Tips for 1st year PhD students: Safety

Having recently completed my PhD in a Molecular Biology Lab I have been thinking back over my time as a PhD student and trying to think about what I wish I had known in my first year.

There are lots of practical things I could talk about and may blog about in the future such as: how to organise and plan your reading and your lab work. However I feel the most important thing to be aware of at the start of your PhD is your safety.

When I started my PhD I was really keen and enthusiastic, I was really happy that my hard work as an undergraduate had enabled me to get on a PhD program. I had worked in labs before, so wasn’t daunted by the idea of lab equipment and dangerous chemicals as I trusted that everyone was taking the correct safety precautions when using them.

Looking back I was really naive and an optimist.

  • If someone asks you to smell their lab coat-don’t!  Early on in my PhD another more experienced PhD student asked me to smell her lab coat. I was very trusting and did, not even questioning why, I said I couldn’t smell anything, she responded ‘are you sure you don’t smell almonds?’At this point I did ask why? As I  know cyanide compounds smell of almonds, and yes it turned out she had been working with cyanide compounds and was worried she had spilt them on herself and dumbly had asked me to check. As you start your PhDs do not be naive, always ask yourself why, and do not automatically trust scientists that are more senior than yourself as human error or a case of bad judgement can happen to anyone.
  •  Always check the material safety data sheet for the chemicals you are working with and take the correct precautions. I had a lot of respect for the other scientists that I worked with in the lab and so when I was taught how to make up a buffer by another PhD student I accepted that despite the terrible stench caused by this chemical it must not be harmful in this amount as they made this up regularly on the bench. However later on in my PhD I realised that this chemical is not nice to be inhaled and the buffer should be made in a fume hood, showing that you should double check advice you are given by others in the lab. If a chemical smells bad use a fume hood, to be polite to others in the lab but also as it is probably toxic.
  • If you are not trained to do something don’t do it even if someone is pressuring you. During my PhD I had an occasion where I ended up working with chemicals that required attendance to a training course and also required you to wear an monitoring device. I was under the impression that I was going to be aiding in the experiment by carrying out other work that did not require handling of this chemical and the other scientist who had been trained would be doing these steps. However when the day arrived the scientist showed me how to use the chemical once briefly talked me through the use of double gloves, observed me carry out one step, then left. Leaving me alone in the lab. This situation made me very uncomfortable but I felt I had to go along with it as otherwise I would be seen as making a fuss and as not being competent. I carried out the experiment and I was lucky everything was fine. However in hindsight I was not trained so it was not safe of me to agree to do this at the time, though I did go on to get trained at a later date. The scientist in question regularly used this chemical and because of this had developed a blasé attitude as things so rarely go wrong. You need to trust your own judgement of situations and not go along with other peoples poor lab practice.

I have used these examples to try and demonstrate that though you will not be coming across unsafe working conditions every day in your PhD you will at some point in the PhD process as human error and poor judgement happens to even senior scientists. It is best to be aware of this from the outset so that you know how to respond when it does occur, its too easy to automatically say yes when an person in authority asks you to do something, but instead remember you can say no, ask why, or question the safety of what they are asking of you.

I guess in the end my message to you all is:  Trust no one, question everything, be a realist, don’t get pressured into doing something you don’t feel comfortable with and in the end look after yourself. By doing this hopefully you will feel safe doing your PhD and avoid putting yourself at any unnecessary risk.

 

 

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How to celebrate submitting your Thesis

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Enjoying drinks with friends

So the thesis is finally submitted! You feel relived its finally done so now its time to celebrate!

But submitting your thesis can be an odd occasion to know how to celebrate.

Common issues that can get in the way of celebrating are:

  • You are too tired to properly celebrate.
  • Your PhD friends are still writing up so are not available to celebrate with you.
  • You feel like you are not officially done as you are still waiting for the viva date and result and the official point at which you become a doctor.
  • After months of focused work you feel at a loss at what to do now you actually have the choice.
  • You feel uncertain about the future as the PhD has ended and there is a new start ahead, which can be exciting and scary.
  • The process of producing the thesis was such a arduous task that its tough to come up with a big enough celebration to compensate for the months of work.

 

Advice on how to celebrate:

  • Don’t hold back on celebrating NOW, many people find that the hand in feels more like the end of their PhD than the viva.
  • Do whatever you feel like doing do not get pressured into anything due to the expectations of others.
  • Don’t put pressure on yourself to do all your celebrating on the day you hand in, the celebrations can be spread across the following week (possibly even the following month).
  • Do something to help relax you into your new hopefully calmer life. I really recommend a massage.
  • Contact friends and family to organise dates to meet up and toast your achievement.
  • With friends that are still writing organise a future date when you are all finished to celebrate together.
  • Possibly treat yourself to a little shopping spree or buy something to mark the occasion.
  • Go to your favourite restaurant or bar.
  • Go to a ‘newly’ opened (while you were too busy writing) restaurant or bar.
  • Spend time with friends and catch up.
  • Consider a change of scene, be this a foreign holiday or just a trip home or to visit friends for a weekend.
  • Let yourself rest, have at least a week of not thinking about what the future holds or what jobs you need to apply for, just try and relax in the moment and recuperate.

