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What’s the third year of a PhD like? Tips for navigating your PhD

As part of our regular series exploring life as a PhD student, Anita Scoones explains how her PhD has changed over the years, with some top tips for those in the midst of their studies.

June 18, 2021

As part of our regular series exploring life as a PhD student, Anita Scoones explains how her PhD has changed over the years, with some top tips for those in the midst of their studies.

Hi, I'm Anita, a third-year PhD student in the Macaulay group. I’m applying single-cell RNA sequencing to understand how the fate of blood stem-cells is determined, while unravelling the complexity of RNA splicing at the single-cell level.

I’ve read a lot of blogs and other media discussing how to choose the right PhD, prepare for interviews, and then how to start your research - focusing mainly on advice to new PhD students (such as Earlham’s top ten tips for those thinking of doing a PhD).

But what about those, like me, who are a few years in? I guess it’s expected that we have it all figured out at this point. Truth is, I’ve wasted far too much energy and time worrying whether I should know more, or have done more, by now.

Having not yet encountered a single PhD student - at any stage - that has everything figured out, I thought I’d share my two cents on my experiences and how my PhD has changed over the years (spoiler alert, it’s a totally different ball game now).

PhD Student Anita Scoones in the single-cell labs at EI

PhD Student Anita Scoones busy at work in the EI Single Cell Labs

Juggling responsibilities: from trainee to trainer

My work week looks very different today than it did three years ago. Sure, the ultimate goal remains the same but now my days are sprinkled with tasks and responsibilities that weren’t so prominent when I started.

As I’ve progressed, I’ve learnt a lot, developed many different skills, and gained experience in various techniques needed for my research. I barely knew what single-cell biology was before starting my PhD, so looking back it’s a great feeling knowing where my understanding of the field is today.

This shift has meant a natural transition from trainee to the trainer. Teaching and training takes up a good deal of my time these days, and I have learnt a lot through these experiences. Having had what I’d consider a negative (and honestly pretty toxic) experience with a mentor before joining Earlham, so much so that I nearly opted out of my PhD before having started it, I know just how important it is to be a positive and constructive influence on any person’s work.

I love that more often than not when teaching you learn something new about a topic you thought you knew back-to-front. On the flip side, it’s also very easy to spend perhaps too much time away from your own work, and finding that balance can be pretty tough.

Advancing training in life science is a core component of work at EI, both for our colleagues and via the external courses we provide.

Anita presenting as part of one of our training courses at EI

Building collaborations and knowing when to say no

Just as I’ve gained responsibilities in training over time, I’ve also gradually been involved in new projects and outside commitments. As a first-year, you’re mainly responsible for developing the skills and understanding you need to get your PhD started. Later down the line, these skills are not only useful in your own research but to potential collaborators.

Collaborating with scientists outside of your group for the first time is always an exciting (albeit slightly daunting) feeling. It is a fantastic way to showcase your abilities and build your professional network. However, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all, and agree to substantial commitments that once again pull you away from your research.

Notice a trend here? One of my greatest challenges is finding the balance between committing to new opportunities that will build my CV versus putting too much on my plate so that I struggle to progress my own research goals.

Developing the sense of when to say no has been a difficult lesson to learn, and honestly, it’s not one I have quite yet mastered. Perhaps I was naive but I didn’t expect, after finally having the knowledge and skills to successfully do my research, that the most difficult thing wouldn’t be a big experiment or complex analysis but rather finding the time to work on it.

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Denying yourself the opportunity to grow as a scientist by only tackling the tasks and questions within your reach will be what holds you back as you progress in your PhD.

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Time management is important, but prioritisation is the key

You can be the most organised student out there, time-blocking every minute of your colour-categorised calendar with your different responsibilities, but if you prioritise the wrong things your time management goes completely to waste.

If you don’t know what your key priority should be, my advice is to discuss this with your supervisors and other team members. If, however, you do know your key priority and aren’t making the time for it, it’s your responsibility and no one else’s to fix that. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but taking responsibility for how you invest most of your time is critical as you progress in your research.

