Mastering Your PhD: Celebrate Your Success

You’ve been working long hours in the lab for months. You’ve run experiments, analyzed your data, and are almost ready to starting writing up your results. All that’s missing is a comprehensive model that explains your observations. Research groups in other parts of the world are hot on the trail of the same model, so the pressure’s on to come up with something revolutionary–and fast. Then, eureka! During a long discussion over coffee, you and your team finally come up with the ideal model that explains your analysis and even some previous work.

Writing up your results and submitting them to a journal will take weeks, but now you and your team know that you’re standing on solid ground and will soon start running. From now on, it’s merely a matter of ensuring that straightforward tasks are thoroughly executed. However, you are exhausted by the long hours, late nights, and weekend work of the past several weeks. What to do?

In this article, we highlight the importance of celebrating your success, patting yourself on the back, and taking the time to thank others for their contributions and support. So, whatever you do, put down your lab notebook, turn off the Bunsen burner, and take a moment to bask in the glory of the rewards of hard work.

Why celebrate your success?

Scientific research can be a long and tedious process. It usually starts with ideas and brainstorming, is followed by research protocols and experiments, and ends with a report to the scientific community. But it shouldn’t stop there. Here are three reasons why proper celebrations should be an integral part of the research life.

1. You should acknowledge co-workers for their contributions to your success. It goes without saying that, particularly in science, we make use of collaborative networks established by others, use equipment built and designed in other labs, analyse data using software developed around the world, do research based on concepts sketched by our advisers and lab mates, use questionnaires developed or validated by scientists before us, and so on. In spite of this, we all have a tendency to underestimate the contributions of others, particularly those closest to us, both in the lab and in our lives. By celebrating your success with your lab mates and thanking them, you explicitly acknowledge their contributions. They deserve it, and by thanking them in a visible way, you improve the odds that they will be more willing to help you toward your next milestone.

2. Reflection is an important part of the learning process. You’ve probably discovered that you can learn valuable lessons by studying what went wrong. However, it’s next to impossible to reflect on the lessons of a process while you’re embroiled in it. Stopping to celebrate a milestone gives you a chance to step back and ask yourself key questions about the successes of the project–and how the route to success might have been made more direct. Why did it work? Why has nobody else performed these experiments yet? What triggered the research? What helped you in getting the data first, before anyone else? Whose assistance has been critical? Analyzing the reasons for your success might help you in the next phase of your research.

3. Celebrations are good for morale. When you and your co-workers celebrate progress on a regular basis, you create a winners’ mood within the team. In such an atmosphere, your team will find more inspiration to tackle the next problem, paving the way to the next milestone.

In addition, a break from a project and a chance to reflect on its success may be just what you need to turn the new results into a high-quality paper. If you’re tired and worn out, routine tasks such as making graphs may feel like swimming through mud. You may make careless mistakes that result in additional delay. So, as soon as you reach a milestone in your research project, crack open the champagne and celebrate!

What defines success and how do you celebrate it?

Winning the Nobel Prize is a good reason to throw a little party. But that should not be the standard definition of success. During your Ph.D. years, there will be at least a couple of occasions for thanking others for their contributions and support. For instance, after the breakthrough model developed at the coffee break, organize a lunch at a café or small restaurant that week to celebrate the milestone in your research project. Or, after analyzing the data and finishing your manuscript–another stressful step toward a journal publication–you might organize a happy hour for your team.

Another very natural moment to celebrate is the acceptance of a manuscript by a scientific journal. At some institutes, it is a tradition for the first author to bring cake for the whole team on such occasions. In some research programmes, it might take much longer before the publications appear, for instance, because new equipment or methodology has to be developed and tested. In that case, you might celebrate when the equipment is ready and fully operational.

Celebrating success works the same way as giving someone a thank-you present. It is important that you do it immediately and with the best intentions. Just as you would give someone a nicely wrapped present the day after someone passes an exam, you might bring a cake to the lab the day after you obtained the key data for your article.

No matter what you know about the sporting world, or whether you care very much about it, you’ve probably seen pictures of overflowing champagne bottles and athletes cavorting with glee as they celebrate a victory. Every competition has its own tradition of celebrating success, but ours–the scientific race to publish new insights first–really doesn’t. The research world seems to lack the tradition of throwing a proper party–except, maybe, in Stockholm. It’s worthwhile to throw a party every now and then. Apart from the fun involved, it is a great way to celebrate your success and acknowledge your co-workers.

So use your imagination and do something fun for yourself and your team. Everybody enjoys a good party. Take a moment to raise your glass and toast yourself and those around you for a job well done.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700075

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