Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The lab-based PhD survival guide: part two

Sophie Arthur is a 3rd year PhD student at University of Southampton studying embryonic stem cell metabolism. She is also involved in a variety of other scicomm activities – she is admin for a science bloggers database which you can join on Twitter @SciBlogHub and is also the publicist for the Pint of Science festival in Southampton this year – all of which you can stay updated on through her social media accounts. In today’s guest post, she shares some more tips and advice about doing a PhD in a lab environment in addition to those found in Part One.

If you want to see more about Sophie’s life as a lab-based PhD student, she writes a blog called Soph talks Science and is often showing insights into everyday lab life and attempts to break down those stereotypes associated with being a scientist on her social media accounts which you can follow in the links below:

I’m back with some more tips! After reading Volume 1, I realised I missed out some crucial advice so I just had to write a second volume of my lab-based PhD survival guide.
So, what did we learn from the first volume? You need to stay social, get talking about your research with anyone who will listen, do not be afraid to ask for help and, probably the hardest one to accept, just come to terms with the fact that experiments will inexplicably stop working more often than you think! If you missed them, check out my lab-based PhD survival guide part one.

But if the advice from Volume 1 has not helped you enough, here’s some more advice that will hopefully help you on your PhD journey.

Be super organised and super flexible.

Organisation is the key to doing a PhD – from organising your day, to organising your samples to organising your results and files. If you’re about to embark on this amazing journey that is doing a PhD – I implore you to start this right from the beginning. Your final year self will thank you! Now when I say be organised – I mean everything! I label every sample I get and number them, they are all stored in various boxes which are all labelled too. I have a spreadsheet with all the sample numbers, what those samples are and what box you will find them in plus the page numbers of my lab book that I collected those samples, processed those samples and used those samples in whichever experiment I needed to. That might sound like overkill! And it probably is! But it makes your work so much easier to follow! I also think it’s crucial to write down the lot number and catalogue numbers of the reagents you use – especially antibodies if you use so many like I do. It might explain an issue you encounter if you have changed lot recently. Every buffer you make up to – make a note of that in your lab book – it might explain a technical issue you’re having with your Western as you might have got the wrong pH buffer. Basically, let your lab book be your bible and keep it up to date! I usually do it at the end of every day before I go home.

Flexibility is not something every PhD student will have the luxury of – but it is one of the joys of doing a PhD in an academic lab. If you fancy starting at 10am and working later, or if you are an early bird and want to start at 7am and then be out of there by 3pm then you have the option to. But obviously – get your work done and don’t overdo it! There is no point in doing 10am-3pm every day and not getting the most out of your PhD experience. You also have to be accommodating for your lab mates needs too. You might need the same piece of equipment so communicate so you can stagger your start times, or reschedule your work for another day and do something else today!

A happy workspace is such a key influence.

I’m talking about your desk – at home or at work! Personalise it, surround it and fill it with pretty, inspirational and motivational things. However you decide you want your desk, maintain it! Because you don’t want to come out of the lab and then be faced with a messy, unorganised desk if you’re a tidy person for example. I try to keep my desk as de-cluttered as possible. All full lab books, my transfer thesis and previous writing, as well as protocols and reagent datasheets are all on the shelf above my desk. In the very near vicinity but not piling up in my workspace. The edge of that shelf is laced with post it notes of key things I need to reference quite often, like antibody dilutions and calculations I often use. There’s some motivational certificates that I’ve won and a few of my favourite photos to spur me on when those experiments have failed inexplicably yet again!

Now you will not be able to get through your PhD without a few desk essentials! I’m talking coffee (I’ve heard this gets most PhD students through the day although I don’t drink it myself!), a cute water bottle, funky pens, pencils and diaries and of course a reliable computer! Reliable is the key word there as it has got to last you 4 years in my case! Put some snacks in your desks drawers that are going to keep you going on those long late nights in the lab too! It is so important to have an area that is your own even if it is surrounded by other people in the office that is going to help you get to the end of that day and make the most of each and every day – because trust me those days will quickly become fewer and fewer and the pressure to finish and submit only gets bigger so you need an area that will help you work!

