Mastering Your PhD: Starting Off on the Right Foot

Fall is a time of new beginnings, in academia at least. The long, languid days of summer are gone, and the change in weather marks the beginning of a new term and, hopefully, a period of renewed energy and ambition.

Perhaps you’re a graduate student just settling into your new lab. If so, get comfortable, because you’re going to be there for a long time. These are the first days and weeks of a long commitment and, for some, a hard road. So, how do you start off on the right foot?

First things first

Perhaps you’re so anxious to prove your scientific worth that you decide to do an experiment on your first day in the lab. This would be unwise. Instead, give yourself a few days to get oriented. Meet the people in your group, sit down with your research supervisor or faculty adviser, and explore the university and its facilities and graduate-student services. If you’ve already been in the lab for several weeks, it’s not too late to do this.

If you still have administrative tasks to take care of, such as registering for a university e-mail account or filling in forms for the department’s secretary, make sure you complete them before your research begins to take up the bulk of your time.

Get to know your department

Use your first days as a graduate student to familiarize yourself with the workings of your department. Start by introducing yourself to the department chair, as well as to secretaries, technicians, lab assistants, librarians, and other key personnel. This is not the time to be shy. Make a point of introducing yourself right at the start so that people are not still wondering 6 months from now if you’re a grad student, an undergrad, a postdoc, or a lab technician. And this way, you’ll learn who everyone else is and what he or she does, too.

Be courteous and open-minded when meeting people for the first time. The people around you are important in more ways than you might realize, and first impressions count. You may discover that lab technicians or the person ordering supplies can profoundly affect the course of your research and the quality of your experience, so be sure to give everyone the respect that they deserve.

If you need information about the department or the university, ask senior graduate students and staff members. Familiarize yourself with lab safety and evacuation procedures. Know where to go for help when you need it. Perhaps most importantly, start looking around for someone who might make a good mentor. A senior graduate student or postdoc in your group or in a similar group is an excellent choice. (For more on mentors, see Mastering Your Ph.D.: Mentors, Leadership, and Community.) This individual can help show you the ropes and provide valuable professional guidance throughout your graduate-student days–even if, as one hopes, they have the opportunity to move on to a new institution before you finish your Ph.D.

Formulate a working plan

Before you start that first experiment, establish (in conjunction with your adviser) a working plan for the first few months. Discuss the scope of your proposed project, divide it into manageable stages, and create a timeline for each stage. The course of your project may change directions down the road on the basis of your research, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan out a schedule and set goals along the way. While you’re at it, be sure to schedule time off for yourself–be it a regular break, such as going to the gym, taking a walk, or meeting friends for coffee, or a longer break, such as a relaxing long weekend out of town. No matter how driven you are to succeed, you can’t work all the time.

Maintain a proper lab notebook

There’s nothing like a new lab notebook–riffling through crisp blank pages for the first time and writing your name on the inside cover. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the only good lab notebook is a neat lab notebook. Tidy tables of data are not enough. You must write everything down, including what worked and especially what didn’t work. Don’t be afraid to jot down random musings or thoughts in the margins. Forget about being neat. Details and completeness are more important than perfect handwriting and tables drawn with a ruler. Be sure, however, that your notes are legible. In addition, you might want to check with your lab head regarding the lab’s policy on notebooks. Lab notebooks are usually viewed as property of the lab and may not even be allowed off the premises.

Make your lab notebook entries a compulsive habit. Avoid rushing into an experiment without first writing down all the parameters. No, you won’t remember the details when the experiment is over! If you keep a well-documented record right from the beginning, making sense of your experimental data (and the logic behind your experimental designs) will be a lot easier later on. And a thorough record of your work may be required someday in case of intellectual property claims or legal (i.e., plagiarism) challenges. Many institutions and departments have strict policies on lab notebooks, so make sure you follow the one at your institution.

You may be tempted to forgo the lab notebook altogether and keep notes in a file on your computer (if this is allowed). That may be okay if you work in a more theoretical field, but if you’re a bench scientist nothing can replace having at your side a notebook in which you thoroughly document your experiments and into which you can scribble notes and observations as a chemical reaction occurs or a rat makes its way through a maze. If you really want to have everything on your computer, you can always transcribe your notes later. Just be sure you keep backup copies of your computer files.

Establish good reference-keeping practices

It’s a good idea to keep a working bibliography–a list of publications you will use as references for your own research project. Start compiling this bibliography from day one, and build it up as you go along. Doing this will greatly reduce your workload when you reach the stage of writing up reports, research papers, and your thesis. Your university may even support certain reference manager software programs. If they don’t, you may have to buy one yourself (and hope to get the lab to pay for it). This type of software will pay for itself many times over in the amount of time you’ll save in compiling your bibliography, so it’s worth the expense.

That bibliography will be invaluable when you start to write up your work to submit it to workshops or conferences. You’ll get practice for this by presenting your work at departmental meetings. But you can worry about that further down the road. For now, get into the writing habit by keeping good records of your work in both the lab and the library.

Dealing with life’s ups and downs

Life is filled with ups and downs, and this is no less true as a graduate student. Seasoned scientists know that research can be frustrating and not always go according to your best-laid plans. As a young scientist just starting out, you may have a harder time managing your expectations and frustrations. It’s normal to go through periods of stress and anxiety, be they due to work, study, or personal matters. Most likely you’ve moved away from familiar surroundings to attend graduate school, leaving friends and family behind, making it especially difficult when trying to cope with the rigors of life as a graduate student.

When the pressure gets too high, it’s a good idea to step out of the arena. Go to the gym, visit an out-of-town friend, see an afternoon movie, or throw a party.Don’t feel guilty about having to take a break from time to time. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to get on with your work.

When the going gets rough, you’ll need peers to share problems with and for moral support. So, take time to build a social network. These could be people from your lab or just a group of peers, older colleagues, or anybody you get along with. Unresolved problems will not go away on their own. Find someone understanding to talk to when things get tough. Life as a graduate student can be grueling at times, so don’t forget to have fun. Even if you’re part of a great research group, there’s more to life than the inside of a lab.

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