A typical day – In the beginning

A typical day at the beginning of my PhD was very different to a typical day towards the end of my third year.

When starting a PhD (at least in Life Sciences), before anyone is let loose in a lab, there’s a lot of form-filling, health and safety inductions and even occupational health assessments that need to be done first. Sometimes this can take a while and usually depends on how organised and attentive your supervisor is.

In the meantime, there’s a huge amount of background literature that needs to be thoroughly read, understood and reviewed. This part can be quite tedious, as sitting at a desk reading doesn’t feel like you’re doing much at all, especially when you’re surrounded by busy PhD students and post-doctoral researchers.

In the beginning I used to turn up at around 9.30am, to find most PhD students and post-docs already at their desks or in the lab doing experiments. It used to make me feel a bit guilty, especially as almost all of them would still be there when I left the office at 5pm. But in actual fact, it’s entirely normal to feel like you’re at a loose end when everyone around you seems to be working incredibly hard.

After all the necessary paperwork and admin stuff was out the way, I was able to get into the lab and start learning how to perform my first experiment. Again, this was a little tedious because it mainly involved shadowing other people while they tried to explain what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. For me, this was learning how to ‘patch’ (patch clamp) cells in fresh brain slices and it took about 3 months to go from absolute beginner to first successful attempt. I think it was another month or so before I was confident enough to do a ‘proper’ experiment.

Once I’d found my feet and got into a bit more of a routine, I started to feel less guilty about not working as hard as some of the more seasoned researchers in the lab. I suppose it’s difficult to make yourself work hard when you’re still trying to fathom exactly what you’re PhD is about. I know numerous people, myself included, who didn’t include any data from the first year in their thesis. For some, it was simply due to the direction that the science took them in and for others it was because their experiments didn’t work or weren’t optimised enough.

My advice to people who have just started a PhD; Be patient. The stress will come later.

Guilty feelings

The feelings of a PhD student just starting out