Headphones will be your saviour!

These are an essential part of being a PhD student in the lab, or even in the office if you need to shut out your noisy colleagues. Whether it’s music, podcasts or audiobooks you listen to, it can make even the most dull and tedious of tasks like loading a 384-well plate for qPCR or aliquotting 100 plus vials of that new growth factor that was delivered a breeze. Ideally, invest in some wireless headphones to avoid dragging your beakers, pipette tips and nasty chemicals across the bench and causing spillages and breakages all over the floor. I love listening to language podcasts whilst working to try and improve my linguistic skills so you can often find me wandering around the lab speaking French, asking where I can find the train station and ordering some roast beef! Noise-cancelling headphones are also useful for drowning out your lab mates when they’re being annoying – just kidding, I never do that I swear!

Keep your supervisors and lab mates on side!

Speaking of lab mates, keep them on Team You! That goes for all your supervisors too – no matter how difficult that may be!

The vast majority of lab mates will help you out you just need to ask them! They will also be the ones that train you in all the different experiments you need to learn – so please, please, please listen to them and I mean actually listen and take in what they are saying. They don’t expect you to know everything after just one time, but if you are asking them the same question for the sixth time in a row when they’ve asked you to write things down – they are going to get a bit peeved off! Also, make sure you do your lab chores to keep in your lab mates’ good books whether that is making up the Western blotting buffers, refilling the ethanol bottles, emptying the bins or restocking the stripettes drawer – just do it! It will make your life easier when it has all been restocked before you want to use it and your lab mates’ life easier! Keeping them on side will maintain that support network that they offer you. You can keep asking them questions about things you’re unsure of and they will share those tips and tricks for the experiments so you can keep those precious results coming – as well as all the non-lab advice about where the best restaurant is in town as they have been there longer than you!

If you have that support network, you must talk to them if you have any problems. No one can help you if they don’t know about an issue and then they think you’re a) not listening to them or b) not doing anything in the lab if you’re not producing any results – whether those results are good or bad it doesn’t matter! That tip extends to your relationship with your supervisor.

Your relationship with your PhD supervisor is undeniably one of the most important aspects of your PhD journey. Great supervisors are supportive and inspiring, and push you to grow and shape you into the scientist you were born to be! But as with most relationships – it’s a two way street! If you’re not pulling your weight in the lab to progress, then they are not going to stick their neck out to help you decipher a problem, discuss your work or give you advice on how to nail that conference abstract or get that dream job.

Luckily I only have two supervisors which makes my life far easier as they are less likely to disagree on which path to follow and what experiments to do next – and so it is easier to keep them all on side. But I still pull my weight and keep them updated on what I’ve been doing in the lab whether I have good news or bad news to share! Your supervisor will appreciate the communication and being kept in the loop. After all, they did all the work to write the grant and get the funding for you do to your research and they chose you to be a part of their lab! Don’t make them regret it!

 It is hard!

You will be pulling your hair out! You will be questioning why you started and you will be questioning if you can actually do it! Once again it is a normal part of the PhD journey. There are highs and there are lows, but unfortunately mainly lows. But when you get that one high and you get that break through, it is so incredibly worth all the hours, blood sweat and tears and you forget about all the dark days that got you to that point. Trust me!

The first few months of my PhD was testing out all the different antibodies I needed and optimising them for Western blots and immunocytochemistry. I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere because there were so many that didn’t work. But since then I’ve just got on with it and generated lots of interesting data which I’ve written up into a 220 page transfer thesis recently! You need to manage actually being in the lab, with reading to make sure you know about what advances there are in your fields of interest while trying to maintain your mental health and have a social life and any writing you may need to do for reports or theses or publications! There is always something you need to be juggling. You will panic at the beginning but by the end you will be a pro at prioritising and time management!

That support network I’ve mentioned before – it is essential to surviving a PhD. Colleagues, friends and family are all going to be there for you. So spend some time with them, take your mind of all things lab and listen to how much they want you to succeed and how much they are supporting you!

