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Top 7 Things You Need To Know Before You Start a PhD

Top 7 Things You Need To Know Before You Start a PhD

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Very few people will tell you the following things before you start a PhD, and you are going to need them, oh boy you are going to need them. Being aware of what it really takes to accomplish a PhD will help you decide if you want so badly to start the journey.

1. Main Challenge: Frustration Tolerance

What is the thing that will make you succeed in a PhD? What separates the men from the boys?

Frustation tolerance is what will keep you going during the long months when nothing seems to work. Some of your results will suck, you will screw up one step of the process and you will have to redo all from the beginning, some papers will be rejected, you will look like a fool at some meetings; it is fate of a PhD student. Accepting that “shit happens” will keep the engine running.

You will need this the most when you hit the phase 3 of PhD motivation, aka the feared “PhD dip”. At that moment you will be close to give up, it happened to me. After 2 years in the PhD, zero papers published, and no accomplishment in the near future, I was suffering the PhD dip. During months I was in a negative mood, which caused of course everything to get worst and worst. As a consequence, I did not produce any good work during the time. What got me out of the situation was:

  • Talk with other PhD that shared the typical “been there, suffered that” with the added “overcame that”.
  • Have several one on one meetings with a PhD counselor, a sort of shrink for students. If you take it seriously it can help you big time.
  • Keep working even if I did not want to, thinking that better times would come.

2. It Is Lonely

Are you a team player? Do you like the social aspects of work? Then a PhD is definitely not for you. Yeah, not for you.

You might have 3 supervisors, your group might have 40 members, you might even work in a team of the same topic. It does not matter. At the end of the day, each of us care about our own project. Each of us care about our publications.

This has its positive side. If you depend on somebody else’s project, and he fails, you fail. So it is good not to expose to unnecessary risk your success.

I chose my project because it was a part of a bigger project that involved other PhDs and postdocs, which itself was at the core of a group of projects. All of this was a futile attempt to minimize the loneliness of the PhD, and I have to admit that it was a failure. Even in such an interdependent group, I spend most of my days without discussing things with my colleagues, doing my thing and hoping to get some papers out.

3. You Are In Charge Of The Project

When you begin, if you are lucky, you get a project description. Others just get a title. And then, you get a pet in your back and a “now, work it out”. There you are, alone with your project. Yes, it is your project. You decide how things are done, you filter out the things your professor tells you to do. Professors think and talk a lot, they are like a fountain of ideas. They are paid to do so and in many cases, they feel forced to say what they think. What happens is that many of their ideas and suggestions are plain rubbish. And you have to keep the good ones and delete the crappy ones. Don’t be scared of saying no.

At the the end you should be the expert in your little field, not your professor.

You will be hold responsible for the outcome of the project, so you should decide how things are done. Get used to take responsibilities, the more you practice, the better prepared you will be to run your own group one day.

4. Finish It On Time

Sounds obvious, but hey, you do not want to find yourself after 4 years without funding and having still to publish two papers and a thesis. In fact, you cannot imagine the quantity of people working as postdocs that do not have a PhD yet. How come? Well, they start a postdoc promising that they are just about to finish the PhD, the thesis is almost ready and they are just waiting for a date to defend the PhD. You can only move onto the next phase of your life if you have finished your PhD.

How good are we humans at planing and predicting how much time something will take? We suck. What if we are predicting the timeline of something we do not understand, like a PhD? We suck big time. Optimism can be a dangerous weapon:

Julio: “So I have 4 years and my project description says bla bla bla? Ok, I will do A, B, C, D, and E, which will produce 4-5 papers and a review.” And the professor says: “Be happy if you achieve half of that.”

He was right.

5. You Won’t Be Curing Cancer, Yet

You got such a cool PhD project, in such a prestigious group, with a supervisor that is a rising star in the field. Logically, the least you can expect is to cure cancer, right? Well, no.

It is good to be ambitious, don’t get me wrong. Aim at the stars and at least you will be on top of the world. Fine, but breakthrough discoveries are not at everybody’s reach. There are so many factors involved, that making a great achievement is more like a miracle than science.

Be happy if after many years of scientific career you pushed our knowledge a bit further in the race to cure cancer.


6. Publish or Perish

Papers, papers, and more papers. Don’t be fooled by speeches like we don’t care about papers but about quality research and the so. The tragic truth is that papers measure how good your research is. Furthermore, in many universities you are required to have a number of published papers in order to get your PhD diploma. You can look at papers in two ways, in a qualitative and/or quantitative manner. A good scientist has either:

Needless to say that if you have a ton of very high impact papers you are the king.

7. Writing Is Really Important, Practice

You will have to write a lot, considering how important papers are and the fact that you are nor born knowing how to write a killer scientific publication. Remember, practice makes perfect. In fact some people recommend the following:

Write a fix amount every day, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, you name it. The important here is to adhere to a length of text that you can measure and that easily evaluate wether it is done or not.

This advice on writing papers I found the hard way, the first paper I wrote received close to infinite rounds of feedback. The main reason for this was that I hadn’t practiced much. But hey, it is never late to start doing things well.

And if you don’t know how to start, there is a lot of help out there on how to write well.

One Last Thing: Ithaca

Finishing your PhD is not the goal. What matters are all the things to do before you become a PhD.Travelling to conferences, meeting interesting people, giving talks, learning from smarter folks, failing, screwing up, getting papers accepted, discovering stuff, proving or disproving your hypothesis. All this is what you take with you after a PhD.

Konstantinos Kavafis described this feeling in his great poem Ithaka. Reading this poem was the trigger to take a MSc and a PhD, and to follow the research path.

Are you ready now to start the PhD adventure?

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UPDATED: Check the Next Scientist

I have started a new blog to help PhD students and young scientist to do better science, get exposure and grow their academic footprint. All using digital hacks, blogging and social media. Check these blog posts, I think you might find them interesting: