Do you ever think about quitting your PhD, calling it a day and leaving all your worries and troubles
behind? Ever wonder how so many before you made it through with charmed PhDs and churned out papers like no tomorrow? Well maybe that’s because they’ve read this e-Book written by a PhD survivor.
This eBook aims to help you navigate those troubled PhD waters, dealing with everything from how to
write a PhD thesis, keeping your lab book up-to-date to dealing with stress and improving your relationship
with your PI.
You might think to yourself “Hey what does this person know about what it takes to complete a PhD” –
well in fact quiet a lot. After studying Genetics in Trinity, I went on to do a PhD in the Conway Institute,
University College Dublin. My research investigated how the pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family member, Bim, is
phosphorylated following prolonged mitotic arrest. I loved the lab and my project; however, my PhD took
me 5 years to complete, which was a huge mistake on my part and really should have set alarm bells
I wrote this eBook to provide you with a guide for writing your PhD based on my own experiences and
those of other PhD graduates. This e-Book should provide you with ways to keep your research efficient
and complete your PhD with minimal stress and on time.
I believe this eBook will empower you to complete your PhD and also offer support throughout the
process. Now, let’s get started.
Why I sucked in the lab!
For most scientists feeling like they suck in the lab is pretty common, experiments never work, progress is really, really slow and positive results can be hard to come by. This was definitely the case for me. I spent 5 years doing a PhD at University College Dublin and 8 months doing a PostDoc at the University of Cambridge, which resulted in thousands of failed experiments, late nights and two papers for my efforts.
For the most part, I always thought I was going to succeed in academia, one day become a PI and get tenure in some University…. like this is an uncommon thought. Millions of people think the same, millions of articles have been written about this topic and about the shortcomings of disgruntled postdocs and “why o’ why” they never secured tenure and had to get a supposedly real job.
Science magazine careers section focusses on tenure and PI career paths at least once a month and provides the latest statistics on what your chances are of succeeding. Recently the American Society for Cell Biology published an infographic showing that less than 10% of PhDs will become tenure track faculty.
Why I left academia
After thinking about why I left academia (or didn’t get as far as tenure track) I realised it was ultimately because I sucked in the lab. To be honest I was average, it took me a long time to get the result I was looking for, mistakes were really common within my work. Even though I worked extremely hard and put in long hours, I didn’t work smart. I spent too much time watching YouTube videos or reading the latest Reddit post instead of reading papers and focusing my thoughts and actions.
However, even though I encountered constant disappointment, failed PCRs, Western Blots etc. I always thought this was the route of a scientist. As Samuel Beckett put it in Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.
WHY I SUCKED IN THE LAB
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” I always thought science was not meant to be easy, bad results were part of the norm and eventually I would get the result I was looking for and my experiments would work. I would tell myself “this is a difficult question you are trying to answer so it will take time and failure is inevitable”, but really was it? Should I have failed as often as I did?
Where I went wrong
To analyse this and find out where I went wrong, I thought back on what I was like in the lab to see how I could have done things differently and better (remember I did leave the lab in 2011), so I will try and not romanticise the past. So, what went wrong? For many projects, I had no experience in any of the steps, my PI had never done any of the protocols before and none of my lab members had either – this is something that a lot of researchers would think is the problem. However, this can be pretty common and not a reason for why your experiments failed. Granted, experience within the lab helps immensely with the start of projects/protocols, especially when there is an experience gap. But this is not why projects get off to a bad start. For this project everything was rushed, if something failed it was repeated and if it worked I moved forward without carrying out any real critical thinking. I know this is not the right approach. I failed by not taking the appropriate time to review errors and why the experiments were not working from an experimental and theoretical standpoint. When projects didn’t work as fast as I wanted I found faults in potentially the wrong places (reagents and tools) always looking for a quick answer to solve a hard problem. This was how I did science: “quick answers”, however, looking for these quick answers resulted in sloppy work, nothing was ever learned correctly and time and
money was spent carrying out projects.
Not until I moved to my postdoc did I really find out what critical thinking was. My boss was a relatively new PI who had just started her lab in Cambridge University Genetics Department and had come from a postdoc at MIT/Harvard. Although she hadn’t done some of the protocols I was launching in the lab she had the critical insight to see what was going wrong and how I could optimise to resolve these steps and move forward. For me, this is what makes a great scientist, someone who looks at the simplest Occam’s razor approach to solve a problem and has the patience to do so. Until this training and guidance, I was the “shot gun, coffee pumped, end result type” of scientist and not “the analytical thinker, meticulous note taking, one small step at a time” type of scientist. I think the difference in these two approaches is why some scientists succeed and why some fail. Teaching how to analyse failure might have helped to develop my scientific skills to become a better scientist.