 Never compare yourself and your PhD to others

Much like your DNA is unique to you, your PhD is also unique to you! Each student, even within your own lab group, has different experiments to do and some of those experiments may take longer than yours or maybe not as long as yours. They might be doing an optimised method that is routinely used whereas you are developing a new technique from scratch. They seem to have so many more results than you. They have been to more conferences than you! The thoughts of self-doubt mounting and mounting!

All of that does not matter! You could write an entire PhD thesis full of experiments that revealed no new data. In fact, those results in themselves are new data and information because it is showing you that Protein A is not affecting Protein B for example. There will always be something useful that will come out of it.

I have been quite lucky in the fact that I feel I can organise myself and time manage quite well, so I am often reeling out Western blot after Western blot, and in addition to being very lucky in the fact that every avenue I have explored so far in my research has produced some really interesting data. But I’ve also seen fellow students in the lab have to wait months to get that first result. Now it might look bad if you weren’t in the lab all the time, but these guys are hard workers and it’s just the nature of their PhD that requires a longer time between getting results.

As long as you’re on top of the things you need to do for your thesis, then that should be your main focus and priority. Yes, help friends out if they need it, because you might want them to help you out at some point down the road too. But what results you have and what results they have are incomparable and not a reflection of your capabilities in the lab!

I’m not going to lie to you – those feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty will hit you hard at some point during your PhD journey, but they do eventually subside once you earn your metaphorical lab PhD stripes.

Before you know it your time in the lab will be up and you will be a Doctor! You will be an expert in your field and you would have gained so many other skills than just doing a PCR experiment or staining some cells. Stick at it, talk to people about lab stuff and things outside the lab, but most importantly enjoy the experience!

Friday, 14 April 2017

The lab-based PhD survival guide: part one

Sophie Arthur is a 3rd year PhD student at University of Southampton studying embryonic stem cell metabolism. She is also involved in a variety of scicomm activities – she is admin for a science bloggers database which you can join on Twitter @SciBlogHub and is also the publicist for the Pint of Science festival in Southampton this year – all of which you can stay updated on through her social media accounts. In today’s guest post, she shares some tips and advice about doing a PhD in a lab environment and how you can make it to the finish line.

If you want to see more about Sophie’s life as a lab-based PhD student, she writes a blog called Soph talks Science and is often showing insights into everyday lab life and attempts to break down those stereotypes associated with being a scientist on her social media accounts which you can follow in the links below:

A PhD is hard enough when you are fully prepared for what lies ahead. Let alone when you have no idea what to expect. I was one of those students. Being the first member of my family to go to university and coming from a small village ‘out in the sticks’ in the rural county of Pembrokeshire in Wales – I had no idea what to expect after finishing my undergraduate degree. I decided to embark on the adventure that is doing a PhD and accepted my position with little consideration about what it actually involved. Two months before I was due to start in 2014, I was scouring the internet to find some insights about what life as a PhD student in a research lab environment actually meant. But what did I find? Nothing. Nothing very insightful at least, just several accounts of previous PhD students saying it was hard! It was really hard! So, with the sole advice of how difficult the next four years of my life were going to be, I packed up and moved to Southampton to start my mission to become Dr. Arthur.

Two and a half years down the line, I have learnt so much about the PhD experience in a lab and wanted to fill that gap about lab-based PhD experiences so I set up my blog ‘Soph talks science’ to document different aspects of lab life and I thought I could share some advice for surviving a lab-based PhD on a platform like this aimed at current and prospective PhD students so they can be much more prepared than I was. So, here is my lab-based PhD survival guide. Some of these things will be applicable to PhDs in other fields, but they are things that have helped me survive Grad school.

Experiments will fail!

Probably not a great one to start off with but I believe it is the first thing you need to accept and come to terms with! I promise that it happens to all scientists no matter whether they are new to the lab research scene or they are a seasoned pro!

