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October 12, 2011

Guest post: Transitioning to PhD life – by Heather Doran

Editor's Note: Heather Doran is a PhD student in medical sciences at the University of Aberdeen. She blogs about life as a PhD student at and is the editor for Au Science magazine. She agreed to do this lovely guest post for us - please give her a warm welcome!

I am not the first and I certainly will not be the last person to resign from a perfectly good job to go in search of fulfilment, ‘the dream’, (move to be with my boyfriend) and start a PhD.

I thought long and hard before I made the move back to being a student. But once I met with my potential supervisor I instantly knew the move was right for me. I went into the PhD feeling positive, I had made this decision; this was my chance to learn and discover. However, I knew it would be a challenge.

My PhD is in Molecular Pharmacology and is laboratory based. My previous job was office based; I hadn’t been in a lab for over 12 months when I started the PhD. Going back into the lab was a little daunting at first. Although not frequently spoken about, a certain level of confidence is needed to work in a lab. You have to be confident in your abilities to perform an experiment well. You have to be confident enough to ask people you do not know for help. Even before you get comfortable in your own lab you find yourself searching out others in other labs to beg, steal, borrow or find pieces of equipment. Highest ranking on the first year PhD stress-o-meter is telling people you barely know when you do something wrong and/or break things, it happens. It is bound to happen, it is an intrinsic part of lab life. You just have to take a deep breath, be honest, admit it and then get on with it (and try not to do it again). Luckily everyone else has been through this too and everyone I have met has been perfectly understanding about any lab or experimental mishaps.

Beyond a slight fear of getting back into the lab, I didn’t really know what else to expect from my PhD. I was moving from a relatively structured role with defined responsibilities, plans and expectations. When I was working I was ridiculously busy, I travelled at the drop of a hat and often did long hours. I went from this hectic, structured life, to sitting at my desk and being allowed to read for as long as I wanted. There were no demands or responsibilities, other than to read things, learn and write a literature review. That was nice, for about a week. I like to be ‘doing’ and I need structure; so I started treating my PhD like any other job. I wrote myself a plan, a rough plan, that I regularly revisit and revise to make sure things are on track. I made sure that my supervisor was aware of the plan too (to make sure I was working towards the correct goals).

I made my supervisor aware of things I wanted to achieve during my PhD on a personal level. One of the biggest items on my list was (if the opportunity was there and appropriate) to spend some time in a different lab. That worked out and I was given the fantastic opportunity to spend 5 weeks visiting and learning from a lab at Indiana University in the USA. It might not have happened, but without laying my goals out upfront it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.

You have to be ridiculously self-motivated to do a PhD, especially if you have a hands-off supervisor that is laid back. That can be a big daily challenge. It can be so, so hard to drag yourself out of bed. I am a pretty motivated person and my ‘plan’ helps me keep on track when I am feeling demotivated., but I still have days when I struggle. Aside from that, I am lucky that my supervisor is laid back. She does not expect me to account for every second of my time at the end of every week but she is there when I need to talk and we always take time to meet

I think being able to work well with your supervisor is extremely important; there are plenty of scare stories from PhD students who have apparently ‘horrific’ supervisors. Make sure you have a good idea of the type of person that is going to be supervising you for the next 3 years before you jump into a PhD. They might be a ridiculously fantastic Professor, but if you don’t get on at the start, you probably won’t do 3 years down the line when you are tearing your hair out trying to write your thesis. A bad relationship with a supervisor can mean 3/4 years of stress and can lead to people quitting their PhD all together.

Looking back on the past two years, I do not think there were too many issues with the transition. One thing that does bother me (it has from the start, but is starting to even more so now as I approach my final year) is the question of ‘have I done enough?’ is what I have achieved so far any good? Being a PhD student can be extremely lonely. Working in isolation on a project can lead to over thinking and over analysing what I have done. Then I remember, what I am doing is exploratory, it isn’t exact (although an awareness of limitations and recognition when something is wrong is essential). I am a student and it is OK to make mistakes (sometimes) as long as I learn from them.

When I make a mistake or I feel myself getting frustrated I take myself away from my desk and go for a tea or coffee and a good moan and grumble with other PhD students I know. One piece of advice I was given before I started was, to never underestimate the value of other PhD friends, they know what you are going through and will be there to support you through the good and the bad.

So far I have really enjoyed my PhD. The next big challenge will be writing my thesis and the next thing on my ‘to do list’ is to work out what I want to do next.

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