Six lessons from a doctoral student in a pandemic
In September 2020, I started my PhD program in Plant Science at Cranfield University, a postgraduate research institute in the UK. I struggled with many aspects of the transition from undergraduate to doctorate early on – especially with the added challenges of lockdown. With varying levels of restrictions still affecting many researchers, here are some of the things I have learned.
Manage your expectations when setting goals
I had high expectations for what I was going to accomplish in the first few months of my program. I managed to move from Ireland to the UK and set up in the lab – but I also expected to have almost completed my first draft of the literature review, designed experiments and started my own lab work .
These ideas were quickly torpedoed. In the first month, I hardly did any science. I moved to a new country which meant finding accommodation with no visitation and opening a bank account with no credit history. It is normally quite difficult, but I was unable to visit the banks in person and relied on automated systems. Fortunately, I moved before Brexit and didn’t have to quarantine – but simple steps still took longer due to the lockdown. I spent hours on the phone with the college computer science department, trying to acquire and install a work laptop. Once I got it I took an online safety training course (only to find that I had to do it again because my browser crashed and didn’t save my progress) and j completed form after form to obtain my student number, financial allowance and laboratory access credentials.
Having done nothing that looked like doctoral research, I was terrified of letting my supervisors down from the start. But when I told them about my (minimal) progress in reading articles and designing experiments, they anticipated that these tasks would take a long time and reminded me that while filling out all the forms under the sun might not sound like science, this is work.
Volunteering to help others helps you in the long run
Most doctoral students will start at a university that is new to them, which means meeting a new set of supervisors, technicians, professors, administrative staff and more. Once you get to know these people, it’s much easier to know who to ask what.
But it’s harder to go through the “getting to know yourself” process online. Volunteering to help with “dirty” jobs helped me get to know people and brought me into the lab to meet other people face to face. I have also won favor among others in my team. I spent a week thawing the freezers and another week moving bags of potatoes from room to room. I can’t count how many hours I spent cleaning our lab equipment that was in storage! But now I know almost every technician in my department – so asking for help or advice is less daunting.
It also gave me a feeling of “family”. Locking in meant numbers in the lab were kept to a minimum, so I didn’t meet many people as “organically” as others might have under normal circumstances. I also couldn’t go home without putting my family in danger. Christmas would have been unbearable without the people I met in my first few months, and now we all have a network of support.
Take ownership of your project
Just before starting my program, my supervisor sent me the grant application she had used to obtain funding for my project. At first I stuck to it like the scriptures, focusing mostly on the references used in the app rather than getting a feel for the area in general. Even when some parts of the project didn’t mesh with others, or I discovered gaps in the literature that I could and wanted to fill, I didn’t have the confidence to claim ownership of my project.
But as I started to design experiments and develop hypotheses, I wanted to dig deeper into some aspects of the project and drop others. Some of the experiences offered were just not feasible with the time and resources allocated, and once I explained why to my supervisors, they were really supportive of my changes. One of the initial goals of my project was to compare fruit harvest times, despite using early and late harvest fruit for completely different purposes. My sponsor, Orchard House Foods, is not working with any of these crops, so I should have got options from different farms just to do a study that has already been done several times. After three months, I finally asked if it was really worth investigating, giving my reasons, and we scrapped it.
Even though I didn’t design my PhD project from scratch, ownership has allowed me to “ propose ” changes to both academics and industry partners and has been one one of the most valuable skills I have developed so far.
Your style doesn’t have to match your supervisor’s style
My two main supervisors are food scientists Mari Carmen Alamar and Natalia Falagán. Mari Carmen is known to run around the lab and scream everything, so you can always hear her coming. Natalia is calm and collected, while keeping the schedule. If you set her lab coat on fire, she’ll likely take it off and find the appropriate extinguisher.
At first I tried to emulate their styles as closely as possible, changing to match whoever was working with me at the time. I tried making Natalia-style lists and schedules, but I was adjusting the times so often that it was more complicated than winging them. If Mari Carmen ran, I ran after her – and I couldn’t last long because of my short legs. I needed more coffee than my heart could handle to match its intensity. It turned out to be a waste of energy trying to be someone else when I had to come to terms with my own style of working. I still run, but only on rare occasions, and my to-do list is written on the back of my hand rather than in a journal. If you see someone with a working style that you like, tailor yours to include them. But just because someone is your supervisor doesn’t mean you have to model everything you do based on how they do it.
Manage your expectations of yourself
When I started my program, I tried to work all day, every day – including weekends – thinking that was what was expected of me. Listening to presentations from other doctoral students and seeing the work involved in publishing a manuscript in a journal, I thought the only way to keep pace with people “smarter” than me was to outdo them. Of course not, but I compared myself to an ideal that does not exist. This was made worse by the fact that I didn’t have a lot of contact with people further down their PhD journey, as I mostly worked from home. Putting this pressure on myself was emotionally and physically draining, so when I got constructive feedback I saw it as a criticism rather than a help. I expected to get it right the first time around. I didn’t take breaks when I needed them, and ended up taking more later. Admitting to yourself and your supervisors, when things are overwhelming early on, will eventually save you time and sleep.
Always take advantage of small achievements
There are a lot of setbacks in a doctoral program, but there are just as many accomplishments. A presentation went well, someone complimented your diagram, you finished an hour early: these are all things worth celebrating as much as losing the post-it you were on writing deserves to be highlighted.
I’m someone who worries about the little things – as much as I try not to – so making sure I’m also vocal and festive about the little things is important to my balance. Articles and grants aren’t the only things that are also worth congratulating others. After completing my first draft of a literature review (in month seven), I took a whole day to eat pizza and watch TV during the day. And I’ll always keep a pint of ice cream on hand to celebrate the end of this scan or take a review of progress.