Personally, I was initially ecstatic when I handed in my Thesis but had no idea what I wanted to do first.

In the end I ate, drank, got a  massage, slept, went to the pub, had my friends over for the weekend, saw my mum, then started getting ready for a cheap break to Spain to get some last minute sun!

Hope everyone has a great time celebrating, I would love to hear what you did to mark the moment, I bet there are some really novel celebrations that I would never think of.

 

How to submit your Thesis!

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On Monday 19th September 2016 I handed in my PhD Thesis!

When I handed in my thesis it felt like a physical weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

About 6 months of writing produced a single sided thesis that weighed as much as a baby.

Final tips for handing in 

  • Merge the document- I was lucky and word merged my chapters and endnotes fine. The endnotes took about 30 minutes but my laptop didn’t crash like people had warned. The only other thing was all my tables lost their outline but that was easy to add back in using the style tab. Leave a day for merging.  A helpful youtube video about merging documents in word is https://youtu.be/MYIfVpjjdU8       
  • Print it on a weekend if possible, I printed mine at the weekend, there was no one else around, so no interruptions by someone pausing your print job. Also hide away some printing paper before hand so you don’t run out. Don’t stress if printer goes crazy a few times, it will work in the end. It took me over 2 hours.
  • Read the submission documents for your university. At Nottingham this meant you handed in two soft bound copies of your thesis with a cd with the pdf of your final thesis too. (Save as pdf from word drop down). Also print and bind a copy for yourself to take to the viva.
  • Double check where you hand it in, again in Nottingham this is at the student services building.
  • If possible get someone to come with you while you wait for thesis binding (1 hour at Nottingham print shop) get a coffee and start to process what you are about to achieve.
  • Get your friend to take a picture of you and your thesis, it’s a momentous day and should be recorded for you.
  • Hand it in, don’t get your hopes up about the people in student services,  even though you are obviously and openly elated to be handing your thesis in it is very rare that they will have any concept of what this achievement means and may be quite grumpy.
  • Get a receipt! Make sure you keep this in case they misplace your thesis.
  • Feel the tension fade away.
  • Go and celebrate, however don’t put pressure on yourself if you are exhausted -the celebrating can continue for at least a week! Also it can take a while for the feeling to fully sink in.
  • Enjoy your first amazing sleep in 6 months.
  • Ring student services a few days later to check your thesis is being processed correctly and is being sent to your examiners.

Less than 3 weeks till thesis hand in

Under 3 weeks till thesis hand in!

In fact my plan is to submit my thesis in 11 days… with the extra week as a buffer in case something goes wrong, like I get ill or my computer finally says enough is enough and goes on strike.

Hopefully neither of these things happen.

Currently my thesis is 99,118 words, with hopefully not too many words left to add and not too many left to edit. So at least I can relax about the word count now.

This week I have been rewriting and editing the first results chapter I wrote back in February. This was a slightly bigger task than I had anticipated as I had not explained myself as clearly as I had originally imagined and some of the figures needed to be improved to fit in the style of the others I had since used in my Thesis. However this chapter is now almost finished.

Almost finished!

‘Almost finished’ is something that I am saying or thinking all of the time at the moment. This state of ‘almost finished’ is an interesting one, how do you define it? It all depends on what you personally regard as an 100% finished piece of work.

My expectation of the acceptable quality of a submitted thesis will most probably vary to another students idea. Possibly another student may even consider my thesis ‘done’ already by their standards.

After the long slog of thesis writing I am starting to accept that I may end up handing in my thesis without it reaching my goal of what a 100% completed thesis is. Simply because I don’t have anymore time and that I am probably my own worst critic.

And in reality this is OK, the thesis I hand in will not actually be the final copy, my examiner will give my corrections (its very rare to get none) so in fact the thesis I had in that I feel needs to be 100% finished is still actually still only a work in progress.

I hope reading this helps everyone push there mindset from almost there to its as done as its ever going to be so we can all get ready to submit these books!

Aim for this week

Get the draft back from supervisor and incorporate any changes. Proof read and do cross referencing.

My advice for the imminent deadline

Try being less critical of your work

Let go of perfectionism at this point in writing up

Focus on the big things that need doing or changing and forget about the small stuff

 

 

 

4 weeks till thesis hand in

This week has been really weird.

Something about it becoming September this week made me realise how close to the end I am and how it’s not much long till I am free!!!!

So this felt great and I was briefly on a high, telling everyone it’s not long to go now!

It motivated me to work some very long days despite being exhausted in the hope of making hand in happen even sooner.

But then reality hit me in the form of a really long to do list I wrote and my discussion taking slightly longer than I’d hoped it would.

These two things were enough to make me feel overwhelmed and realise there was still more work and struggling ahead.