What I think the right approach is to perform scientific endeavours correctly, is to properly research protocols, reagents and troubleshooting tips before beginning the experiment. Positive and negative controls should also be considered at length so all bases are covered for a successful experiment. Without the correct positive and negative controls, true analysis of results can’t be carried out and nothing will be learned from failed experiments. Looking at other peoples’ data also helps, whether its data from your colleagues, an online publication or blog post, finding precedence in results, whether they succeed or fail always helps in carrying out research.
Why you need to keep your lab book up to date!
When PhDs and Post-Docs start in a new lab they have the best intentions to keep their lab books up to date with notes, new research methods, data, and protocol information. These best efforts usually last for about a week, or for as long as they can see their professor walking about the lab. However, sooner or later diligence is lost and maintaining up to date notes on research methods and protocols happens once every blue moon.
Suddenly, stacks of western blots and PCR gel print-outs build up in drawers, lab books and lab benches, with barely legible labels, saved only by the dates from the PCR gel print-outs. Eventually, a random inspection from your professor or a looming lab meeting inspires you to dust off your lab book, get out the glue and fill it in. Therefore, I thought these few pieces of advice might help to motivate you to keep your lab book up to date:
• Bad Habits: Not keeping your lab book up to date will eventually introduce bad habits, which will lead to a lot of frustration further down the line. Like a marathon runner, training every day to reach those goals it is a necessity. Not keeping your notes up to date will result in failings in other parts of your research. Consistency is key, updating your lab book will improve your critical analysis, efficiency and motivation to succeed as a scientist.
• Optimisation: To optimise an experiment you have to know what went wrong previously. Plus, since science is 99% optimisation, keeping your lab note book up to date precisely with every microlitre, mole you or degree you change in your research methods will prevent mistakes being repeated. Furthermore, keeping an up-to-date lab book will allow you to review data and let you deduce what is going wrong with your optimisation steps.
• Lost data: Considering that most molecular/cell biology and chemistry experiments can take as little as 1 hour or up to 2 years, losing data is not an option. Especially since it only takes one experiment to see your hypothesis in a new light. Even if you don’t keep your lab book up to date, try and store your data (Computer files included) in a safe place and logical order. When saving computer files creating a system of data labelling will ensure data is never lost and easily retrievable. Some great platforms are available out there for storing data for free and include Dropbox.com and Google Drive. I personally use Google Drive and find it really useful to share my research with other members of the lab and track progress with projects. Other options also include digital lab books like sciNote.
• Reproducible experiments: When devising a new research method or protocol, keeping your lab book
up-to-date with the latest experiments and research methods is crucial. New experiments take time to
establish, since a lot of grad students end up trying to reinvent the wheel before making any progress.
Your greatest observations only become results once they are reproducible and maintaining your lab book is one way of ensuring that your produce great data.
How to be more productive during your PhD!
When you look back at some weeks in the lab, it seems like you have achieved nothing. Your cloning
hasn’t worked or your mice just won’t mate. Or sometimes you are just allergic to working in the lab and
before you know it another year has gone by; your funding is running out and you are wondering where
you are going to find to the time to finish those critical papers that will make your grant application.
Typically, I would mostly start work at 10 am, take coffee at 10.30 am and decide to really start work at
11 am. Most likely I would leave the lab at 9 pm or 10 pm that night. Looking back on my time spent in
the lab and how much I wasted, I definitely feel that I could have done my PhD within a shorter time
period, published more papers and have had more of a social life during my PhD.
Unfortunately for many PhD students it’s too easy to get into these bad habits of working in the lab, staying late, losing track of reality and focusing all of your efforts on work.
If you look beyond academia there are now hundreds of blogs, podcasts and books that focus on increasing your day-to-day productivity and many of the rules within these blogs can be applied to working in the lab.
Two books that I did find inspirational and helped me to focus a lot during my postdoc were the 4 Hour Work week by Tim Ferris and Get Shit Done by Niall Harbison. The 4 Hour Work Week was aimed at
releasing oneself from the shackles of corporate life, which is something not too different from working
in the lab and finding ways to automate or delegate tasks that aren’t that important. One of my favourite
tips from the book and the simplest is when to check your emails. For me, checking my emails and social
media numerous times a day really slowed my progress down. If possible try and set times for social
media and emails and reduce the time you waste meaninglessly surfing the web. Some other great blogs you might find interesting for focusing is Zenhabits.net, which is a blog aimed at relaxation and
focus, something we all need a little help in. timemanagementninja.com might also be of interest when
looking to squeeze the most out of the day.
