By Lisa Stinson, University of Western Australia
They say that when you give someone advice, you’re really talking to your past self. As I’m nearing the end of my PhD journey, I find that I’m a completely different person to the girl who signed on for what she thought would be a breezy three years of research. I’ve faced hardships beyond my imagination, and in the process I’ve become a confident and resourceful scientist. I’ve developed a level of mental and emotional resilience that I never thought possible.
So I’ve got some advice for those who are embarking on their PhD journey. Advice that I wish I could jump in a DeLorean and give to myself.
- Ride the roller coaster.
No matter how good you are at it, a life in research will always be a roller coaster of incredible highs and soul-crushing lows. One day you’ll be miserable because your experiments keep failing, then the next you’ll be on top of the world because your paper has been accepted for publication. Don’t take the failures personally; they’re just a one part of the research package. Take time to celebrate all of the wins, large and small, that come your way.
- Be persistent. Be resilient.
There will obstacles that seem insurmountable. But you will get past them. You just need to keep showing up and working at them. The point of a PhD is to produce new human knowledge, and when you’re on the edge of what is known it is totally normal to stumble. When I started my PhD every little setback felt like the end of the world. But once you’ve overcome a few dozen setbacks, you learn to take them in your stride. I’m constantly shocked at the strength of my mental fortitude. Now when something goes wrong in my PhD, instead of freaking out, I calmly begin problem solving.
- You are the expert.
Over the course of your PhD you’ll transition from being a student following instructions, to an expert in your field. Leave your imposter syndrome at the door and learn to be confident in yourself as a scientist. Remember that no one in the world understands your project better than you do, so speak with authority.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
It’s so easy and so destructive to look at other PhD students in your school or online and compare your progress to theirs. Remember that although you may share the same course title, your project is completely different to theirs, so comparisons are useless. Your colleagues are not your competitors.
- Take care of yourself!
Exercise regularly. Eat well. Drink water. Be social. When things become hectic in your PhD, self-care will be the first thing to go out the window. But you have to prioritise it if you want to emerge from your PhD intact. If it’s all too much take a day off, refresh your brain, cry, talk to someone about it, get some perspective and space, and then come back with all your mental and emotional strength intact and come at the problem again.
- Reach out.
I live in the most isolated city in the world. None of my friends here are academics or even a little bit science-minded. Not only that, but my research topic is so damn specialised that only a handful of people in the world are doing what I’m doing, none of whom are in Australia. At the beginning of my PhD I felt so academically isolated. There was no one in my personal life who could understand my experiences and no one in my professional life who could understand the particular problems of my field of research. So I decided to get proactive. I created a twitter account and starting following other scientists, other women in STEM, other microbiologists, other PhD students. I also starting blogging and began following the blogs of other PhD students. Before long I had managed to surround myself with a virtual world of other people who were living the same experiences I was. It changed everything. Through social media I’ve made new connections, found new opportunities, support and encouragement. I no longer feel like the only person in the world going through the trials and tribulations of a PhD. And most importantly I’ve learned to express my frustrations in the lab in the form of funny memes.
- Science is cool.
Working in science is such a privilege. You get to find a research question that captures your interest and work on it until you’ve found an answer. You get to be surrounded by interesting intellectuals all day. You get to be the first person in the world to know something. You get to do the kind of work that is new and exciting every day. Remind yourself how damn cool science is every day. Your PhD won’t always be easy. You’ll have bad days, bad weeks, bad months. But how many people get to stand on the edge of human knowledge and extend it?
I’m Lisa Stinson, a PhD student at The University of Western Australia. I’m an obstetrics & gynaecology researcher pretending to be a microbiologist (shh, don’t tell anyone). I’m passionate about outreach, and dedicate my spare time to organising science communication events, writing articles, and giving public talks. When I’m not in the lab, you’ll find me in the kitchen, where I experiment with increasingly complex vegetarian fare. My back-up career is celebrity chef. You can find me on Twitter @lisafstinson.