Welcome to the research world! - What I do as a PhD student
Jul 4, 2020 9:25:17 AM by Vina Putra
6 months into this PhD program and I am enjoying it more than ever!
Things have really transformed to go at a slower rate because of COVID, but my world still revolves fast. I like how my role now has the element of both studentship and employeeship, and that's the best part of being in a PhD program.
You are a student as you are still continuously learning and grasping all the skill and knowledge, but you are also a staff as you work professionally side by side with other researchers, you share the same equipment, facilities; you are being trained and giving training on certain protocols. As you are working on a project, you are a project personnel who is legally included in safe working procedures (SWPs), ethics, or grants. So there comes your legal worker rights and responsibility.
"Necessities are the mother of invention", as my supervisor told me and I thought that cannot be any more true. As we hit the fourth month of working from home (most of the time), my need to learn, develop and progress in my first year PhD have brought me to setting a new goal for myself. This includes writing a blog, a story, a paper, a column, eventually a book... well, it is good to aim high 😁
So if you are curious, here are the top things that I do regularly as a PhD student:
1. Write, write, write
Yes, the earlier you start, the better!
Many people have told me this even before I started, that it is never too late to write and work on your thesis. I really agree with this suggestion because writing takes time, and ideas or concept changes throughout your research depending on the results of your experiments. Also, you need to write to publish. So writing is a continuous process during PhD and an essential activity in research as later in your career, you need to write reviews, reports, grants, ethics application, references for your proteges, peer review for other publication, and many other form of writing required to maintain your position in research. Writing all these requires experience, focus, and expertise. I believe it comes with practice and a lot of reading!
In the first year, I am required to write a literature review, a document that provides the background of my research. My literature review has to critically review other relevant articles out there, compare them, and propose a new avenue that I will potentially do in my research to address the given problem. In biomedical engineering, often a project shares disciplines that covers much towards science or medicine, or also much physics, mechanics, or the engineering subjects. The challenge here is to write a review that bridge the two worlds, that can be understood by readers from all fields. We have indeed bioengineers, biophysicists, materials / tissue engineers who are the potential audience of my review. In this case, I will have to really know how much definition should I provide to explain a concept without being too much, while also using the right terms (avoid jargon!)
2. Manage my own project
As a Scientia PhD, I entered the program with a predetermined project from my supervisor. The project is a continuation of decades of research done in my supervisor's lab. The idea and body of work have been well established, and my role here is to contribute a new approach of addressing the remaining questions while still adhering to methods previously done. Here I have the freedom to seek ways, to plan, and manage my own experiments. I get to divide the work in a timeline, or based on the available resources. Also, if other students join in as collaborator, I get to decide who is working on what because I am the project manager!
3. Plan and conduct experiment independently
Having my own project means I have the responsibility to plan and conduct my experiment independently. I decide on the repeats, the set ups, the amount of resources required, basically the whole study design, but of course under the consultation with my supervisor. The decision to conduct experiment now or later also depends on me; my judgement on the situation, the resources, and other supporting factor. My principle is to think carefully before doing experiment, really analyse the findings before doing the repeats, reach out to other researchers to troubleshoot, etc, while also meeting the milestone in your project management plan.
4. Liaise with students or staffs and get training on technical procedures
Working in a big research university, resources and facilities are often central. This means that many researchers and student of other labs/groups have the rights to use the same facilities, with equipment that are otherwise too expensive to afford. Also, equipment such as cell sorter, microscopes with different technology that cost hundreds of thousands dollars, requires people to get trained properly. The central facility also serves as a budgeting strategy for the university while still nurturing the research and promoting publication. To use certain equipment often I have to liaise with people across faculties. Getting to know people in the research division also allows knowledge exchange, skill transfers, and experience gains. Most importantly, by following a central procedure, we sure know that our protocol is standardized and contributes to the integrity of the research.
5. Organize meeting with supervisor and project team
I meet with my supervisor weekly and it feels like an adequate time. We usually update each other about our week and the plans for the following week. I also organize meeting with other members of the project, like students, collaborators. The frequency of meeting depends on the work load. Sometimes daily meeting is required when working on a paper or closer to a deadline. At most times, supervisors tend to be busy, so it is good to decide how often you should meet and communicate clearly your intention to get all the support you need. Clearly, the challenge here is communication. Especially, my 3 supervisors come from different disciplines and have varied communication styles. Interpersonal skills are crucial to maintain communications with them and I am too still learning to better engage with them, and not write too awkward sounding e-mails. At the end of they day, the supervisors are people who you will look up to, and inspire you the style of doing research and positioning yourself within the research community. Remember, one day you too will be research leader and you want to fully learn for your supervisors to do this.
