Is there anything you wish you could have told yourself at the start, or at crucial points of your PhD to save yourself lots of time and/or stress?

I asked PhD Twitter what, as a more experienced or finished PhD student, they wish they would have done earlier to help themselves out. Here I share these pearls of wisdom with you, dear reader – useful nuggets of advice whether you’re an undergraduate, new PhD student, not-so-new PhD student or heck, even a Prof. Everyone can learn from each other!

From Erica @ScientistErica:

Keep a excel of primers and keep a good tab of all the primers/antibodies you use and their ‘nicknames’ in your lab book. Trying to figure out which of the ‘gene primer a/b’ primers you used 2 years ago is hard! What seems obvious then isn’t later

This is excellent subject-specific advice that can be extended out to all PhD subjects. Write a document for bits of code you regularly use, or was used to produce that really important graph, which tells you what script produces what output. Or notes on how you mixed that useful chemical (I am clearly not a chemist). Or a proper detailed spreadsheet of all your spider subjects with their weight/leg length/nickname/favourite cuddly toy.

Helen @helenfcarr highlighted the importance of having breaks:

don’t feel you have to work every hour every day, be strategic. Also strategically plan holidays/breaks – coming back with fresh eyes after a week or two away may help you progress better than spending those two weeks rewriting work you have been staring at for months.

This is seconded by Cathy @Cathy_Mansfield, who pointed out:

it’s so important to plan these – you never feel you can take one, so book them in advance and spread them out!

I third this. I didn’t do this enough during my PhD but on the rare occasion I did take a holiday, I came back feeling tons more energised and enthusiastic. Wish I’d done it more! Cathy’s advice about booking them in advance is really great – if they’re booked and paid for, you have to go, and it means can also schedule experiments around them.

Anita has some tremendous advice about note-taking:

For me a good tip would have been to compartmentalise my notes! Either using notebooks with dividers or different notebooks altogether. Eg meeting notes, literature notes, to do list section, protocols/ calculations.. that way you’re not hunting through EVERYTHING for something

I thought I was organised on this front during my PhD – until I came round to writing up. I had a diary, for daily and weekly tasks, and a ‘lab book’ which was a lovely Moleskine notebook with EVERYTHING in it – meeting notes, experiment notes, protocols… I thought I knew where everything was, but turns out 4 years of those sorts of notebooks aren’t all that helpful. Since that fiasco, I use different notebooks for different things (e.g. one for ErrantScience: Clutter notes, one for my job, one for my PhD when I was finishing up corrections) – makes things loads easier when you’re hunting for something.

There are a few of my own that I would add.

Firstly, I wish I’d been brave enough to ask my supervisor to record our meetings. I suck at retaining information unless I can write it down, and in most meetings I couldn’t write things down quickly enough. I’m not quite sure what stopped me asking but I wish I’d done it as I know it would have helped a lot, especially at the start when every other word felt unfamiliar to me.

Secondly, I’d tell myself to start writing earlier – and not to be afraid of ‘bad’ writing. Bad writing can be improved; zero writing can’t be. Having a rubbish draft to work from when you’re under pressure or not in the mood for writing is infinitely better than staring at a blank page.

Finally, I would tell early-PhD me to be kinder to myself – much easier said than done, of course. If I had a bad day where things didn’t go to plan or I wasn’t in the right headspace for work, I’d beat myself up about it – and then the next day I’d spend trying to catch up and do two days’ worth of work. This obviously isn’t sustainable, or healthy, and often led to a few weeks in a row of feeling terrible and getting little done. By being kind to yourself, accepting you’re not going to get much done that day or that things out of your control went wrong, you can begin afresh the following day.


What tips would you like to have given yourself at the start of your PhD? Leave a comment below!

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