to reflect on and share lessons you’ve learned is so valuable and much appreciated. Wisdom gained from experience is always worth sharing.

  2. This was a nice read for someone like me. I just completed my MBA. My plan is to work for 2 yrs before seeking my Ph. D in consumer behavior or purchasing decisions. You post gave me some things to think about outside of the program requirements

    • That is really encouraging to hear, that this post has some insight for people in other fields and life paths. Thank you for sharing, and I wish you all the best as you seek your next opportunity. Happy to answer any other questions if I can!

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