5 valuable lessons I have learnt over my PhD
I’m now coming to the end of my candidature. I’ve nearly made it! Looking back at the three-year journey I have made plenty of mistakes along the way. But importantly, from these mistakes, I’ve learnt lots of valuable lessons. So, I thought I’d share 5 of the more important lessons I’ve learnt in the hopes that they will help some of RAID’s readers.
So, here we go! On to lesson number one…
#1 Never make assumptions
My supervisor has said to me from the get-go: “Never make assumptions, or off goes your head and on goes a pumpkin”. I think this particularly applies to anyone in research. Some of the most significant delays in my studies have been because of a false assumption.
Actually, I think this particularly applies to anyone in animal research. Animals never behave like you tell them to. For example:
“I think this chicken feed is suitable, the chickens should eat it, I don’t think they will flick it.”
Nope. Feed flicked everywhere.
“Yes, I think the chickens are much too big to escape from these cages.”
Nope, chickens everywhere.
“Hmm… I miscalculated the amount of glucose that dissolves in hot water. That’s okay, I’ll just leave it to cool for now and give it a good shake to suspend the un-dissolved glucose before I use it”.
F.Y.I. That is how you make rock candy. And spend an afternoon cleaning a beaker.
#2 Always arrive (to the location of an interview, important meeting, etc.) at least 5 minutes early
I think my supervisor is right again here. Or at least, I assume he is.
Ugh, already broke lesson #1…
Punctuality is important, especially if you want to make a good first impression. Turning up late to an important meeting or interview will not be in your favour. But there is another added bonus to arriving slightly early. You can stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and take in your surroundings which is a great help if you are like me and get lots of butterflies! Same goes for presentations if possible. I like to scout the room out beforehand to get a feel of where is best to stand and what the projector set-up is like.
#3 Talk to strangers about your research
When I first started my PhD, I would lament people asking me what I did for a living. Don’t get me wrong- I am very proud of my research and I have enjoyed my time as a PhD candidate! I just found it quite exhausting having to try to explain that I research chicken nutrition. Which I appreciate is not something that the average person would hear very often, despite it being the most popular meat consumed in Australia.
But here lies a wonderful opportunity. Being able to simply and succinctly describe your research is an extremely important skill to have. Having that elevator pitch ready will be helpful in many situations; be it during an interview, at a conference, if you happen to find yourself in a lift with the dean, or just trying to update your family on your research progress over dinner. So any time someone asks you what you do, don’t just say “I’m a PhD student”, try and describe your work as simply as you can in a sentence or two. It is a great challenge and will help to remind you of the meaning/objective/direction of your research, which is just all too easy to stray from!
#4 You gotta’ be in it to win it
Over the first year of my PhD, I would occasionally see advertisements for competitions or extra-curricular opportunities in the student newsletters. Curious, I’d click on them and read the description. It wouldn’t be long before I read something like “Looking for an outstanding PhD candidate”, “Global research impact” or “Exciting/Fascinating research” and would decide within seconds that I was probably not good enough to enter and close the page.
The truth is, my research and I would have suited these competitions just fine. I, like many students, lacked confidence in my own ability. I admit it can be challenging to have loads of confidence when you are just starting out and don’t have the illustrious 50 or 100 publications that more experienced researchers have. But you have to start somewhere, and ultimately the only person that will champion yourself and your career is you.
I am not sure what triggered it, but one morning I overcame the insecurities and lack of confidence I was feeling. Skimming through my emails, I saw a speech competition that looked like an excellent opportunity. All the negative thoughts and pangs of anxiety about public speaking rushed into my head as usual; “you’re not good/interesting enough for this”. But then I thought “what the heck, I’ll apply, no harm in that”. And to my surprise, I got in. And not only did I get in, but I also did pretty well, learnt a lot and had a great time participating! After that I didn’t look back- I started applying for everything I could feasibly fit in around my research (can’t jeopardise your thesis!). Occasionally I’d win, occasionally I’d lose, but I always came out of the experience with a better understanding of my research, experience, or skill. So, next time you see a student competition, don’t hesitate- you CAN do it, and it will be a great experience!
Heck, I even got to meet the real R2D2!
(If you haven’t guessed it already, that is me holding the chicken of course!)
This leads me to my last lesson.
#5 Speaking of public speaking…
Having got some new-found confidence, I must have applied to six different speech competitions in the one year and gave many, many presentations. When I started my PhD, public speaking was not at all my strong suit, and I dreaded it. But as I practised, I certainly improved, and to my surprise, I really started to enjoy it! For me, I can say all the hard effort finally paid off when I won the award for most outstanding student presentation at a conference earlier this year, which I had been aspiring to win throughout my entire candidature.
Look at that- I swear if I smiled any harder my face would explode.
Ignoring the unsure thoughts and just going for it really changed the last year or two of my candidature for the better, and I sure am glad I took that first big leap out of my comfort zone. So what are you waiting for? You know that opportunity you saw recently in your emails? Go for it- take that big first step- apply to it today and be amazed by what you can learn and achieve!!