10 tips for being a successful PhD student

10 tips for being a successful PhD student

I was talking to a new Ph.D student recently and started thinking about what tips and tricks helped me succeed in grad school.  Here's what worked for me:

  1. The most important and most challenging difference between a PhD and a Masters’ is the change from a project that is well defined by your professor to one that is more independent.  Your boss might not know that much about your work, often you’re providing a capability that he or she doesn’t have.  You have to be self-directed, self-motivated and able to own your work in a way that is quite different from a Masters’.
  2. The first year of your work will likely never make it into your thesis. The project will change, the data collection will collapse, whatever…don’t mourn this. It is common, you didn't do anything wrong. Just get a conference abstract out of it and MOVE ON.
  3. Try not to get too bitter.  It is easy to hang around other grad students and complain all day but that is poisonous.  A Ph.D is a massive, expensive gamble on your own intellect and talent.  The quickest way to kill the odds of that gamble paying off is to get resentful about your work, your colleagues or your supervisor.  Try and remind yourself every day that in spite of the bumps, you’re doing work that you love and that work is getting you somewhere you want to go.  
  4. Don’t start from scratch.  You can waste a lot of time trying to build your own instrumentation or writing code from scratch - don’t unless you absolutely have to or it’s some way intimately related to the scientific challenge of your work.  
  5. Don’t overcommit in terms of your extra curricular work, social obligations etc. Wait a couple months before making any massive commitments so you have a feel for how much time you’ll have and how that time will be distributed.  You don’t want to run yourself ragged, or not have the flexibility to collect your data when you need to. Academic work can be draining, so trying to work more than 10 hours or so a week outside your academic (class, TA, RA) responsibilities can be counter productive if you’re not careful.  
  6. Be clear about authorship expectations from day one of every project because your collaborators' expectations can be totally different than yours.  It’s not rude to discuss this because a good academic will welcome the clarity.  
  7. Your funding comes from a bunch of different places - likely internal and external scholarships, a TA, a RA. Payroll mistakes can sometimes happen for this very reason, often at the start of a new term so be really alert at those times.  All of the funding sources can have their own schedule so be aware that some months are boom and others are bust. Save your pennies. 
  8. Respect your supervisors' time, don't waste it. Be prepped for meetings, send cohesive emails, make his or her life as easy as possible. Make the most of your time with them. 
  9. Keep track of conference and scholarship deadlines etc yourself. It’s worth doing a quick google at the beginning of the school year to establish when things are happening, that way you aren't ever surprised and can lay some ground work in terms of data etc. Other people won't be as organized as you and you can't rely on them telling you about these things.
  10. Invest in the tools you need. I got pro versions of Evernote and Dropbox and my task program (Omnifocus). A lot of people hate paying for stuff like that, but from my perspective I'm a professional researcher and making do with free versions is just a waste of time because it all has to work. You might need different tools (e.g. you have a paper planner, I am all digital) but this isn’t the place to cheap out. 
Impostor Syndrome and Subways

Impostor Syndrome and Subways

How I decided where to go for grad school

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