PhD reflections: lessons and advice

By Ralitsa Madsen, Institute of Metabolic Science, Cambridge, UK

As a driven PhD student who is dedicating most of my waking hours to a very ambitious project, I often need to justify my choice to others. Wouldn’t I be set up for success with fewer hours in the lab, less scientific reading and a bit more faith in my own talent? My usual response is to ask the following question: how do elite athletes succeed? Take Gwen Jorgensen as an example. She is a two-time world champion triathlete. She and other elite athletes have got talent, yes. But that is not the only ingredient behind their immense success. They follow strict training schedules and diet plans every day, whether it is Monday, Friday or Sunday. To succeed, they must be dedicated, hard-working, resilient, efficient and talented (DHRET).


Beyond feeding the stem cells every day, I also assess their health under the microscope. Among other things, I use immunofluorescence to confirm that they are still expressing stemness genes.

My training schedule

I committed to an exciting yet very demanding project at the start of my PhD in Cambridge back in 2013: to genetically engineer human pluripotent stem cells with mutations that lead to early-onset overgrowth diseases in rare patients. Many cell biologists will immediately recognise the challenges of such a project. First, gene editing using CRISPR was still fairly immature when I started in 2013. This meant that I had to spend a lot of time optimising and developing my own CRISPR workflow. As most scientists will know, at least 90% of one’s time is devoted to troubleshooting, so you need to be driven by the 10% success rate (remember DHRET)!  Hard work and dedication enabled me to successfully optimise my own CRISPR workflow which has also proven helpful to other scientists.

Observing my stem cells down the light microscope. These cells grow as large, round colonies of many cells with refractile edges.

Second, working with stem cells is no trivial task. These are sometimes described as the divas of all cells: you need to feed them every day, split them in special ways and spend lots of money on the required reagents. Stem cells don’t recognise weekends, so unless you are part of a hard-core stem cell lab (which I am not), you will have to say goodbye to most of your weekends. On a typical day, I will enter the cell culture lab by 9 am only to escape 5 or even 7-8 hours later depending on the number of individual cell cultures and experiments that I have running.


Of course, the day is not over yet. Beyond the practical work, I need to design experiments, analyse data, prepare presentations, write paper drafts and read. Reading is crucial. Many PhD students complain that they don’t have the time to read a lot of papers, to which I would answer: reorganise and reprioritise. I put a lot of hours into reading, not just papers that are of immediate relevance to my project, but also research outside my comfort zone to learn about new techniques and different ways of thinking. It has helped me move my project in new directions at key decision points and looking back now, it has been key to the success that keeps me going.

In total, work takes up a minimum of 12 hours of my day, which also includes human activities such as eating and spending time with other people. It might seem daunting and scary, and I am not saying that this is what every PhD schedule should look like. It is very project-dependent, and you have to find the best fit for you i.e. a project that causes excitement when you wake up and that is compatible with your own ideal work-life balance. But it is no secret that you new PhD students out there should be prepared to work hard in the face of multiple set-backs and to keep believing in your ultimate success at the end of the typical 3 years (for UK PhDs). Importantly, you also need to remember that this is a limited time, not your whole life, but the effort you put into it here and now might propel your future career forwards substantially.


The stem cell culture hood is where I spend most of time in the lab.

Towards the future: the importance of transferable skills

A future career as an emerging life science PhD student does look exciting. Many of us start off with dreams of becoming successful academics with own labs and multiple Cell-Nature-Science papers to showcase our exciting discoveries. But let’s face it – less than 1 % of all PhD students take this route, with many choosing to work for industry instead. A PhD offers you the opportunity to hone many of the skills that are required in other work domains: organisation, project management, resilience, communication, data analysis, flexibility, team work. To perfect these skills, however, focusing on your own little project won’t be enough. Thus, I have invested a lot of time in extracurricular activities such as science communication to the public as well as student committee work at my Institute. This is where efficiency is key (remember DHERT!). You have only got 24 hours in a day and juggling multiple different activities can be stressful if you are not sufficiently organised (something you can learn with practice and by talking to others!). Yet, I cannot stress enough how important it is to get involved in such activities as early as possible as they will spice up your CV and demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual, which is something that future employers emphasise a lot!

My top tips to current and future PhD Students

In summary, a PhD is tough and exciting all at once. If I were to meet my former self, these are the tips I would give her for a successful PhD journey:

  1. Stay focused                                                                                                                     Whether you are performing experiments in the lab or absorbing knowledge from the most recent paper in your field, focus is key. Make sure you develop strategies to avoid distractions when needed. For instance, I usually listen to music when doing experiments and find quiet coffee places / office areas when I need to write in peace. Important, avoid Facebook and other social media at all cost when you need to be in the zone!
  2. When the going gets tough, remember to see the forest for the trees             Troubleshooting and optimisations will take up far more time than obtaining actual publishable results. This can be daunting and lead you into a blind alley of doubting your own abilities, even the whole purpose of your PhD. When this happens, take a step back and remember the big picture. Why is your PhD important? Even if it is small, how will your contribution move science one step forward? The answers to these questions should give you some perspective back. Believe in yourself and remember that this is typical of any PhD: sweat and pain which eventually lead you to the light at the end of the tunnel.
  3. Read, read, read, read                                                                                                           This is more important than you think! Try to schedule an hour of reading every day. Sign up for journal table of contents or use artificial intelligence software such as Sparrho to keep up with current research on a weekly basis.
  4. Stay organised                                                                                                                Another point that I cannot stress enough. With organised, I don’t only mean with respect to your desk space or computer folders. Make sure that you establish healthy data management routines. Don’t wait a whole month to update your lab book when you are likely to have forgotten what you did. Learn best practices for file nomenclature and always include a metadata file in each data folder in which you explain how results were obtained and whether any additional manipulations were performed. There are good guides on this topic available online, so make sure to make use of them as soon as you start your PhD journey.
  5. Get out there and get noticed                                                                                    Today’s science is a collaborative endeavour. Rapid technological advances mean that you are unlikely to be an expert in every single method, but someone else might be. Make sure to foster healthy relationships with other scientists and to expand your network beyond your immediate lab colleagues. For instance, I went to an international EMBO conference in my first year to give a talk and decided to contact one of the attending PIs as his lab is an expert in big data analysis – something that I needed for my project. This led to a collaboration, and I have recently spent 3 weeks in his lab in Denmark to learn the nitty-gritty details of omics analyses. Beyond my personal development, this collaboration is crucial for the quality of a future publication based on this work.
  6. Enjoy it                                                                                                                                      Each moment of your PhD is unique. This is time that you won’t experience again, so make sure to enjoy it right here and now as it unfolds. Even the hard times should be enjoyed as struggles are key to growth and resilience!

Finally, as Usain Bolt’s coach and mentor, Glen Mills, has said: “Everybody on the circuit, everybody at the Championships are talented athletes already. It’s the work you put in that makes you a champion, or better than the other talented person”.

About me:

I am a 2nd year Wellcome Trust PhD Student in Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disease at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge. You can follow me on Twitter (@RalitsaMadsen) or via my science blog

3 thoughts on “PhD reflections: lessons and advice

  1. My compliments, dear Ralitsa! You have always been amazing in the way you work (think of your Poster back at AGS where you compared the body to a mobile phone)
    And don’t forget that you learn more from the 90% failure than from the 10% success. I wish you continuously good luck


  2. ‪In hindsight, should have added how important it is to identify a supportive supervisor! Just as important as the project itself. ‬


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s