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10 ways to make your PhD experience easier and more enjoyable

Getting a PhD can be challenging and isolating – a Harvard student shares the lessons he’s learned

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Andy Greenspon, a PhD student in Applied Physics at Harvard, aligns a green laser for characterizing optical properties of diamond. (Photo by David Bracher)

After two and a half years at work on my PhD, I’ve had my share of lessons and revelations. Whether you are considering a PhD, or feel like you could get more from your program, here are a few tips. While some of them may seem obvious, it’s easy to overlook them while caught up in the daily grind.

1. PhD work doesn’t have to be isolating – if you give yourself a voice.

After permanently joining a lab, I realized that the laboratory atmosphere can seem rather isolating sometimes. There are days when I’m working in the lab for many hours without saying more than a hello to other graduate students. Or I might be focused on getting a computer simulation up and running and completely forget that there are others around me. Everyone has their own projects to get done, and sometimes I feel as though everyone is in their own little world. Especially if you aren’t collaborating with anyone on a project, you get the feeling that you are on your own to succeed or fail.

However, despite this feeling, you are never really alone. Although you (hopefully) have the largest say on what you want to do in your research, your advisor, professors, post-docs and fellow graduate students are available to bounce ideas off of and give their own advice. Beyond that, people are often looking for collaborators to play off each other’s strengths. Someone might be an expert in preparing a sample and another in characterizing it. Another person might be able to run a simulation to test what conditions you should use to optimize your experiment. But you have to take the initiative and cannot expect others to know if you want help or guidance. Talk to your lab-mates, send emails to others working on related projects, and schedule meetings with a plan of what you want to discuss. Graduate school will only seem isolating if you isolate yourself.

2. Know your areas of strength and weakness; you may already be the most knowledgeable about topic X in your lab group.

When you join a lab, you might assume that everyone else must be more knowledgeable about every topic in your field – after all, they’ve been working for at least a year more than you. This assumption about scientific and research knowledge couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, your lab-mates will know more about the projects they work on every day. But any given research area is expansive, and any one person’s research must inevitably be fairly narrow. Your lab mates cannot possibly know everything. Your research project will have its own set of challenges – some will overlap with your lab-mates’ challenges, but some might be completely new. You will have to spend some time on your own trying to solve them. After all, getting a PhD means becoming an expert in your specific area of research.

Most of the graduate students and postdocs that have been part of my lab have physics and electrical engineering backgrounds. The experiments we do, however, involve many chemical procedures. I remember asking chemistry questions to a fellow lab-mate one time. He stated that chemistry wasn’t really his area, and all he had to go on was the procedure that had been done previously in related experiments. It was then that I realized my five semesters of chemistry as an undergraduate placed me in a more knowledgeable position than many others. As a result, I am very thankful that my undergraduate institution allowed me to take a variety of science (and non-science) courses. Given the interdisciplinary nature of most research these days, knowledge of a breadth of scientific topics is extremely beneficial.

3. Know which environments strengthen your focus and which distract you.

Getting work done in the lab with others around can be extremely difficult for some, like myself, while others are only productive if they surround themselves with people working. If you are easily distracted, work at different hours from your lab-mates, especially if you need to work in your office. Though I sometimes find it difficult to do so, if I can get to the lab at 8 am or even earlier, I will get a lot done before anyone else even arrives. One of the benefits of working in the context of a PhD is that your hours tend to be very flexible; use this to your advantage, as the chances of having such an opportunity in a permanent job are unlikely. Also, people use laboratory equipment less at odd hours, so you can often get work done in half the time as is typical. Remember: Strive to work efficiently instead of just working long hours.

4. Take the right courses to complement your research.

While completing homework, exams, papers and projects was your primary job during your undergraduate education, coursework is a means to an end in a PhD program. There are a few required courses but lots of flexibility for the other ones, depending on the program. In retrospect, I should have taken more courses that would have directly helped me with my research. Instead, I took a number of courses where the materials overlapped significantly, and therefore gained only one course worth of knowledge from taking two or three courses.

