How to get your PhD- Seeing the forest for the trees

As summer is coming to an end you are probably feeling motivated for September, ready to churn out those results or really commit to writing your thesis and submitting by December. So now is the time to get planning and have structure for your research and be ready to battle the challenges ahead. Being under pressure to complete your project in a defined period of time can present itself with a lot of challenges. First and foremost, there was no singular challenge when I look back on my PhD but in fact multiple challenges.

1.Failure to get patient samples

For anyone carrying out a PhD relying on patient samples I’m sure you can relate to the frustration and challenges that failure to get patient samples can present. For my project patient samples represented a key aspect of my PhD. Nothing is better than actual patient samples, however, as my PhD progressed to year 2 I still had not received my patient samples. This was due to 2 main reasons:

  1. Ethical approval by the college board
  2. Collaboration issues. Although both groups wanted to work together to achieve a mutual beneficial outcome trying to co-ordinate two extremely busy consultants was no easy task.

I did eventually get my samples at the beginning of year 3 and as expected they proved a valuable asset, but in the meantime, I had to improvise. The direction of my PhD had to change and become more cell line focussed, as sitting around waiting for samples for 2 years simply wasn’t something I could do, I decided to develop other experiments which may support or disprove what I observed in the patient samples,if and when I got them.

Ultimately not getting these samples in the first 2 years of PhD made me a more resourceful and intuitive PhD student. I read multiple papers on my topic and designed my own experiments which weren’t reliant on patient samples but cell lines, which for most part, I knew I could handle and produce some meaningful data.

If you are facing a similar situation, be resourceful, although you may think your PhD won’t be as strong without the patient samples remember, data is data. You are PhD candidate, you have the knowledge and skills so don’t be put off by something that is out of your control – improvise.

2. Inconsistent data

As I didn’t I get my patient samples until year 3, I already had 2 major results chapters of my thesis completed by then. Each results chapter,had results that upon first look, showed no particular pattern to help with my hypothesis and replication – disaster! This is when having a great supervisor who you can discuss things with really helps.

In my quest for scientific greatness I assumed that all my results would be observable immediately, treatment with X would equal Y. This was not the case as I had varying concentrations and  timepoints which meant I got lost in the data.  I  could see no pattern or obvious results in my data. It was only when I sat down with my supervisor discussed my concerns and showed him the data that I could piece it all together. Sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem with a fresh set of eyes. My data was in no way perfect but a story could be told and pattern established, all was not lost!

3. Cells not behaving

Possibly one the most infuriating challenges of my PhD was for a period of about 3 months when one of my cell lines refused to grow. Was it me? All my other cell lines where growing fine. Was it the stock or media? Yet fresh stocks and fresh media, yielded the same result. The longer this went on the more stressed I became, I was aware time was passing, I had deadlines to meet and some tears may have been shed.

I spoke to other PhD’s who suffered similarly and there was no definitive answer, was it mycoplasma, was the incubator ok?  In the end, my cells did grow, however, the root of the problem was still unknown. I did however initiate a strict hood and incubator cleaning process once a week, bought in a new set of sterile flasks, media and borrowed some cells from a colleague whose cells had been growing fine in a different lab.

4. Budget restrictions during my PhD

Having to work with a limited research budget throughout my PhD was a challenge.

While I watched by colleague’s order in whatever kit they needed I was stuck in the lab optimising my genomic DNA extraction buffer recipe wondering why it wasn’t working. I really believe that having to work on tight budget (although you learn way more techniques) is bad for morale and can often result in experiments taking longer to complete than they should and setting you back. It also greatly limits what potential experiments you could do to take your PhD to the next level. Don’t get me wrong nobody has an infinite amount of money to complete their PhD but extremely tight funding makes the experience a lot more laborious and can greatly affect your motivation.

The big Picture

Completing a PhD is no easy task nor is there a singular challenge you will have to face, in fact every day you will face a challenge be it an assay not working, managing a budget or even trying to make sense of you own data. Overcoming these obstacles is what truly sets you apart, you are a problem solver, determined, committed and persistent individual qualities which will stand to you further down the line either in industry or academia.

Try to look at what you achieved on a day to day basis, the minor struggles you overcame – the bigger picture will soon follow. Before leaving the lab think about what you achieved today whether ordering primers or setting up an assay, leaving the lab with a sense of achievement will help motivate to come back the next day and do ever better.

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