You would think that a routine experiment like a Western blot or a PCR reaction that millions of scientists use every day would be flawless and work every time right? Well you couldn’t be more wrong! Sometimes, something will work without a hitch a hundred times and then inexplicably just stop working! This usually happens when you need to get that final repeat to get a significant result or you need that last piece of the puzzle for your publication – so it is arguably the most frustrating thing about working in the lab! I’ve had the opportunity to teach some undergrad students during my lab time and they just can’t grasp it when I tell them that it happens sometimes and no one can explain why. What they don’t understand even more is that I don’t get down or caught up by it. I just start it again. I have had my fair share of experiments just not working for no reason and I have just learnt that it happens and there’s nothing I can do about it so I may as well just fix it by starting again!

As a fresh-faced PhD newbie, you will be watching other more senior PhD students around you doing it with ease – but I assure you that they were feeling exactly the same way as you have and they made as many mistakes as you and just have learnt from them! These failed experiments to not make you a bad scientist, in fact I truly believe they make you a better scientist because you learn to troubleshoot and be more creative with your experiments. So, when you see that blank agarose gel or hideously dirty Western blot, grieve for a few minutes and then figure out how to fix it!

You will need help

And don’t be afraid to ask for it either! Everyone around you wants to see you succeed and more than likely they have encountered the problem you’re having, so they can either help you out to fix it or they may have a handy top tip to avoid it happening again!

So many people go round trying to solve the problem themselves because they think they should do it alone! Don’t do that! Talk to someone about an issue you are having and there will be someone willing to listen and help you. What’s the point in wasting days reading about trying to solve your problem and getting really worked up over it when the person sat in the opposite corner to you in the office will have the answer? Plus, asking for help is so much better than ruining an experiment because you feel bad about disturbing someone.

 Get a hobby/non-lab friends

Basically don’t take your work home with you! And it also means that if you have plans outside of work, you won’t spend every hour under the sun in the lab. Now don’t get me wrong, there will probably be times where you need to be in the lab for 18 hours a day or have to come in at weekends or at 2am to take a time point reading – but do not let it become your routine. This lab experience does demand that you do other activities that helps your mind switch off from science, and think about other things! For me, this has been going to the gym which is a great stress reliever – the problem is just getting me to the gym in the first place – or watching some films and TV series lounging at home on the sofa.

You must take breaks – things can get on top of you if you’re always in the lab and you are allowed days off even if your supervisor would rather you be slaving away in the lab all day! Your PhD stipend might not stretch far enough to do some travelling but if you are amazing at budgeting then schedule these intentional PhD breaks with long weekends in cities throughout Europe or wherever is easiest for you. I have the time to do these trips but just wish I had the money to do it. But even if you can’t jet off to a foreign land, just taking a week off and spending it chilling at home will do you and your mental state a world of good! I’ve spoken to so many people who have taken solo trips and taken 2 weeks off before their final stint in the lab or before they started writing their PhD thesis, just to clear their minds and prepare for the next tasks ahead – and they have said that they don’t know how they would have finished if they had not taken that crucial break from the lab.

But in addition to getting some non-lab friends in the form of your new football team or travel buddy, get involved in your department and make some friends that work in the same place as you but not in the same lab! They may be able to hook you up with an antibody you are short of at 7pm and desperate to go home, or if you need some different cells as a positive control for your experiment – they are your go to sources – not that I’m speaking from experience. Now – I’m not saying that you should make these friends just to use them for your benefit as that would be slightly sociopathic – but it’s great to be a part of a supportive community. They are also great people to have lunch with instead of your lab mates in case ‘John’ is really irritating you today – and they also don’t work on the same things as you so you won’t have to talk about lab issues!

             Imposter syndrome is real!

I’ve heard a lot of talk about ‘imposter syndrome’ during my few years in grad school. Imposter syndrome is the belief that you don’t belong and you’re not clever enough to be here. But at the beginning – you are going to feel stupid. It’s normal! I’m in my third year of my PhD and the most senior PhD student in my lab now and I still feel stupid. But I feel a lot less stupid now than when I was a first year in the lab and everyone was talking science and troubleshooting in our weekly lab meetings and my eyes were just glazed over and panicking about how I would ever learn all this stuff. I used to watch the more senior students in my lab manage about 4 different experiments a day and all with ease whilst I used to get worked up about doing one Western blot. Now – I could easily be doing six or seven Western blots in a day whilst culturing my cells and something else whilst fitting it around various lab meetings and supervisor meetings! But I have learnt that everyone feels that way! Even the ‘smart kids’! It’s just part of the PhD journey – embrace it!