Make sure your courses complement the research you plan to work on. Talk to graduate students who took the course previously and find out which professor they had. More than anything else, the professor will dictate which topics are covered and at what pace. What is their area of expertise? Do they work on experiment or theory primarily? This could be an opportunity to get to know a professor working on similar research topics. Lastly, it’s impossible to master all the material presented in a course in one semester. Focus on what gives you the most benefit and do not worry about the remainder too much.

5. Regularly look through journal articles in your field for ideas and inspiration.

When figuring out how to start a new project or troubleshoot a problem, the first thing you will probably do after initial consideration is to discuss the issue with your advisor or a fellow graduate student. Yet, don’t expect them to have all the answers, or even any answers.

There are so many journals out there (and they are ever multiplying), and you cannot expect your advisor, professors, postdocs or other graduate students to know everything – dozens of new articles relevant to your field might come out every year. First, figure out which journals are likely to have the most relevant research to you and organize them, whether via bookmarks or a content aggregator. (I use Mendeley.) Pick a time every week to skim through the headlines to see if anything is worth a closer look. Also, when reading any journal article, don’t assume everything written is correct or appropriate for your own work. See if what the researchers propose seems reasonable, especially based on your own experience.

6. You will make seemingly silly mistakes – but they are part of the learning curve.

Just recently I was trying to etch a pattern of square pillars on a diamond sample, and due to a misunderstanding, I thought I had cracked a layer of masking material necessary to make the pattern. I was back to square one. But after talking to a former graduate student about my problem, I realized that I was looking at a residual chemical on my surface and not cracks. Another time, I naively exposed a photo-sensitive compound to the wrong type of light by placing it under a microscope without a filter. In yet another instance, I tried to remove a sample from a piece of tape with tweezers and scratched off a coating I had previously layered on – back to the beginning.

When you start working in the lab, even if you have prior experience, you will inevitably be learning (or even developing) new techniques, simulations or programming code as part of your work. Expect to make seemingly silly mistakes … and often. If you don’t have a thick skin, you should develop one soon, whether in trying to make a pattern on a sample or debugging code. Research is a marathon, not a sprint. If you get frustrated at every little thing, you’ll want to give up after a month. Even after two and a half years, if I am learning something new, my first instinct is to throw up my hands and give up. But then I take a deep breath, write down notes for next time, and try again.

The first time you do something, it might take a few hours to get everything right. The next time, maybe only an hour and a half. Then an hour. Eventually, you will have developed muscle memory (or pattern recognition) and an intuition about what could be causing problems and how to move forward. The learning curve is exponential, and before long, you will be teaching others your methods (see tip 2). You will make seemingly silly mistakes to start, but fear not. The only way to learn is to do something repeatedly; you will eventually develop a sixth sense about these things.

7. Observe others doing techniques you need to learn; then try them yourself.

In conjunction with tip 6, if your fellow students do techniques you must learn, ask them if you can follow along and watch them work, or even do some of the steps yourself. This is a very effective way to learn a technique; simply being taught how to “use” a machine will not be that useful as there are many intricacies depending on the material or technique used.

For example, I work with a lot of fabrication equipment in a cleanroom – we must be trained by staff on everything before being able to use it. But your desired settings might not be what others typically use, or you may discover a way of using the equipment that gives a new result that will help you out. Once you’ve watched others perform a technique a few times, try it yourself. Spend ample time and pay attention as you do each step – this will help with muscle memory and in not forgetting subtleties to the technique. You will make mistakes, but they will exponentially decrease the more times you perform the technique. It had been months since I used the machine that makes patterns on my samples. The first time I used it again, I spent about two hours moving knobs to remind myself what everything did. The second time I used it, I spent maybe an hour. The third time, a half hour.

8. Keep a well-maintained lab notebook.

This one may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how often I hear something along the lines of, “Now where did I write down the parameters to use for this experiment?” Keep a dated, detailed and legible lab notebook that’s easy to flip through if you need to remind yourself of something or for preparing to write up an analysis, paper or dissertation. How much detail is somewhat subjective, but if there’s a parameter you could possibly alter in the future or might just be pertinent information to explain results, write it down. You can never get in trouble for writing too much information.

