Suggestions for potential or new PhD students

I always wanted to try my hand at writing. It’s my secret goal. People who know me well wouldn’t have ever guessed that. I recently graduated with a PhD in cell and molecular biology. And while I was toying with different ideas for my new blog, I thought it would be nice to share some insights, observations and interesting experiences from my journey through graduate school.

A lot of what I am going to write about is something that me and my friends used to discuss a lot over coffee or lunch breaks – things that we wished we knew beforehand and our life through the PhD program would have been so much easier.

Here are some suggestions for prospective or new PhD students trying to pick a mentor and a lab to begin their research –

  • Pick an adviser who has funding for the next 4-5 years

You might be brilliant and your adviser might be brilliant but if there is no money to conduct research, you will be wasting precious time in graduate school with low productivity. Most universities provide scholarship to PhD students for a limited time period (usually 5-6 years), during which time you need to conduct meaningful research and publish original research articles. So if you get stuck due to lack of funds to support your research, you may have to pay university fee out of your own pocket after the time limit is up or work for free without a monthly stipend. Your PhD stipend will barely be enough to support yourself, let alone save some money. And it can get embarrassing to borrow money from friends and family in your late 20s or early 30s to pay college fee.

  • Analyze your potential adviser’s rate of publication

You want to choose a mentor who has been publishing at a decent rate (if not impressive) for the past couple of years. This is a measure of your adviser’s lab’s productivity. For example, an old tenured professor who hasn’t published anything in the last couple of years is a red flag. You also need to watch out for new assistant professors who are struggling with research and unable to publish in quality journals. Chances are they may not get tenure and so will leave their university job while you are half way through the PhD program. That will be disastrous since two or three years after you start your PhD, it will be excruciating to find a new lab/mentor and start all over again, plus you would have lost precious time. This actually happened to an acquaintance of mine in grad school.

  • Make sure your mentor is reasonable (and kind, helpful, and also forgiving)

 When you are a new PhD student, you are still learning and bound to make mistakes. You are an untrained professional. It is helpful to have an adviser who is kind and tolerant, and willing to give you multiple chances when you make numerous mistakes in the lab and waste thousands of dollars of research funding. This single factor will determine how pleasant your experience conducting research will be. It is also useful to have a mentor who is ready to invest time and effort to train you. There are PIs (Principle Investigator) who throw a protocol at the student and expect them to figure things out (hence leaving enormous scope for errors) and there are PIs who devote themselves to ensure you understand the experiments very well and walk you through the details. The latter is usually better. You can find out about your potential mentor’s attitude by talking to his or her previous graduate students and research group.

  • Develop a habit of reading research articles

 It is very important for a PhD student to develop a habit of reading research papers of their respective field on a daily basis. Reading is essential to get yourself acquainted with your area of research initially and later on helps you stay on top of the game. After a while, you don’t just read a research paper, you try to critically analyze its experimental findings. Always remember, the most important job of a scientist is that of a critical thinker.

  • Your effort and attitude

 All of the above mentioned points are totally useless if you are not ready to put in some back-breaking hard work in the lab or not interested in the research problem you are trying to solve.  You ultimately achieving the PhD degree mostly depends on your PI. Hence make sure you keep your mentor impressed with your work. The impression your mentor has of you really matters, not just for the degree but also for future recommendations.

For those of you who read until this point, I hope I didn’t scare the living day lights out of you. My purpose was to help potential PhD students with some intelligent decision making in grad school. The points I mentioned in this post are the ones that were at the top of my mind. I may add more later on.