A day in the life of a neuroscience PhD student

By Matthew Nolan, University of Oxford 

The decision to begin a PhD is probably one of the biggest you’ll ever make in your career. A significant step up in both scope and expectation from undergrad, the prospect can at first seem a little daunting. However, while no one can make that decision for you, entering into it with a as much information as possible will put you at a significant advantage. Here is what an average day is like for me as a second-year PhD student.

6.30am: I struggle out of bed and make breakfast before cycling up the road to the gym. I make the effort to go in the morning as much as possible, mainly to avoid the throngs of other students that go in the evenings. This may or may not happen as much as it should!

8.30am: Arrive at the lab and make coffee before checking my emails. As it’s a Wednesday we have a lab meeting at 9 am, where each week someone from our neurodegeneration group gives an update on what they’ve been working over the last few months, and we discuss any other lab business. These meetings are useful to get the input of people who work in other areas, and allow us to raise any issues or ask for advice. Our lab has just been provided money by a charity to purchase a new piece of equipment, so we talk about who can use it and when. Several of us are also due to fly to Dublin in a couple of weeks for a large amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) conference, so we discuss travel and accommodation arrangements.

10am: After the meeting I head back to the lab to carry on the experiments I started the day before. My PhD is centred around the concept of selective vulnerability in ALS, and why some neurons in the motor cortex are particularly vulnerable to the aggregation of disease pathology. I mainly investigate human tissue, which has involved requesting material from other brain banks around the UK. Today I’m staining this tissue for various markers using a combination of immunohistochemistry and in-situ hybridisation. On other days, I might be working in a different department who have expertise in a particular method, training on a new piece of equipment, or working on a presentation.


My (relatively) tidy lab space.

1pm: Lunchtime. I chat with my colleagues in neuropathology who are working on other diseases.

1.30pm: I meet with my supervisor to discuss progress and raise any concerns. We meet formally once a week, but regularly talk and email at other times. I have heard stories from students in other subjects/departments of only meeting their supervisor once a term, but I’m grateful to have regular weekly input and advice. I also meet my secondary supervisor once every few months. We’re currently exploring several industry collaborations, so we discuss dates and times we can conference call our collaborators, amongst other things. This doubles as useful networking.

2.30pm: Back in the office, the slides I stained last week have been digitally scanned, and I am part way through quantifying their pathology using computer software and a custom algorithm I made previously. This takes a while. I try to get as much done as possible before I feel the need to do something else.


My desk space. We have a digital slide scanner in our lab that I use frequently so I can analyse pathology slides. My advice is to craft your desk space carefully, a lot of time will be spent here.

5pm: I switch to writing for a while. I’m currently preparing a manuscript for a review article, which is about 60% there. Even if it’s not accepted (which happens a lot!) I’ll include it in my thesis so I’m not worried. I like to write small amounts often rather than leave it and have to drag through thousands of words in a short space of time. I also use this time to search pubmed and media outlets for any new relevant publications/stories.

6pm: I head out of the lab and cycle to college to meet friends for dinner. Everyone is studying completely different things, and it’s cool to hear about all the work that other people are doing which has nothing to do with your own. We walk down the road to the pub for one after.

8pm: I arrive home. Luckily for me, living in a reasonably small city means that you’re never really more than 20 minutes cycle away from anything. Finding the right place to study really is key as it has such a big effect on your experience as a student. I knew once I decided to do a PhD that I didn’t want to be in London – the associated costs were just too high on a PhD stipend. This is a typical day, but I love that every day is slightly different and I get to work on a variety of things.


Much of my work is based on the investigation of donated human tissue. The tissue is processed in paraffin wax, sectioned on to microscope slides and then stained using various techniques to reveal the tissue’s antigenic properties.

Finally, a word about prospects. There is a lot of discussion online and in the media about the difficulties for newly graduated PhD’s and the rarity of tenure-track positions, and I’d be lying if I said this didn’t concern me at all. However, no one decides to do a PhD for the money, and for the moment at least, the freedom to pursue my own interests in academia is uniquely liberating. While it’s prudent to consider the future, ultimately a PhD is what you make it, and as long as you do everything you can to distinguish yourself from the crowd – you’ve got as much chance as the next guy. Good luck!


About me:

I am a DPhil candidate in Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, where I am working on selective vulnerability and somatic mosaicism in ALS/FTD. I have written articles for NatureJobs and Scientific American, among others, and have my own blog on issues related to neuroscience and academia. I can also be reached on twitter @matthew__nolan.



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