As an alternative, some people are now using digital lab notebooks. You can use a tablet with a stylus to write on a digital page so that it’s very similar to hard copy, or even use a note-taking program like Evernote that syncs to the cloud. People will often summarize their data in Powerpoint slides for better visualization. This can allow you to keyword search or sort notes by date and topic, for example. If you do choose to go digital though, make sure you backup the information every day to the cloud and a physical backup drive. You never want to be the person who loses a year’s worth of data in the blink of an eye. It might also be a good idea to print hard copies of your notes and put them together in a notebook for future reference.

9. Your research will evolve; don’t be afraid to change topics or research groups.

For the first year and a half working in my lab, I was working on plasmonics, trying to develop new methods to use metal nanostructures to control and manipulate light. But after some difficulty determining a research direction and attending a big conference in the field, I decided that this research wasn’t for me, and I switched to work on diamond. While this might seem like a rather big change, it turns out that a technique I was using in the plasmonics work was actually transferrable to the diamond work. In addition, I had been helping an older graduate student with another project in diamond while still doing my plasmonics work. So the transition ended up being gradual.

The research you work on for 4+ years will inevitably evolve and change. Do not be afraid to move into a different area of research – there may be more overlap than it seems. However, if you have been working on a single area for at last 2 years and do a very significant change to a completely unrelated topic, expect to be in your program for an extra year or two, especially if you have to learn new techniques, software or theory. If you truly feel you do not belong in your current research group, be honest with your advisor about your feelings and whether it may be necessary to switch groups – this will save both you and your advisor a longer-term struggle. I know a good number of fellow graduate students at Harvard who switched groups after 1, 2 or even 3 years, and though they may take a bit longer to graduate, they are happy with their new groups and research.

10. Separate work and play – and always leave time for (non-PhD) fun.

It’s 9pm. You are reading a book or watching a movie. And yet in the back of your head, you can’t help but wonder, “Should I be working on that simulation from last week? Or I could be in the lab getting that experiment done. Or reading that other journal article or textbook.” It’s hard to get rid of these thoughts, especially if you aren’t efficient during your workday (working on code for 10 minutes, then skimming a web comic or blog, etc.). But it’s thoughts like these that can make 4 (or more) years of your life miserable.

Separate work and play (though you may consider some parts of your PhD play). Set a schedule that you can actually keep, work for the hours you plan to, and then put away your work. When you let the two overlap, your work and happiness suffer. It may be difficult to separate these when you are also taking courses with strict deadlines, forcing you to work odd hours to get homework done. But once you are doing research full-time, design a schedule for yourself – know what hours you work most efficiently and where (see tip 3). Plan out your time if at all possible to minimize crunch time deadlines (journal article drafts, conference abstracts, posters, presentations) – your work will improve significantly if you aren’t panicking at the last minute.

In short, leave time for your hobbies (I do a lot of swing dancing and hiking when it’s warm enough). This will allow you to take a step back from your research and approach it from a new angle every week (or even every day). Leaving time for (non-PhD) fun will turn a seemingly unending struggle into a steady push towards success, with smaller victories and pleasures along the way!

A PhD comic strip

A good comic strip about the PhD life is Piled High and Deeper (PhD) by Jorge Cham,  who has a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and was a researcher at Caltech. But don’t let your own life become like this strip, or else run far, far away!


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Andy GreensponAndy Greenspon (@andyman344) is a third-year PhD student in Applied Physics in the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Prior to that, he worked in the Space Research and Exploration group at the  Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL)  for a year. He grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and received a BA in physics from Amherst College.

He currently spends his research time chemically modifying diamond surfaces and fabricating nanostructures out of diamond in order to alter the optical and magnetic properties of point defects in these diamonds. Studying these defects can provide a better understanding of how to create qubits for hypothetical future quantum information processing, and may find application in magnetic field sensing on the nanoscale.

His broader interests include science communication and public policy, especially with regard to saving scientific research funding and promoting a more scientifically informed public. He would like to help engage the public in a closer examination of scientific claims made by corporations, politicians and the media.

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