Applying some rules to your working week will hopefully increase your lab output and makes those hours
spent in the lab more productive. Here are five small tips to increase your productivity and transform
you into that paper machine you know you really are:
1. Write down a schedule for your lab workload:
It may seem obvious and you might think it’s a waste of your time, but preparing a schedule for your
working week will instantly set goals. If you think planning out the week ahead might be a stretch, writing
down what you would like to achieve for the coming day also helps and motivates you to tick off all the
goals you have set. With everything there is a caveat, and lists are no exception. Always be mindful that
what you need to include is achievable but pushes you to a limit. Just like your experiments there will be
errors, so include error bars in your checklist to account for delays or mishaps. Put a diary in your phone
that alerts you when you need to be carrying out a certain task at the certain time. Having your phone
buzz or ring every time you need to make something happens creates focus, urgency and allows you to
move off tasks that are wasting your time (checking emails) or reducing your productivity. What I also
like about having my calendar on my phone is that I can always check what is ahead of me during that
day and keep work on track. Including breaks and times that you should be finishing work is also really
important and will help create a work-life balance that you might be missing with working too many hours a day. If it only takes 15 mins a week to place appointments in your diary I think it is definitely worth it in the long run and will also make you feel like you have accomplished something that day, even if it is ten small tasks.
2. Set core hours for working in the lab:
A very common misconception is that working for long hours means that you are working hard. However,
being surrounded by people that work for lengthy periods has thought me that some people are just good
at procrastinating and work for long hours just to please their boss with late night lab stories. Arriving to
work at 9 am and leaving at a set time of 6 pm will encourage you to pack as much as you can into one
3. Set times for the checking emails outside experiments:
With so many emails about lab meetings, collaborators, conferences and checking to see have the
reviewers got back to you, the whole day can be spent without going near the lab. 99% of the time, replying to your emails is not that important but for some reason you prioritize it over your experiments. Just
think, if your PI wants you that badly they will walk into the lab. Therefore, instead of wasting time with
emails, set aside a half hour during the day to answer emails (preferably after 2 pm to allow emails to build up), this will remove to constant need to check emails/Facebook and increase your productivity.
4. Set agendas for your lab meetings:
Set an agenda for your meetings. Sometimes meeting with your PI can drag on for hours, talking about
impossible experiments or who might be doing similar work that is going to scoop your big paper. Resulting
in a day lost dreaming instead of talking action.
5. Read scientific papers:
With the amount of pressure to get experiments done, losing sight of what is being published in your field
happens to all PhDs and post-docs. Although you might print the papers you intend to read, actually reading
them can be a different matter. Bringing papers to your bench and reading them between centrifuge
spins, running blots or waiting for reagents to melt will hugely increase the amount of reading you get
done during the week and increase your knowledge of the area.
Dealing with lab stress
No matter what day of the week it is, whether it’s Monday and you have just arrived into the lab or its Saturday night and you still haven’t left the lab, the stress of experiments never leaves you. Mainly due to experiments not working, deadlines or lab meetings inching ever closer, the cycle of stress associated with experiments can soon consume your thoughts. Endless thought cycles of whether your experiments will work, what you might need to do to optimize them or what experiment you will have to do next after your current experiment is completed. Therefore, managing your stress levels can be key to maintaining a clarity of mind.
The 80:20 rule
To reduce your stress levels, you first need to identify where the source of stress is coming from. Often many post-docs/PhD students undertake multiple experiments at the same time, with the idea of achieving more in a reduced amount of time. However, increasing workload will not directly correlate with an increased output of results, your Nature paper will not come any sooner! Applying the 80:20 rule to your experiments may yield greater results and therefore reduce your stress levels.
The idea of the 80:20 approach to experiments is to carry out the key experiments that demand 20% of your time but give 80% or results, or make your boss happy 80% of the time! In other words, identify the experiments that are the most important in progressing your project forward or getting closer to your paper and don’t stress about the rest.
Changing your lifestyle
Changing your lifestyle can also hugely reduce your stress levels in the lab. Surprisingly, arriving to the lab on time at 9am will be beneficial to your work output. While most postdocs are still in bed dreaming about experiments or on their bike on the way to work, arriving into the lab early will motivate you for the DEALING WITH LAB STRESS 10 the day; furthermore, it will motivate you to leave at a reasonable time and fill your day to the max instead of meaninglessly browsing on your laptop. Arriving on time to work will also give you a proper eating routine, instead of spending your day hypoglycaemic stressing about whether the canteen on campus will still be open, having lunch at a regular time will remove one less stress about when you are going to eat.
Leave the lab at a reasonable will time also allow you to have a social life, Skype your family, go out with friends or even go the gym and work out. Working late into the night in the lab surrounded by mice, fish, worms or complaining to your lab mates about your PI or how your experiments have not worked will just stress you even further.