Academic life is less like a box of chocolates and more like a pie eating contest where the prize is more pie. @AcademicsSay
It took me a few months to write this due to my inability to say no to more responsibilities (so here’s your rule #1 – learn how to say no… even if it means going against your obsessive-compulsive personality, which is probably what got you into a PhD mess in the first place).
This post was inspired by Daan van Aalten who told me about his epic fails as a doctoral student and everyone’s favourite coward Columbus from Zombieland. As you might have guessed this is my list of rules, which are helping me survive the Dante’s Inferno commonly known as a PhD (and which I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world).
Rule #2 – Don’t let others run your career; it’s your PhD.
Establishing a good working relationship with your mentors and colleagues is extremely important – these are the people who will help you shape your project and teach you the skills necessary to complete it. However, do not let or expect someone to plan everything for you. Listen to all the advice and ideas you can get but remember that it’s your research, your little baby and you should have the final say.
Rule #3 – The world doesn’t owe you anything.
Don’t moan about what is fair and what isn’t. Sometimes you meet other grads who are extremely successful and seemingly effortlessly produce one manuscript after another. I often hear snide remarks that field X is easier to get results/funding/papers in than field Y. This is irrelevant; concentrate on your work and how to maximise its output.
Rule #4 – Follow your passion.
Do something that you are excited about and what makes you wake up in the morning. It’s a waste of time and resources in any other scenario.
Rule #5 – Move around.
One of the perks of being in academia is the massive international community. It truly is a world without borders (well.. almost). Use this opportunity to experience different working cultures and build up a stellar CV.
Rule #6 – Quitters never win.
Some days you feel like shit, some days you wanna quit, and just be normal for a bit (did I just write Fort Minor lyrics here? surely not). PhDs are not easy. They’re not supposed to be otherwise everyone would do them. Concentrate on what drives you and what you are passionate about. Most importantly, don’t bottle up any anxiety and seek help.
Rule #7 – Networking is uncomfortable but always leads to ideas.
Academics are often socially inept, especially in STEM. This should not be an excuse to cut people out because academia is not just about the work that you do but also who you know. Gathering opinions, establishing collaborations and building networks are what will drive your project to fruition. Grads who try to tackle the PhD beast on their own often struggle due to the one-sided view of their work. Don’t be that person, go socialise and make friends, shoo!
Rule #8 – Focus on the problem, not the person.
It’s easy to get emotional when someone has upset you (insert reviewer 2/ mean PI/ grumpy postdoc joke here). Don’t take any criticism personally and do not let emotions cloud your reasoning.
Rule #9 – Papers and authorship are important. Stand up for yourself.
Although there is a push to change the unhealthy and unsustainable academic culture driven by publication track, the war is far from over. Make sure that you are acknowledged for the work that you have done.
Rule #10 – If you don’t ask, you don’t get it.
More funding, office space, lab space, supervision, time off…. Just ask. Worst case scenario you are back to square one; there’s nothing to lose.
Rule #11 – Work hard, play hard.
This is self-explanatory. PhD is labour intensive but do not lock yourself out of society or hobbies. You need an occasional break to reset those brain cells before you can go back into the lion’s den with fresh enthusiasm.
Rule #12 – There will never be a “right” time to start a family.
Starting a family during your PhD it is not the end of the world and most institutions will provide you with the necessary support. If you think that you will have more time sometime in the future you are wrong. As I stated in the beginning – academia is a pie eating contest. And your prize will always be more pie.