PhD life: the highs and lows

It takes up to four years to complete a PhD, so you’d expect some high and lows. So far, I’ve only completed just over two years of my project, but it has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs. Some of these are what you might expect – others maybe not – so here are a few of my thoughts and experiences so far.

One of the major advantages of doing a PhD is that we have flexible hours, and are not expected to be working a standard 9–5. However, for the most part, I certainly work much longer hours than this. Sometimes I work longer because I want to, other times I feel like I need to – but the extra time can be essential for those all-important results (fingers crossed!). Most times that you come into the JIC at the weekend you will find someone else in the same situation – often one of your friends to have a quick gossip with! So, even though flexible hours are an advantage, you can see how this can be a disadvantage too. Some people will work all the time given the chance…

Depending on how you look at it, the unpredictability of science can either be a pro or a con of a PhD. Science is continuously changing, therefore your project will have its twists and turns, developing as the four years go by. When you first apply for your PhD, you are given a title by your supervisor – but these titles rarely stick by the time you reach your thesis (mine has certainly changed!). When I first started, I was working on two genes – but as one of these has become more and more interesting I began to focus more on this one. The obvious advantage of this changeability is the knowledge that you are working at the cutting edge of science, as well as being able to take your project in a direction that you find interesting.

One of the appeals of a doing a PhD for me was learning to be an independent scientist. You are required to use your brain and think of experiments to clarify the working models, as well as learning and developing new techniques. Despite saying this, it was hard for me to adjust from working life in a previous lab where I was doing the same thing day-in, day-out for nearly three years, to learning new skills. Eventually though, I got used to this, and now I enjoy it, even though everything doesn’t always work! This is one of the best times for any scientist to learn new skills in the lab and to develop their analysis skills too. With the right support to in the first few years, it should all come naturally by the time you finish!

Unfortunately, there are just some pitfalls of a PhD, just like in any job. It goes without saying that there are times when it is (very) stressful. There are days, or even weeks, when you have put everything into an experiment only to find out that your results have nothing, or aren’t what you expected. It can be very upsetting, after you have invested so much time into it. On the other hand though, when you do get a result it feels amazing! Especially if you have been failing to achieve success in it for a long time.

One perk on the side is that PhD students are still eligible for a student discount. How can anyone argue against that? After working for nearly three years, I had missed the student discount, so I’m making the most of it again!!!

Finally, for me meeting lots of new people is always nice. We all have similar interests in what we do inside the lab, but outside the lab there is a wide range of hobbies and interests. Like with most workplaces, there are always interesting people that you have to work with! This can always provide a source of entertainment – usually in good humour of course. However, everyone leaves at some point, and this is always sad, especially if you become close to fellow lab-mates. Hopefully everyone moves on to further their own careers and does well whatever they choose to do. Inevitably though, people leave the JIC, as in science very few people have permanent contracts and we are always travelling and going where there is a job. You can decide whether this is a positive or a negative!

So, those are my thoughts about life as a PhD student, but I felt it only fair to find out what  other students within the JIC think? Here are some of the responses:

First years:

  •  You can manage your own time and work around your other commitments.
  •  It is frustrating when you are spending all those weeks and months where nothing works and nobody knows why… though those often turn out ok when suddenly it does work…!

 Second years:

  •  Really sociable both in the lab and in outside life – everyone is approachable if you have problems, but also able to separate themselves from their science and have a good time!
  •  Really satisfying when something is achieved because you know you put the work in to achieve it, and it might be something no one has done before
  •  Unpredictability – supervisors may relocate, projects may have to change if things don’t work, the people you work with are constantly moving on and being replaced
  •  Sometimes you have to work late or even 7 day weeks!

Third years:

  •  Getting results; even the unexpected ones! Science can take you in directions you would not imagine.
  •  Flexible working hours and you can take holidays whenever, or with little notice.
  •  There are always other students around and, going through the same things as you.
  •  You get to travel around, both nationally and internationally due to conferences, while at the same time presenting your work. This is a great opportunities to visit places you would never otherwise go to!
  • We are still very much involved in science and working at “the cutting edge”.
  • Still a student; sometimes a good or a bad thing depending on what mood you’re in.
  • The repetitive nature of some tasks and sometimes repeating the same experiment until it works for weeks or even months on end…
  • At the back of our minds we have this nagging feeling that we should always be working all the time. On a similar note, sometimes people have to stay late to do tasks that a monkey could do (e.g. counting aphids). Now that we’re reaching the end of our experimental work the hours seem to be getting longer; don’t be fooled into thinking that research is a 9 – 5 job..
  • Experiments often fail, and you’re not quite sure why. However this gives you a chance to troubleshoot the work yourself and come up with your own solution eventually!
  • You get to think about what you want to do, within reason you control how your PhD progresses.
  • You get to know things that perhaps nobody else in the world knows. This is especially true as you progress through your PhD.
  • You get to know things that other people don’t understand or really care about.
  • It is always hard to switch off; you are thinking about science 24/7 and work chat creeps into your social life with your colleagues without you realising it.


Final years:

  • During second year: Observing fluorescence for the first time in a transgenic plant line I had spent over a year working on to establish.
  • Attending and presenting posters at international conferences – always came back with fresh enthusiasm for science.
  • Thesis writing – I spent three years dreading the idea of it but in the end I actually really enjoyed writing about what I have been working on for the last few years.
  • Period of illness during third year but supervisors, colleagues and graduate office were really supportive so that really helped.
  • End third year/beginning of fourth year when I felt the pressure of time running out but still having lots to do.

As you can see, depending on what mood you are in, you can see each of the above points as either an advantage or a disadvantage to doing a PhD. To sum it up, research can be a bit of a rollercoaster, but most people like a bit of a thrill, and that’s why we do it. There are bad days, but that is true with any job, but I do enjoy the challenges that my PhD brings me, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.

By Rowena Fung, a 3rd year PhD in Jake Malone’s Group


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