4. Organize a literature club
This activity is my most favorite one and I thank my supervisor for suggesting me this. Every week I invite my supervisors my initiated discussion on an interesting paper. It gives me the opportunity to read and take key points from many relevant publications which go hand-in-hand with my review writing. Also, it makes the task of reviewing paper easier. It requires techniques to effectively understand a paper (the aim, methods and key finding) in a short time, to know whether it is worth reading further. I do this by allowing 1-2 minutes to skim just the abstract, flip though the end paragraph of intro that usually has the aim, check the flow of methods, and the conclusion. I usually am very attracted by new cutting edge methods and twisted results that turned out to be the opposite of what the community has hypothesized. Once I identify the papers that kinda answer my questions, I put them in a table in order and listed the topic they address one by one. So that's how I make a good paragraph, and sort my favorite papers.
5. Attend and take parts in group, school or faculty seminars
The school organizes seminars regularly where post-docs and students take turns giving talk about their research. Sometimes guest lecturers are invited. Often, seminars held in faculty of medicine, bio science, chemical or materials engineering are advertised. I get to benefit from attending various seminars that I see resourceful for my own work. This experience is also about learning how to give a talk and communicate your research effectively to public. The first and easiest way to practice and get feedback is through presentation in front of your group, the people who are working in the same field and highly likely speak the same field language as you. As you advance your understanding, next is to tailor your content to a broader audience. Think creatively about ways you present data, and convey message across, like analogy, animation, graphical representation, because presenting texts and bar diagrams are so lame nowadays.
6. Organize and attend my progress review
In my university, PhD student attend a progress review annually. The first review is conducted 9-12 months after the start of the candidature, then the year after subsequently until the final year is reached. So, an ideal PhD timeline will contain first review to achieve confirmation, second progress review, third final review and thesis submission. It is in the first 3 years of reviews that you get the opportunity to argue and defend your methods, justify with the knowledge you have gained, and your experiment results. In my university, after thesis submission, it will usually take time for approval from all examiners and to receive outcome whether major revision is needed.
7. Attend conference (National and International)
The main goal of working continuously in the lab is not merely to get data. There should be a balance between collecting data and publishing data. We want to show the data to the public, and inform them, the researchers in the field about what we are working on. We want to take claim on our work, making sure that no one else is working on the same thing. This is why attending a conference serves a as platform for promoting your work. Besides the networking benefit, you get to learn from other people's work, their methods that may be more cutting edge and how your field of research is progressing. You could make friends with other future research leaders and the next thing you know, you keep coming every year to the same conference. That means you have already found the research community you'd like to be part of. Check out Nature's blog about interesting tips on how to benefit most from a conference!
8. Career development activities
This is actually a bonus point from being supported by a special scholarship. The Scientia scheme offers an extra $10,000 per annum to cover career development activities. The activities can vary depends on your career goals. For my development in academia, my activities include attending international conferences; visiting overseas research labs for collaboration or to learn specific techniques; taking professional courses in writing, publishing, and presenting; also in improving technicality in field specific research tools like coding, physics modelling, etc. The best thing about the Scientia scheme is the workshops offered tailored to your goals and you get special guidance from your career mentor supervisor. Scientia workshops range from publication strategy, mentoring and being a mentee, public speaking and networking. Sounds like check out further about the available Scientia projects and scheme here.
9. lab Demonstration or tutoring and marking assignments
This activity depends on your supervisor's approval and whether they teach any subject. Some supervisors are only dedicating their time for research and supervising research students. Some also teach in a particular term or semester per year. So if your supervisor teaches a subject, this task is highly likely distributed to the PhD students, which can include lab demonstration, marking, and even guest lecturing. When I was doing my master's thesis, I got the chance to help my professor to take part in her class and marks the students assignments and exams, together with other PhD students in the group. In return, I got paid by the school. The university also offers teaching program to any PhD students who wants to teach and develop career in teaching. So this is really nice opportunity to figure out the balance in research and teaching if you intend to do both later in your career and plus the extra earning on top of the scholarship :)
As you can see, my tasks as a PhD student are very dynamic and are not described in a contract. It is the academia culture that shapes these activities and reflects the expectation put on PhD student. The goals you set and achieve during your PhD are the manifestation of these activities, and whether you put 100% while doing them.
Things on this list can go on and you have the freedom to take on as many activities as you like. With freedom also comes self-discipline. University offers plenty of workshops, training, courses, study groups that match your interest and will help you achieve your goals whether you want to pursue further career in research or industry. Find your own rhythm and balance.
I hope this post is useful for you young budding researchers out there, the "soon to be" or "currently" a PhD student. Check out How I started my PhD journey to find out what I took to getting into research. Good luck!