 Get involved in some scicomm/public engagement

Scientists are a notoriously anti-social demographic, but during my time in the lab I have realised just how important it is to talk about your research with the public. Now, I’m not saying you need to tell them about each and every gel you run or the results from your latest PCR. Tell them in simple terms what you do – you don’t want to scare everyone away with lots of science jargon – but more importantly you need to make them care about your research! Tell them why your research is important and how it will affect them!

Conveying my PhD which is basic mechanistic biology based research and involves a lot of metabolism and metabolic pathways that everyone hated in school, let alone however many years after they finished learning about it, was so difficult for me initially. I just couldn’t think of a way to tell my research story in simple terms without all the jargon. But during my second year of my PhD, I entered the 3 Minute Thesis competition; the challenge was to explain your research to a lay audience using one static slide in under 3 minutes. I thought for weeks and weeks about a simple concept and in the end I found my analogy – my stem cell hotel resort on top of a snowy mountain complete with mini bar. Now that probably doesn’t mean a lot to you there, but I’ve written about it in one of my blog post from February 2016 and I think it will make sense with everything else. But it was entering that competition that made me think a completely different way about how I could explain my research to the public and I haven’t stop there – I now write two blog posts a week about a variety of science-y things and I’m involved in the Pint of Science festival so follow me to keep up to date on those!

But I want to finish this section by just stressing how important I think science communication is! It is so crucial that the public knows the basics of what we are doing behind closed doors and what we want to achieve from this! If it comes from scientists directly, it cannot get misconstrued in the media for example. Plus I’ve always found that it helps me think about what my research means from a different perspective as you get asked all sorts of questions – so never underestimate the intelligence of your audience. They might help you out without them even knowing it! 

So, there it is! My five top tips to surviving a lab-based PhD. Now while this knowledge might make your PhD journey a little easier, unfortunately it is not going to make the next few years of your life much easier. You will still need to work hard to get out of it what you want – BUT hopefully they will help you to stay social and keep your sanity.

This time will fly I assure you! I feel like I only started a few months ago but I am finishing next year! The best advice I could probably give you is just to get stuck in and make the most of your time there! Get those papers out as soon as you can because you don’t want to be going through that stress when trying to write up your thesis at the end too. But most of all – enjoy it! You will have bad days but you definitely will have good days too plus you will make some friends for life! Just make the most of it J

Disclaimer: pictures have all been made by Sophie Arthur. 


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Between degrees: imposter syndrome

Sam Rainbow moved to the United Kingdom from Adelaide, South Australia, where she had gained her first two degrees. Coming to Exeter to complete a Masters in Classics and Ancient History in 2015, she made the decision to relocate on a more permanent basis in order to pursue a PhD in the UK. Research interests include Ancient Egyptian mortuary ritual, Ancient Greek Warfare, Mycenaean and Ancient Greek mortuary practices, as well as subversive warfare throughout history. Sam can be contacted at sr462@exeter.ac.uk, her writing blog at wordswritten168.wordpress.com (and/or its social media derivatives @WordsWritten168), or do her stats a favour and have a look at her work blog heritagenow.org.uk

I remember something from my high school psychology class, my teacher stated that two equal and opposite emotions cannot exist simultaneously. I am unfortunate enough to possess two equal and yet opposite personality traits – I am a perfectionist, but I am also the laziest person in the world. Nothing is ever good enough, a 2:1 isn’t a First, and a First isn’t an Upper First. Despite this restlessness I will stay up until 3am watching sludge because I don’t want to walk up the stairs and go to bed, I will be pulled out the door for a pint because ancient Greek Is hard goddamit! The thing is, I do not find Greek incredibly hard. I actually love Greek and it is by far the language that I relate to the most, it’s just….so much effort. When I actually focus I achieve reasonably impressive things in a relatively short period of time, it’s just that focussing my thoughts is like trying to heard cats. Take this for an example: writing the first hundred or so words of this has taken me a ridiculously long time because so far I have gotten distracted by:

