How to pick your PhD project

Once you have decided you want to carry on doing scientific research the next question is:

What area am I going to do my PhD in and how am I going to pick a project?

This is a big decision as the subject of your PhD will be the main focus of your working hours for the next 3-4 Years! So it is important to pick a research project that you find fascinating.

But having a successful and enjoyable PhD depends on more than just the research topic. The supervisor, lab set up, colleagues and funding situation are all key factors, which if selected carefully can improve the experience of your PhD.

There are differences between PhD adverts in the UK with some PhDs being linked with a direct PhD project and supervisor and others being adverts for general Doctoral Training Programs in broad subject areas.

It is quite hard to get a feel for what a PhD project will be like from just the advert, you can tell if you are interested in the area of research, then you have to carry out some detective work.

If looking at a PhD at a different university to your undergraduate one, try and find out about the supervisor and research group from your current network of lectures and tutors.

Once you are invited to interview, you should get a tour of the lab and opportunity to talk to some of the current members of the group, this is the best opportunity to learn what working here would really be like.

Top questions to ask

  • What do you like best about the lab?
  • Do you socialise outside the lab?
  • How busy is the supervisor?
  • Have you been on any conferences?
  • Do you socialise with any of the other lab groups on this floor?
  • What stage of your PhD/Post Doc are you?

But overall this is only a 30-60min conversation, where you are not able to grill them as you are still trying to make a good impression because you are still being informally interviewed.

So is there a better way to choose your PhD project?

Maybe, the BBSRC Doctoral Training Program at University of Nottingham offers a broad range of bio-science projects, then you can pick 3 of these labs to do a mini project related to the 3 advertised PhDs. These mini projects last ~8 weeks and provide an opportunity for you to find out about the people and environment you could be conducting your PhD in. With the idea being that you can try before you buy and develop some useful lab techniques along the way!

What to look out for in your rotation projects

The 8 weeks gives you more time to gradually build up a picture of the real working environment of that lab group and allows you to compare experiences in different lab groups to help you pick where you fit in best. Here are some of my key areas to watch:

  • People: How many people are in the lab, what stages of study or post doc are they at, will they be leaving soon or keeping you company through most of your PhD?
  • Support: Is there any technical support? Is there enough room and equipment in the lab for you and everyone else to work productively? Have people been involved and taught you techniques in the lab?
  • Work/life dynamic: Pay close attention to the ‘condition’ of the later stage PhD students, some signs of exhaustion are to be expected but if they are demotivated and a bit broken this can be a warning sign. Don’t just put this down to inevitable stress, this may be a sign of a dysfunctional lab. Do they go for coffee breaks and socialise outside the lab?
  • Supervisor: How often is the supervisor around? Is it easy to schedule a meeting? Are there regular lab meetings? Be aware that as a rotation student extra ‘one on one’ time with you may be being factored in to persuade you to pick their project. So remember to consider the time that the other students and staff are receiving, as this will be more likely your PhD experience. Also think about the supervision style of the supervisor as this may not match your own personality, for example do they micro-manage or provide too little direction for you personally?
  • Vibe: What is the general feeling in the lab and lab members, is it friendly? Try and get them to speak freely about the good and bad parts of their PhD, if they only tell you good things they are probably under instructions from the supervisor not to scare you away- which may be a negative sign, as perhaps there are aspects of the lab dynamic that are being hidden. Another area to watch is how anxious people get before lab meetings, this should be a productive space to talk about your work, but in a badly managed lab can become a place of over the top criticism and public humiliation.

Even after 8 weeks of immersion in a lab it is difficult to predict how the next 3 ½ years will pan out, but it gives you a better chance of finding a lab that fits you. Hopefully having a PhD project on a topic fascinating to you paired with having the correct environment and people around you can help get you all the way successfully through your PhD and make in a more enjoyable process.

PhD Thesis corrections: How to get them done and dusted!

So you have had your Viva and have finally passed your PhD!

Well done! Go and celebrate!

But we all know that thoughts of the corrections are lurking- try and suppress these thoughts for a few days.

What type of corrections have you got?

3 Months 

The most common result of a Viva is 3 months corrections. This means there really isn’t too much wrong with the Thesis, which is great, but it still means you have to open it up again.

Common changes:

Formatting, typos, additional explanation/clarification, minor alteration of figures, in some cases editing, occasionally re-writing a page or so of the discussion.

1 Year 

Our University has recently removed the 6 months option which means if the examiner thinks the corrections may take longer than 3 months, the next option is 1 year! This can alter your perception of the amount of work that needs to be done quite a lot. It might be that the changes are similar to the ones mentioned above, just that the number of these changes are greater. Or it could be that the examiner wants some data shown in a different way or takes a different view on a set of results, meaning multiple changes in the discussion to reflect this. These changes are not necessarily hard but may take time and if you are working full time may take more than the 3 months. So do not be deterred by 1 year for corrections, you will probably complete them in less.

Should you start your corrections quickly or wait?

Personally it took me 3 weeks to get started on my corrections.

I felt this worked quite well and would recommend it. It gave me time to celebrate properly and have a relax. It also gave time for my examiner to send me the full correction list ( I had a bullet point list given to me at the end of the Viva of the main changes) and for my letter to arrive from the University.This contained both my internal and external examiners reports- this allowed me to have a better idea of what they thought of the thesis, so I could understand my corrections better.

How do you force yourself to start?

I had a good Viva but by this point I was bored of my Thesis. I had revised from it in the 3 weeks leading up to the Viva and worked on it for months previously. After my 3 hour chat about it I felt well and truly done with it!

