Things I learned during my PhD
1. The impostor syndrome is real (google it!) and can be quite crippling if you allow it to be. My first year in graduate school was rough. I was a bio major that took a handful of psych courses (and surprisingly, no neurobiology courses). This means that when I started the neuroscience intro course at NYU I was fascinated but clueless, which was evident in my first neuro grade. All of this resulted in me feeling like I wasn’t “good enough” to be studying neuroscience at NYU and that somehow they/I had made a mistake. Luckily, many of my friends were quick to point out that I was being ridiculous and laughed it off. That, coupled with the Dean’s support, made me snap out of my doubt and insecurity and take on a more proactive approach towards my education. This included tutoring, but hey, it worked! 1 year later I was cracking jokes with the Dean about my first year freak-outs LOL.
2. You do not need to know everything. As a graduate student, whose job is to be trained as a scientist, you are expected to do not only a lot of reading, but also a lot of learning. During my first two years, I took all sorts of neuroscience courses and remember wondering how I was going to remember it all. Newsflash: you don’t. Your learning experience is not confined to those two years of formal coursework- it stretches throughout your entire PhD and continues even beyond that. In my experience, I found that many of the concepts that I had trouble understanding re-appeared throughout my PhD. Sometimes through talks, other times through journal clubs, and other times by doing literature searches. A beautiful thing about science and learning is that all the knowledge builds on top of each other, and even though it may not seem like it to you, you are retaining this information. Also, important information will likely be repeated throughout your PhD, thereby facilitating your retention of the material. Just remember, you are being trained on how to think, and you will learn many things along the way.
3. Be thankful of constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity to grow. This one was hard. Receiving feedback (especially criticism) is difficult in general, but I find that it’s even harder when you’re in academia. I mean, you become invested in a project and/or research topic, and sometimes you’re wrong or don’t know what to do with a certain piece of data. Or you need an extra control. Or somebody doesn’t understand the clinical relevance of your project. Or like me, you have a thesis project that integrates multiple disciplines and is hard to think about because the findings are counterintuitive. Bottom line is: at some point you will receive criticism that either A) you haven’t thought about B) you don’t agree with or C) you don’t understand. One of the many things that my PhD mentor taught me is to be grateful when somebody outside the lab (or your field) makes a constructive comment about your work. As she put it, this is indicative that they are thinking critically about your project, which they do NOT have to do. Lesson learned: when someone gives you constructive criticism, listen, and kindly thank them for their feedback because they are helping you think about your work in a different way.
4. Build and maintain a network. Talk to people! This includes graduate students, postdocs, professors, collaborators, bloggers and many other people you meet at conferences, etc… I know, small talk is sometimes awkward and uncomfortable, but be thankful that you all have a common denominator: an interest and passion for science! Use that to your advantage. Networking is essential for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great way to meet other academics that you have things in common with and may even result in collaboration. Second, you can use their experiences and advice to help your own academic training and development. Third, if you maintain that network, you get to see what kinds of things they go on to do. For me, this is incredibly inspiring and helps to keep me motivated despite whatever I may hear about the pains and perils of science.
5. Patience is a virtue and good things come to those who wait. In science, things usually take longer that you think they will. While this may not be a surprise to fellow PhDs and other scientists, a lot of incoming graduate students don’t realize this and end up feeling disappointed when they don’t get that grant they applied for on the first round, their data is not ready for publication and/or their paper gets rejected multiple times (thus lengthening the time it takes to publish). Therefore, think of your PhD as a marathon, not a sprint.
6. Write your papers as your experiments go along. Once you have a hypothesis and a preliminary approach, start drafting the paper. I know, it sounds crazy given that you don’t have any data yet, but it will help you have a clear rationale and organize the methods. For example, start off with a preliminary title and abstract, make a bullet list of points you want to cover in the introduction, insert the methods section and make a list of preliminary results (and how you would interpret them). This will help you start thinking about what your story could be and what it would look like. Also start building an EndNote library containing the references you know you already need or think might need.
7. Make it a habit to read regularly. You’d be surprised at how easy (and fun) it can be. Follow neuroscience blogs, twitter accounts, attend a journal club, create a Scizzle, use Google scholar, friend people on ResearchGate, etc… Do whatever works, but try to read new papers every week. You can even have journals that you check every week/every month/etc… I, for example, look at J Neuro and NPP every week, Biological Psychiatry/Nature Neuroscience when there’s a new issue and such.
8. Know your talk well. Once you have your committee’s approval to write/defend, start creating your talk. Normally, this will be a merger of previous committee meeting presentations or any other presentations you have given. Your goal is to tell your PhD story through your data in a clear and concise way. This means that it is up to you to fill in the knowledge gaps, ensure a smooth and logical transition from slide to slide, and connect the dots regarding the meaning of your work for the audience. Needless to say, this is much easier when you know exactly where each slide is and what slide is coming next. As one of my committee members said, this takes the stress out of being “surprised” by your own data and allows you to be more personable, as your personality is more likely to come through.
9. Find a committee that is critical, yet supportive. Keep in mind that your thesis committee holds your fate in their hands. Thus, don’t make this decision lightly! Ideally, you want these people to be “fans”, meaning that they think you are bright, capable and are actually interested in helping you develop as a scientist. Try to schedule individual meetings with potential members BEFORE asking them to be a part of your committee. Tell them about your ideas and potential projects, see how they respond. Are they genuinely interested? Do they have good questions? Do your interests overlap with their research line? Furthermore, ask around! It is likely that someone else in your program (from upper years) has them in their committee. Find this person and ask what they’re like.
10. Strive to become not only a better scientist, but also a better person :) As a former PhD student, I know that it feels like everything revolves around your PI, your project, all the work you have to do, etc… Although I personally believe that in order to do this job you need to lose yourself to it (to a certain extent), this doesn’t mean that you have to let yourself go and be consumed by it. The world is bigger than just academia, and you also need to grow as a person (and not just as a scientist). Find time to cultivate other interests, make new friends, rediscover yourself as you go along the PhD track. Your mental health will thank you for it.
Disclaimer: All PhDs are not created equal. The points made above reflect my own personal PhD experience. I’ve always said that two people can even be in the same lab and same year and still have radically different experiences. Regardless, I hope everyone can find something that is useful to them :)