It’s tough to acknowledge this but these last week weeks are probably going to be really hard.

The reason I didn’t finish my discussion as quickly as I hoped was because I was worn out. I had worked myself in to the ground in the days before driven by the tantalising hope that I could submit early, and it caught up with me.

It’s good to remember that writing a thesis is a long process and the best way to complete it without having a breakdown is to pace yourself.

In those days of intensive work I barely moved from my desk and powered myself on icing and coffee. It worked temporarily but it’s not sustainable.

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I realised I needed to relax but I couldn’t because I felt guilty whenever I was not working on my thesis. I couldn’t chill out watching tv or reading a book as my mind kept thinking THESIS. Eventually  I decided I needed to do something active and headed to the gym.

I have finally realised why many busy stressed people make time for the gym, it gets you out of you own head and makes you concentrate on your body and your breathing. I would recommend it if anyone’s struggling at the moment.

This week has reminded me the importance of managing the write up in a healthy way. The Thesis writing will take over your life a bit but you still have to make an effort to get some time away from it!

My advice

  • Pace yourself
  • Go outside
  • Head to the gym to get rid of stress and thesis thoughts
  • Be a realist about these final weeks being hard, we haven’t quite reached the summit yet

(but we are almost there!)

 

 

 

5 weeks till thesis hand in- exhaustion 

So 5 weeks to go and I’m exhausted!

Word count:  Unknown (hopefully under 100,000)

This exhaustion is not just about lack of sleep,  it is a state of mind and overall sense of fatigue with the project. Its a weird feeling as the thesis so near to being finished but still needs that final push to get final version together.

Difficulties with finishing a thesis

There are many difficult aspects to finishing a thesis, currently I am struggling with the monotony.

The process of writing and editing every day is getting too monotonous as I am discussing the same theories that I have been writing about for 5 months in slightly different ways- this makes it hard to stay engaged.

Also I have lots of ‘tidying up’ left to do. Mostly this consists of doing the things I didn’t fancy doing properly at the time properly now. So rough diagrams or semi completed tables now have to be re-visited.

All the little things 

When I started the write up process my to do list was simple- write a thesis,that grew as I started to break it down in to chapters and subheading, then that list started being ticked off over the last 5 months.

But now there is a new list, where  originally  there was:

  • print thesis
  • hand in thesis
  • party

This has expanded to:

  • merge the word files,
  • edit the references,
  • find great printing settings for microscope images
  • compile extra supporting data files
  • find printer in the library that you trust
  • print thesis
  • check the printing quality of the thesis
  • re-print thesis?
  • find embargo form
  • bind thesis
  • hand in thesis
  • Party!!

All these little things have the potential to be tricky and are always more difficult to get to grips with when you are tired and a little bit desperate for it to be finally completed!

 

 

Aim for this week

This week I need to write my overall discussion and finish my results chapter 5.

My advice

  • Write out a timetable for the next 35 days, allow at least 3 days clear in the run up to the deadline to allow for illness or other issues.
  • In this timetable write out all the little things you have to do and add to this as you inevitably remember things that you had originally forgotten about.
  • Check that your supervisor knows your planned hand in date, as they probably expect to see the final version and check it briefly before they let you hand it in.
  • Try and visualise how it will feel once you have handed in to get that final bit of motivation.
  • Perhaps even book something to look forward to such as a holiday after your hand in date.

 

6 weeks till thesis hand in- Editing

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So I have finally got to that funny point when my overall word count is actually decreasing!

YES!!!

It is only a marginal decrease: Word count was: 97,000 last week and is now 96,460.

But I  completed writing my introduction during this week, so generated about 5,000 new words- but still ended up with less words, think I am getting the hang of editing!

If anything I am getting too ruthless with editing, I am getting an odd rush from pressing the delete button! Whereas when I first started I was agonising over deleting sections which I could remember originally writing.

I don’t know quite how I have managed to transition into a word cutting machine but here are some ideas:

  • I have finally read my complete thesis enough times to have a vague idea of when I am repeating myself- so can cut words with more confidence than before.
  • I have kept asking myself what does the examiner need to know? As this is very different to ‘things I think are really interesting’ or going into so much depth that the point you are making is no longer clear.
  •  The pressure of the deadline is finally getting to me and I no longer have time to dither over a sentence- if its not delivering important information it is immediately cut.

Aim for this week

This week I am going to be editing my discussion sections for each chapter. At the moment they read like a free flow of ideas and this really needs structuring and reining in to more precise hypothesises. I’m hoping tidying this up will lose me a few more words and that the thesis will become a bit clearer for it.

My advice

  • Keep asking yourself what does my examiner need to know? When you are writing. Doing this at the time and controlling what you write may save you time later.
  • When you get to this point in your write up keep regularly reading over your ‘work in progress’ Thesis. As even though you are sick of reading it it does help with editing – perhaps try to read it once a week.
  • Take a deep breath and press delete.