Things I wish I’d known before starting my PhD

Laura Fray talks supervisors, job hunting and the struggle to grow up while still in the classroom.


I came to Trinity to have a look around and see what I thought about coming here and accidentally left having accepted a PhD position. I wanted to be in research and had given some thought to the matter but probably not quite enough. Still, I left excited about my new adventure and all the wonderful medical problems I was going to solve through my cutting edge research.

I’m now in my final year and in the stage people often refer to as panic mode. Some days I know I’m going to get it all done and others it looks like an impossible task but it’s getting there. However, there are some things I wish people had warned me about before I started.

It does not help you avoid the graduate struggle to find a job. It might give you longer to decide exactly what you want to do but you’re just delaying the misery for three or four years. You are more qualified but you are still going to have to fill in endless application forms except this time you’ll have a 60,000 word (or more) thesis hanging over you while you do. You’re often applying for jobs you could have done before the PhD too, while trying to reassure yourself it means you’ll climb the ladder more quickly further down the line.

It is a weird limbo between being a student and having a real job. You’re still at college but you’re paid to be there 9‐5 and behave like a responsible adult, most of the time. However, as long as you’re getting work done, there’s still much greater flexibility with your hours and room for the occasional afternoon off or missed hungover morning. The longer you stay on though, the more you realise how young the freshers seem and how you should probably hurry up and leave soon. Your parents are probably also anxious for this to happen.

This weird limbo can leave you feeling behind your contemporaries. People who got a job straight after university or even school have now been acting the responsible adult for several years now and are starting to buy houses and get engaged. Your most expensive possession is your laptop and sometime the last week before pay day will still involve a lot of pasta based dishes.

Your supervisor does not have all the answers. At the start of the project they have the great plans and ideas but as it progresses you are going to become the expert in what you are doing. They are there to help and guide you and ask the questions to make you think about what you are doing but they can’t wave a magic wand and make it all better. You have to learn to try new things yourself, read extensively and enlist the help of other experts if you need it.

Being “clever” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be excellent at research. The way we test intelligence in school and college mainly involves an endless series of written examinations. You may have an excellent memory and find it easy to understand and apply concepts but this doesn’t necessarily translate into being a ground‐breaking researcher. You need to be creative ‐ to be able to think of new and simple ways to test what you are looking for and you need to be careful and methodical in your ways. There needs to be a good dose of common sense mixed in with the intelligence which doesn’t always come naturally to everyone. You may have to learn these things the hard way, but while being excellent isn’t always possible, practice and patience will allow you to develop into a good researcher and you will end up with results you are proud of.

You may think you are working super hard in first or second year but a small percentage of what you do then will end up in your thesis. This is slightly depressing but true and part of the learning process. So try and enjoy the early stuff because your last 6‐12 months are going to be pretty brutal. Failure is part of research. This one may sound obvious but with most PhD students having a strong academic background, it often takes some time to get used to (mainly science) things not working over and over again. Or worse, something working once and then never being able replicate it – is an n of 1 enough to publish a paper? Probably not. It’s slightly reassuring that most negative or non‐ significant results can still be reported and be interesting but when you spend three days taking microscope images of cells and can see literally nothing this is not the case and it can be very hard to take.

You are trying to do something no one has ever done before. At least you should be ­ otherwise it doesn’t count as original research and will cause you problems when trying to defend your thesis during your viva. That means it is going to be difficult and your results might surprise you but they will always tell you something we didn’t know before.

Planning and keeping good notes is key. Again, this seems obvious but you need to keep on track. Four years seems like forever but it flies in and suddenly you don’t understand how you still have so much to do in such a short period. Start with a good literature review and it will form the backbone of your final thesis and use software to keep track of your references. Always record what you are doing in detail, so if someone asks you a year later what exactly happened you can flick to the correct page and give them a concrete answer.

Your topic may sound fascinating but what you do on a daily basis will not be. Some days you will get to do some really cool stuff that the inner nerd in you loves but mainly you will be repeating the same techniques over and over. In my case, everything I do involves a final step with cell testing. I grow cells, I put them on top of my materials and I see how they behave. The first few times this was fun, but now any time they die (as they love to do) and I know I’m going to have to do it all again ­ a little tiny piece of me dies too. On days when you just don’t want to do it again, try and remind yourself of the bigger picture and what a beautiful story your thesis is going to tell.

There will be days when you want to quit. Or cry. Or maybe both. It happens to everybody. Go back to the drawing board and adjust your plans depending on what’s happened – flowcharts that make your project plan look incredible are reassuring but also taking a few days off totally can be helpful and give you some needed perspective.

Your final project will not look the same as your initial wonderful plan. It might look reasonably similar if your experiments went as predicted but often they do not and you will have to rewrite your aims and hypotheses later as if it was your plan all along. You might also find something interesting and somewhat unrelated and end up on a tangent or a completely different research track. This is the nature of research, how discoveries are made and the reason we all do it in the first place ­ to satisfy our curiosity about the world we live in.

I’m still not quite there yet but I’m optimistic about it all being worth it in the end. I’ve had opportunities to travel to conferences across the globe, I spent 9 months in a lab in the US and I’ve made some great friends. As long as you choose a topic you are interested in, you will get through the hard bits and accomplish something to be proud of. You may not change the world with it but any small advances are helpful so that someone at some point can make a big breakthrough so never think that your research isn’t useful. Sometimes the main thing you have improved is yourself and your way of thinking. Don’t compare yourself to other people you know with “real” jobs, you will have one eventually and once you start it’s more difficult to take time out so enjoy your journey and good luck!

Illustration: Natalia Duda