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Things I wish I knew before I started my Ph. D

Now that I’m sort of at the tail end of my degree, I feel like I can reflect on progress thus far, and maybe list some things I wish I knew before I embarked on this journey. I didn’t want to title this ‘5 things I wish I knew…’ and make it too ‘on trend’, but I’ll keep the list short.


1: Experiments will inevitably fail. No matter how hard you try.

I know other people encountered this problem during Honours, but for me, things had worked out relatively okay, so I didn’t feel the whole weight of it until I started the Ph. D. I think, in any given year, experiments fail about 80% of the time. It might be because you stuffed up the protocol, it might be that your cultures didn’t grow- or maybe, even though theoretically it should work just fine, the experiment just doesn’t work. When you throw a complex, biological system (which a bacterial cell is) in the mix, sometimes things just don’t work. And that’s okay. It’s not fair on you to take responsibility for it if you’ve literally tried all options to fix things. Often times that last one is really hard to accept (especially if you have external forces that tell you it’s your fault).

2: Make sure you have friends or people you can talk to.

I don’t want to pressure people into thinking they need to actively look for friends- that’s generally not how things work. Relationships take time, and encountering the right people tends to be more up to chance than anything else… but if you find someone who you get on with, can open up to, and you can do the same for them… keep them! That’s how you develop good relationships. I don’t mean romantic ones. Platonic ones are just as valuable, and when the going gets tough (and it will), you need good company. A healthy friendship is worth its weight in gold. It can be fellow students, mentors, or people outside of academia… I like all of the above, but especially the latter, because it keeps you grounded. It’s a constant reminder that there is a life outside of the lab (even when it doesn’t feel like it).

3: Take (proper) breaks

I know that for my degree in particular, we are entitled to four weeks annual leave, but so often, we don’t take it. ‘The cells are ready now’ ‘ it’s hard to drop everything’ ‘I can just push through’ ‘I’d feel bad‘. Guilt is terrible, and academia is riddled with it. But this is how you burn out! And burn out is insidious, in that it’s slow and sneaky. You don’t realise how run down you are until you inevitably break down. REALLY listen to yourself, or have a friend (see above) who can keep an eye on you. If those around you are telling you to take that weekend off- do it. It can be really hard (emails on a Sunday night are the worst), but you need to draw the line somewhere. You are the priority here, so if you are literally miserable and depressed- you’ve left it too long, that’s already progressed too far. Take that weekend and don’t touch any papers. Leave that experiment for the following week. Monitor your anxiety and stress levels well. Please. Look after yourselves. You are precious.

4: Enjoy where you are

This can be difficult to do depending on how things are progressing, but it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. I don’t mean think positively and avoid dealing with the issues (that’s not healthy), but while you acknowledge and work on overcoming the problems, if there are any positive aspects to what you’re doing- take a moment to enjoy yourself! For instance, I’m in a world class research institute and what not- but I’ve also got some great colleagues around me who are inspirational. I don’t know how they keep it together (chances are they’re not- or have developed the skills necessary to overcome adversity), but it gives me motivation when I see other people doing amazing things. I worked hard to get here, but I do feel quite lucky to be able to work in such an environment- and I’ll miss it when I finish up and move on to something else. Also, enjoy where you are by making sure you have hobbies and other pursuits that are different to your Ph. D. It’ll help your mind rest and reboot after a full day. You can’t be ‘on’ all the time.

5: Seek professional help

I’m not sure how it works as an international student, but I know domestic students are entitled to ten sessions a year which the Medicare rebate can cover. If you’re struggling- or feel like you need to get some strategies in place so that you don’t have to struggle as much, get a mental healthcare plan in place. It takes a lot of strength to open up to someone about your personal struggles (trust me, been there), but please just go for it. Get a friend to help you take that first step, if you can. Whatever it takes. Go see that GP, get a plan in place. It’s not worth leaving it alone, because even if it goes away temporarily- it’s temporary. It will come back. Or at least, that’s how my depression works. Sometimes there’s no reason for it (which is why I hate it- it goes against all logic), but if that darkness hits and you’ve got your Ph. D weighing on your shoulders, and it feels like you’re just coping second by second… One. You’re not alone. Two. Reach out to someone (hopefully it leads to professional help). The wait times can be ridiculous, but whatever arsenal you can have to help deal with, and eventually overcome all those issues… It’s worth it.

I’m sure I’ve missed stuff, but those were the most important things I could think of right now. This goes to everyone who is thinking about doing a Ph. D, who has just started, or who is dragging themselves forward through the thick of it. You’re not alone.

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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