If you have recently started your PhD, you may still be at a stage where you wonder what is actually expected of you and more generally, what is the secret for a successful PhD.
Some time ago, I was asked to write a guest post on Nature’s Soapbox Science Blog to provide some advice to new PhD student.
If you are a new PhD student, or an aspiring one, here is a re-post of my original article Beginnings – Top 10 Tips to Succeed in Your PhD. I hope you’ll find it useful.
So, you have just graduated and are about to start a PhD. Well done and congratulations! This is certainly an important milestone in your education and you deserve to celebrate both an end and a new beginning. No doubt you are expecting exciting times ahead and plenty of new experiences and opportunities. For the luckiest of you, your PhD might turn out to be an easy ride. For most, however, it will not be all rosy as you first thought.
There are good reasons why this is the case.
The acronym PhD comes from the Latin Philosophiae Doctor (or Doctor of Philosophy), where philosophy is not to be understood as a branch of science, but as its original Greek meaning of “love of wisdom” or “the pursuit of in-depth knowledge”. In itself, a PhD is just a title: an advanced academic degree awarded by a university for original contributions to knowledge. However, the PhD has become a requirement for a career as a university professor or researcher in most fields. Although the roots of the “doctorate” degree can be traced back to the Middle Ages (see for example ), its status as an advanced research degree is much more recent and dates to the early nineteenth century, when the doctorate was first introduced at Berlin University.
The requirements for a PhD vary greatly from country to country. In the US, Canada and Denmark, for example, specific coursework is required over a prescribed minimum amount of time, in addition to the research project that forms the core of a PhD. In other countries (such as the UK, although things are gradually changing), there is no such prescription but other activities, e.g. contribution to teaching, are equally expected. The culmination of the PhD consists in the submission of a written thesis describing a suitable body of original academic research, which is deemed worthy of publication in peer-reviewed journals. The candidate is then expected to defend his work before a panel of experts (their number varies greatly across countries), in a process known as the “Viva” (Latin from Viva voce, i.e. “by live voice”). Provided the panel is satisfied by the work carried out and by its oral defense, the PhD title (at last, a Dr in front on your name!) is finally and formally awarded.
Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that this is the end of the story for, ultimately, a PhD is merely a professional qualification. Stated simply, it is a qualification that certifies your aptitude to be a practitioner in your own field of expertise. Thus, rather than an end, this is just the beginning: the beginning of your profession and your career. In this respect, a PhD is nothing more (or less!) than an “apprenticeship in science: a frustrating, triumphant, exhausting, and ultimately Darwinian career that will require everything you can muster” .
Maybe then, it comes as no surprise that a PhD is not for everyone! Independence, self-drive, persistence, adaptability, brightness, commitment, motivation, reliability, discipline, creativity, are only some of the key traits that make for a successful PhD student. Sadly, excellent academic grades alone are not enough as the requirements for a good PhD student can be very different from those of a good undergraduate student .
Having worked in academia for almost 15 years, I have seen many students becoming disillusioned with their PhDs at a very early stage because of misplaced expectations of what it would be all about. I have also seen students making the same mistakes over and over again. And while it is true that every PhD is a blend of unique and distinctive circumstances (project, supervision, personal abilities), some aspects of it remain unchanged throughout countries and across disciplines.
So, you may want to learn from the pitfalls and setbacks of others to save yourself months (if not years!) of frustration and dissatisfaction. The advice I offer below is mainly aimed at PhD students in science (my background being Physics), but some of it can equally be extended to other fields of research.
Here, my top ten tips:
1) Choose your project and your supervisor wisely (see  for more advice on this). Nothing can make your life a misery as an ill matched supervision or project.
2) If you are going to do experimental work, be prepared for unexpected setbacks. Despite your best efforts, things can (and sadly will!) go wrong at some point or other. Just stick with it and be patient. Also, be open to take a different direction if the original one proves unworkable.
3) Devote your mind and soul to your PhD. This is a unique time in your career as a scientist to work almost exclusively on your research project. You will hardly ever have the same luxury again! (Well, unless you start another PhD, that is).
4) Be reliable. Follow through with your words, stick to what agreed with your supervisor, and always communicate as early as possible if you are prevented from fulfilling your commitments for any reason (make sure it is a good one).
5) Ban perfectionism, but be professional! Be scrupulous, careful and accurate. Check, double check and check again your data and your results. Do not let your supervisor lose trust in your results, or worse, in you as a researcher. Reward yourself for major achievements and stop working when you are on holiday.
6) Write at every opportunity. Be it a report, a first year summary of your progress, a proposal to gain access time at international facilities for your research, a first draft of an article, always make sure you work at it with the highest dedication and professionalism. Do not make the mistake to assume that your year report is not worth the hassle. Look at it as a useful training towards the writing up of your thesis. Ask for feedback and act upon it. Most people are not naturally gifted writers, and writing well always takes far longer than expected. On the positive side, scientific writing can be learnt and luckily there are plenty of resources out there.
7) If you are required to take on teaching commitments, choose courses which you feel genuinely interested in, or courses from which you can learn something useful for your PhD project (whether it is directly related to it, or whether it just allows you to acquire new skills). Also, make sure you strike the right balance between teaching and research.
8) When attending conferences or summer schools, use these opportunities to network and expand your circle of influential contacts and to increase your knowledge base. Ask questions and be interested in what others are doing. Focusing on others is the best way to make an impression and to get others interested in you and your work.
9) Be prepared and accept that there will be tough times. It is in the nature of doing a PhD and everyone goes through such times sooner or later. If this happens to you, try and keep the right perspective on things. Do whatever you can to address any specific problem that may have led to a hault. If you cannot solve the problem, adopt a constructive attitude: remind yourself that you are privileged to be doing a PhD and that soon enough you will see the end of it. If things get seriously worrying, ask for help. Many departments have organizations specifically designed to provide help and advice to students on all sorts of matters.
10) Be careful about initiating personal relationships with fellow students or other colleagues in your own department and for sure stay well away from your supervisor! It is often heartbreaking when a relationship ends. If this happens with someone whom you are likely to meet again every day, or worse, with someone who has some sort of power over you (as is the case with your supervisor) this can be the end of your PhD too. Do not risk it!
And finally, for as much as you can, enjoy it! It can be the beginning of a fabulous career.