1.    the woman in front of me who has a tiny piece of lettuce stuck in her scarf
2.    the gangly teen asleep in his seat has glitter on his face and the shadow of something drawn on his forehead
3.    the man in the other seat is reading Epicurus (cue feeling guilty for having read next to no Epicurus)
4.    the CCTV camera light which flashes every 12 seconds, exactly 12 seconds – I counted

This is the way my brain works and it has caused me, and my potential career, no end of trouble. The most frustrating and probably damaging effect of this, apart from its effect on my Greek grade, is that I believe that it means I am not cut out for academia. If it can’t hold my attention, I mustn’t be cut out for this life.

When I first heard of Imposter Syndrome I thought – well that’s alright for the other brilliant people on my course who needlessly worry but I actually am an imposter. It took an awfully long time for me to realise the irony in that assessment.

I dealt with these thoughts as and when they came and they got fewer as I progressed my education. I read articles, had countless conversations, and developed plenty of techniques to deal with the persistent voice in my head telling me to drop academia and go get a job in a shop. However, nothing prepared me for the different, the sneaky, the slimy, weird cousin of Imposter Syndrome that made its way into my mind when I started working.

I am one of those lucky bastards who has managed to land a job straight out of an MA, in a position relevant to my field. I am a historian by training and I now manage the Heritage Project for a local branch of a global charity. This position entails explorative research, writing about it (and potentially writing a book, so help my big mouth), and presenting this to the public.

This job is amazing, I love my job. Here comes the qualifier – I can’t wait until it is over and I can start a PhD. The problem arises when aforementioned ugly cousin of Imposter Syndrome pops up and lets me know that this is the only thing I will achieve, this will be my last good job, and I will get no PhD offers. Thanks cuz.

It is hard to use the same defences against this mangled Imposter Syndrome used previously, because it has a different nature. This version taunts me not with my own inadequacy but with the future that I won’t achieve because of the success I am currently having. Yes, I have a fantastic job utilizing my research skills but my Imposter Syndrome firmly believes that no admissions board will care.

I have, however, had some success with certain techniques – some more than others.
I am currently undertaking two online courses, they earn me no credits and they cost me money. However, they are regular, they are relevant, and they give me access to university libraries and journal databases I could in no way afford as a civilian.

Every week I log on and I get a pdf of information and a reading list, there is then a discussion forum where we all answer the question posed. Essentially I am paying two hundred pounds for a weekly tutorial.

The other course is directly relevant to my PhD applications – archaeological techniques are not something I have studied before, but I wish to pursue an archaeological topic in PhD. This is not only a great opportunity for me to widen my skill set but also show admissions boards that I have not wasted my time away and strengthened my position.

I half-heartedly continue to study ancient Greek and have begun learning Swedish. I have started to use language study as a way to waste time without feeling guilty. It is not very effective but I can adequately express my need for cheese and desire to pat their cat to my Swedish friends, so I’m counting this as a small victory.

Reading for actual enjoyment – with no regrets. While I never stopped reading for fun during my Masters I did so with the knowledge that my responsibilities were hovering somewhere over my right shoulder. I have found how important it is to have a mental break, I read all day at work and I spend a lot of my evenings critically reading on my laptop. I can hear my mother saying I’ll get square eyes if I don’t take a screen break. I have rediscovered novels and travel writing which I haven’t had the time to enjoy properly, reading for something other than note taking with the goal being to enjoy it rather than to finish it as quickly as possible in order to move on to the next one. Reading a novel instead of an article WILL NOT kill your chances.

Writing, writing anything. Writing research proposals, writing fiction, writing this! I have found that the thing I have simultaneously missed the most and the skill that suffers the most from prolonged disuse is writing.  To combat this I have begun again, I have launched two blogs (one for the work project and one personal) and I am pursuing opportunities to write for other people. Not only do I hope to improve my writing, but I hope to punch that unwanted voice in its figurative face when it comes time to write my applications.

Do I still have the Imposter voice chatting in my mind? Of course I do, but I am not allowing it to derail my plans. 
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