8 lessons I learnt during my PhD


September 05, 2021

I finally defended my Ph.D. in front of a computer screen -- far from what I imagined when I embarked on this journey back in 2015 -- on July 29, 2021! As I ruminate back through this incredibly rewarding journey, I have condensed my experiences, learnings, and advice in the following points:
1.       Making a training plan early in the Ph.D. matters

I came into my Ph.D. with the mindset to get better at conducting effective scientific research and to publish results in high-impact journals. In hindsight, this was rather a narrow professional training vision. My advice to the early career PhDs would be to also include communication, dissemination, and outreach activities actively during their doctoral training. Participation in organizing symposia/conferences, preparing/delivering workshops, and volunteering at open day activities, etc. would contribute towards your transferrable skills in ways that your traditional research communication pathways wouldn’t. Be proactive about making them a priority during your Ph.D. Additionally, getting better at writing grant/fellowship applications is an indispensable skill set, especially if you want to pursue a career in research. Get into it as early as year 1 of your Ph.D.

2.       Clarity on your role vs your supervisor’s role during the Ph.D.

Your supervisor is there to help you achieve YOUR research vision and assist you in your transition towards an independent researcher. They might have a very interesting project that they proposed for you to work on, or they have some ideas on how to solve the problem effectively but ultimately it is your project and you’re the primary driver. Take ownership of whatever progress you make/roadblocks you hit during this journey.  

3.       Make your mental health a primary priority

Ph.D. is a long, arduous journey. The age-old adage – It’s not a sprint but rather a marathon – holds true in this case. Since there is considerable uncertainty in academic research, it is imminent to experience periods of significant motivation dip which could take a toll on your mental health. Having a well-balanced social life and physical activities would be your friend to tackle these troughs. Taking a break for a brief period from research during your Ph.D. would also help you avoid burnout.  

4.       Automation is your friend. Get better at it as early as possible

Scripting and creating frameworks for tasks that are going to repeat themselves during your Ph.D. would save you a lot of time and boost your productivity. Some instances where automation could come in handy include:

o   Creating a script for generating journal quality figures 
o   Automating data collection, data analysis, and data visualization processes
o   Developing a framework for conducting and organizing literature review
o   Devising an algorithm for writing an effective research paper in the least amount of time
o   Preparing templates for drafting response-to-reviewers and cover letter to the editor documents during the peer-review  process
o   Creating a template for reviewing journal/conference papers 
5.       Research Data Management is not just a buzzword

RDM is probably ‘one of’ if not ‘the most’ undertaught and underrated tasks during a Ph.D. Most of the disciplines today require dealing with large amounts of data (Generating, storing, transferring, reusing, etc.). My research in numerical and analytical modeling of physical systems would have benefitted immensely if I streamlined data generation, storage, and transfer protocols early on. I would advise the new PhDs working with lots of data to consider the following before starting their research:

o   Adopting good data collection and organization practices (Appropriate type, formatting, and naming convention for data files should be adopted)
o   Documentation and Metadata (Data should be accompanied by proper documentation explaining name conventions, related preprints/publications, date of creation, version type, and contributors)
o   Data storage, backup, and sharing (Based on university’s guidelines and funder’s requirement, appropriate medium to share computer codes, generated data etc. should be identified)
6.       Surrounding yourself with the right people can make a world of difference

Your friend circle is going to influence your thoughts, ambitions, and values during this training period. Choose them wisely. Spend more time with people who like to discuss/work on innovative ideas, motivate each other through lows, and be there for each other when needed. You won’t be disappointed.

7.       Making friends outside your department might just save your Ph.D.

A diverse friend/work circle facilitates a strong cross-pollination of novel ideas. Use this to your’ (and their’s!) advantage. For example, one of the long-standing roadblocks of my doctoral research was resolved during lunchtime discussions of my research problem with friends outside Engineering.  

8.       Focus on developing relevant skills early rather than getting results

Your early years of Ph.D. would be better spent on learning the pre-requisites of conducting effective research, writing research grants, working well together in teams, and improving your communication and interpersonal skills. For example: If you need to take courses on PDEs/ML/Optimization that could help you in your research later, do it as early as you can. Make use of training workshops from your department/library/graduate research services to get better at conducting literature reviews, managing references, and preparing grants. Learning these early on will help you accelerate your research/communication skills later in your Ph.D.

If you made it to the end, thank you for reading! My hope is that these pointers will help the new Ph.D.s by avoiding mistakes that I made (or direct them towards making mistakes that have a higher ROI) during their doctoral training.