What does a typical day as a Ph. D student look like? Short answer is that it can chop and change, but this a little snippet of what life is like in a lab…
Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology Ph. D student residing in Australia
I feel like there are mainly three types of days when you’re a Ph. D student…
Type number one: Meetings day
Meetings day are those days where you’re just running around attending meetings all day.
Our lab always has lab meeting every week, which typically involves one person presenting a recently published journal paper (journal club, as well call it), and either a round table discussion (where people can bring up any issues with experiments or show exciting data) or someone presenting their own data. There’s a roster, so everyone presents on a rotational basis. Journal club is good, because it encourages you to read papers that are of interest to you, critically analyse it, and then make up a presentation to go through it with the lab… but also my lab loves journal club because the presenter must always bring snack food. Never get in the way of a hungry scientist and snack food. #Hangry
We’re also quite lucky, in that we have weekly scheduled meetings with our supervisor. It’s nice to touch base on a regular basis and keep them up to date with what you’re doing (and bring up any issues you may have). Not all supervisors have the time (I don’t know how mine does with their workload!), but this is part of my regular week.
Then there might be meetings on top of that where you go and talk to collaborators. Some of the stuff I do requires assistance from a different organisation, so sometimes I have to run across to a different building and discuss data or future experiments.
The worst is when you have Ph. D committee meetings. At least once a year, you have to present your data to your Ph. D committee (appointed by
your supervisor you). They’ll go through it all, critically analyse it (if there are issues, they should bring it up), and then comment on how you’re progressing. I can write in more detail about this another time, but this meeting is essentially 60-120 minutes of intense discussion about you and your data. It can be anything from a walk in the park (although I’ve never really seen anyone come out looking like they nailed it) to a tear-fest. Either way, very intense.
Sometimes you might have extra-curricular meetings if you’re part of a committee of some sort. I participated in the postgraduate student association in my department, so I’d have meetings for those. I’m also part of the OHS committee for my faculty, so sometimes I have meetings for those…
Either way, there are some days when it’s just meeting after meeting… your entire day is spent just running around trying to organise time with a group of people, and when you attend the meeting, it can sometimes feel like herding cats. I don’t feel really productive on those sorts of days, but I understand their necessity.
Type number two: Lab Berserker day
These are the days when you go in before sunrise and go home after sunset. Never seeing the light of day (just the artificial bright lights of the lab), unable to leave the lab to eat, pee, drink… but funnily enough these days feel the most productive out of all.
Sometimes they’re unintentional. Other times the day is planned. I wear comfy shoes and clothes. I try to schedule in strategic pee breaks… whatever it takes to get through the day and finish all experiments.
People tend to try and bombard you with all the questions on these sorts of days, so you feel like a bit of a jerk when you tell them you can’t help them out right now (while realising you’ve lost count on how many cells you had, and grumble under your breath). Whispers travel amongst other lab members- “give them some space today, they’ve got a lot on” “maybe I’ll buy them a coffee later”
By the end of it, the only thing keeping you standing is the sheer willpower to finish the experiments so you can go home and rest. I sometimes hit an eerie sense of calm (almost like a meditative state) where I feel like I can just whizz through everything, then crash and burn a few moments later when the exhaustion hits.
When you have consecutive days like this, it’s very easy to fall sick straight after it finishes. Look after yourself! Try and get plenty of sleep.
Type number three: Book work day
What? You don’t have any lab experiments today? Time for drinks-
No. Those sorts of days, or any other times when you have no experiments, you’re supposed to do book work. Whether that means filling out your long neglected lab book and writing down the experiments you’ve been doing (hah hah… should probably do that), reading journal papers or writing the next manuscript or Ph. D thesis… If you don’t have experiments to do, you have plenty more work to do at your desk.
These are the days when it’s easy to flake off, though. Get a coffee, chill out with your fellow lab friends, go for a longer lunch than usual- go home at 5pm instead of 6pm onwards (so naughty).
Write a blog instead of reading papers??
Most days are a mix of the above three. A good day for me would be days where it’s just writing, or just intense lab work. The worst are days when you juggle book work with intense lab sessions interspersed between meetings. Then your brain dies.
Generally I plan out my days based on meetings and experiments. Most experiments have periods where you’re just waiting around (incubation periods, PCR/gel runs, etc), so I’ll do book work or schedule meetings in those gaps. Sometimes the day implodes and experiments take longer than usual, destroying what was a perfectly planned day. These things happen, and sometimes it’s just a case of calling it a day and setting things up to repeat another day (cursing as you do so).
Now that I think about it, a typical day is mostly cursing. If you’ve ever seen the Twisted Doodles cartoon of what scientists actually say, it’s pretty accurate.