For me after the 3 weeks of ignoring the corrections, I started to feel a little worried. I thought perhaps these will take longer than I have estimated, I’ve got a Job now maybe it will take the whole 3 months!

This made me look at them and work out a timetable for getting them done!

I was lucky that the Christmas Holidays were coming up so I scheduled to do a lot of work then, I did a bit but not as much as planned and just enjoyed Christmas. January arriving fired me up, I was not having corrections hanging over me in 2017!

Because of not using the holidays as much as planned I had to do corrections in the evenings and on the weekends, which is a pretty common situation, but is still difficult to find the motivation after a full day of work.

In total it took me about 10 days of work but scattered around rather than working solidly. Its difficult to force yourself to do it but you just have to keep telling yourself how close you are.

I would recommend making a timetable and having an extra incentive to be finally done.

Also it is important to factor in allowing your internal examiner time to look over your corrections and approve them for final submission.

Many universities no longer require a hardbound copy of your thesis which takes the stress of printing out of the equation, with just a simple PDF upload to do instead.

But it does feel good to get the hardbound copy done. I wouldn’t wait too long after getting your corrections approved to do this step as otherwise ending the PhD process gets dragged out and I know many researchers that even after 3 years of  post doc haven’t yet found time to get their Thesis bound.

 

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Hardbound copy of the Thesis means time to celebrate!

Overall 

Finishing a PhD is a long process with many end points, finishing lab work, finishing a first draft, handing in the Thesis, having a Viva but handing in corrections is the true end point on the journey.

 

WELL DONE EVERYONE FOR FINISHING!

(and if you are not quite finished yet know that it is possible!)

 

What to expect in the PhD Viva: My Experience

So after all those experiments and months of writing you are finally facing the most daunting step in the PhD process, The Viva.

The idea of the viva can be pretty scary to a PhD student (it was to me). There are plenty urban legends about terrible vivas and horrible examiners to put you off and make you very nervous about you own.

And though there are plenty of articles out there saying what a great experience a viva can be, when you are preparing for a viva you can be very skeptical of these articles. In hindsight though they weren’t far off what happened for me.

My Experience (on 28th November 2016)

My own personal experience of the viva was very positive,  it still felt like a test but the time passed quickly (3hrs) and none of the questioning felt confrontational. At points when I didn’t know any more on a subject we just moved on. At some points it was a very fluid and flexible conversation between me and both examiners about some of the constraints that are currently in our area of research.

The Process 

  • First my examiners put me and ease by explaining how the next few hours would progress and which chapters we would spend more time on and which we would discuss briefly.
  • Then we had some more settling questions about why I picked this PhD, what did I do on my other PhD rotations, what did I do for my placement and what am I up to next.
  • After that we started on the introduction, there were questions on the two main aspects of my thesis, the bacteria I worked on and the signalling molecule I focused on. In my case there were no direct questions about identifying specific ideas from specific papers, just questions where you were summarizing or expanding on general things you had written in the intro.
  • We skipped the methods chapter complete (which appears quite common from talking to other students, but I had prepared to be quizzed about them) and methods were discussed when talking about particular results as we went through.
  • Then onto the results chapters…

Examples of questions I was asked

  • What value do you think is high enough to to be considered a significant interaction?
  • Did you think of doing X / why couldn’t you do X?
  • What other control could you have done/ what would have been a better control?
  • What was the aim of that mutation?
  • Talk me through these set of results (to clarify difficult or confusing results).
  • Explain how you set X up and what sort of error could you encounter?
  • Could you have done a scatter chart to show distribution of values, rather than relying on the average?
  • Talk me through your proposed hypothesis and explain why you have proposed it.
  • Could you have used software to do this?
  • How easy is X  to count or define?

And many other questions I can no longer remember!

Then closing question:

What would you focus on next?

I liked this question and felt it allowed the viva to end well as there were many potential experiments to investigate the work further.

The wait 

I was sent out of the room and about 10-15 minutes later go back in, have my hand shaken and am told ‘congratulations’.

We then sit down and briefly discuss:

  • My performance in the viva and the overall quality of the thesis. I was very happy that they said it was obvious it was my own work and that I had worked hard on it.
  • Then on to the 3 month corrections, my external examiner had prepared a list of 6 bullet points, this included some typos, some cross referencing, formatting the reference list, adding detail to some figure legends, making some figures larger, checking the scale bars on some images.

However am told my internal will send a full list later.

How I felt after the viva

I disagree with a lot of the stuff out there that says it’s an anticlimax. For me this had been the last hurdle of my PhD journey and I was so glad for it to be over it. I couldn’t stop smiling.

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Holding my Thesis with pride after the Viva

It’s a difficult one to know how to celebrate, I was fairly low key on the day but it didn’t matter to me as I was just so happy.

And the first thought the next morning was that it was done, the viva was done, the PhD was done and that I had done enough! This was accompanied with such a sense of relief. I felt a sense of total freedom- even more so than when I handed in the thesis. As though handing in felt good there was still part of my brain holding back as I knew it wasn’t quite the end.

Some may argue it is still not the end as there are corrections and I agree. But for the following week after my viva I found it easy to block out the thought of corrections and enjoyed using the title of Dr.

Tips and Advice for Viva day 

  • Start re-reading thesis about 3 weeks before if you have a full time job.
  • Try and stop preparing at about 6pm the night before.
  • Get your outfit and materials  ready.
  • Spend the evening relaxing or do something active if you  are having trouble relaxing.
  • Make sure you eat breakfast.
  • Know where you have to wait.
  • Remember that the examiner is not their to trick you and they are not looking to fail you.

Good luck!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

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!)