I started my PhD nearly a year ago now, and the time has absolutely flown by. With many people setting out to start a PhD in September and October it made me think about what I have learned this year, and the top tips I would tell anyone about to embark on a PhD in Science:

1 Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Don't be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions during your PhD.

No one minds. It’s better to ask how to do something if you don’t understand than waste your time doing it wrong. Everyone in the lab has been in your position before. We don’t bite!

2 Write down EVERYTHING

And I mean everything. At the beginning of your PhD, you’re excited, you’re in a new lab, doing new things, and sometimes you may not write everything down. It happens. But in a few months’ time when you look back at that crucial PCR – the one where everything amplified beautifully – and you realise you forgot to write down the annealing temperature, you will kick yourself.


Only last week I came a cropper when I realised I had mislabelled one of my early glycerol stocks, which meant I had to redo the previous stage of my experiment. Labelling really well may take you a few extra minutes, but it will be well worth it in the future.

4 Plan your day

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you're doing otherwise.

Plan your daily activities: it can be hard to keep track of what you’re doing otherwise.

When you have several experiments on the go it can be pretty hectic, and hard to keep track of everything. It can useful to make a list at the beginning of the day, or the evening before, of everything you need to do. That way you won’t end up on Friday realising that you can’t do that experiment because you forgot to prepare the overnight cultures.

5 Make time for yourself

Yes, the PhD is really important, and yes, it’s good to get excited about it and take a huge interest in it, but don’t let it take up all your time. It’s important to have a healthy work-life balance. Personally, I find that taking that extra break, and having that evening off, helps me be more productive and make fewer mistakes. A PhD is a long time, and you should make that time as enjoyable as you can – both inside and outside the lab.

6 Take the time to get to know your lab

This one is easy – just chat to everyone! Go to lunch together, have a tea break, make sure you go to the lab meetings. And if the lab doesn’t do these things you could always suggest it. A lab that has great communication is the best sort of lab, and will make your days at work all the better. A friendly and fun working environment makes everything so much nicer.

7 Get involved

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Conferences are a great way to meet new people.

Go to seminars, departmental meetings and conferences, both at home and away. They are a great way to find out what others are doing both in your department, and across the institute. It helps you build those connections up – you never know, they could be crucial in the future. And don’t be afraid to mingle! It’s a big thing at first to get out of your comfort zone, step away from your friends, and talk to someone about their work, but it’s well worth it.

8 Try not to eat at your desk

If you are doing a lot of experiments in a day, and are really rushed off your feet, you may decide to just eat your lunch at your desk. But, this can often leave you feeling dissatisfied. Even if it’s only a 15 minute break, having your lunch away from your desk and lab can be really beneficial. It takes you away from the lab and work completely, and you will return feeling refreshed.

9 Just because you had a bad day today doesn’t mean it will be a bad day tomorrow

Everyone has bad days, the day when your RNA extraction just won’t work, or you run your DNA off your gel. It happens. Take a breath and start over.  Don’t let it get you down.

10 If you are having problems with your PhD speak to someone about it

The first few months can be a bit rocky: settling in to a new city, a new lab, making new friends, learning new things. If you are finding something hard in your project, or are feeling unsatisfied, out of your depth, or just stressed out, chat to your supervisor about it. Or if you feel you don’t want to talk directly to your supervisor, try another PhD student or lab member. It is normal to have periods throughout your PhD where you feel a bit down or stressed. When things aren’t working, it can be demoralising, but having someone you can talk it out with can help.

11 Enjoy!

A PhD can at times be frustrating and hard work but it’s extremely enjoyable and one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.

Erica is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @EricaHawkins16.


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