I’m the first to admit that I still catch myself ‘productively procrastinating’ from working on what I know will challenge me, and overworking myself on things I know I can succeed in. However, it’s undeniable that I experience the most benefit when I narrow my focus onto one key task.

Although the risk of failure is higher by attempting something difficult, it’s the best way for me to learn the most and reap the rewards. Denying yourself the opportunity to grow as a scientist by only tackling the tasks and questions within your reach will be what holds you back as you progress in your PhD.

Prioritisation is key when it comes to time management according to Anita.

Anita's desk at home surrounded by houseplants in front of her window, with her laptop, an open planner and cup of coffee.

Expect the unexpected - and ask for help!

Although you’re taught to expect that some experiments fail and projects inevitably change, accepting and responding to that is easier said than done. It’s very difficult not to be thrown off by a curveball, even if you are expecting one to come your way at some point.

At the start of my second year I was filled with excitement that I had more confidence in my project and was about to get stuck into writing a paper and presenting at international conferences for the first time. I felt like I was on a roll, and then the pandemic hit.

Like everyone on the planet, 2020 was a difficult year for me. I’m extremely grateful for how fortunate I have been throughout this pandemic and am thankful for the safety of my loved ones. Inevitably my experiments had to be paused for a while, and the plan was to switch focus to data analysis and writing.

I was privileged to have the ability to continue working from home, but finding the clarity needed to focus on work for me was nearly impossible. Balancing caring responsibilities whilst struggling with my own mental health, and having family in Brazil hospitalized with COVID-19... Well, work was the last thing on my mind.

I picked up new habits over the lockdown when I needed to spend time away from my desk - the biggest one being caring for houseplants. I now have a mini rainforest in my apartment! I also spent a lot of time cooking, which in some ways was the closest thing to lab work I could get. Oh, and I completed all of Marvel, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars a few times over!

Part of me was self-reassuring that it would all be ok as long as I’d have this big bounce-back moment - which didn’t quite happen. My colleagues and friends were incredibly supportive, and as I gradually found new ways of coping I started seeing my old self come back.

At the start, I felt as if asking for more guidance would give the perception that I was somehow less capable and less independent than ‘a third year should be’. Taking a step back, I see now that knowing when to ask for help is an attribute of a successful PhD student, not one who is failing.

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When I started my PhD, part of me wanted to create the image of a professional graduate student, who knew it all and tried to avoid asking for help for as long as possible. It’s safe to say that, thankfully, that notion has left the building.

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The social side of Anita's PhD has changed slightly this past year thanks to COVID.

Anita taking part in a zoom social gathering with her PhD colleagues. Image shows a laptop with zoom screen and a drink.

Appreciating the social side of PhD life

One thing that hasn’t changed since the start of my PhD is the special sense of community within EI that makes it a lovely place to work. I miss the casual conversations over coffee in the staff kitchen, the smiles and waves across the atrium, and drinks at the Rec centre on a friday night.

It’s been important for me to try to maintain that social connection throughout the pandemic, which has given me a sense of togetherness and purpose during hard times. Catching up and checking in with other students has helped me a lot, and organising virtual student socials has been a welcome distraction from the more serious things in life. One of my favourites was our Harry Potter-inspired murder mystery cocktails night!

Admittedly I do put in a hefty amount (sometimes too much) of time on social media, but it wasn’t until this year that I started to share more about my life as a PhD student online. I stopped endlessly scrolling through detached and senseless content, and filtered my social media to show me things that would positively influence my day-to-day, rather than drain my mental batteries.

By doing that I stumbled across an awesome community of other students and early career academics, who post things I not only relate to but can be inspired by. Through reading about their experiences, or ‘tips and hacks’ posts, I have honestly learned so much from social media - who knew?!

To some, a PhD can feel like a lonely journey, especially as time goes on and you encounter problems along the way. Prioritising good friendships with people who listen to and support you, offer some comic relief, or (like my friends) are there to tell you to take a chill pill when you’re over-stressing, I’d say is pretty necessary to keep you going.

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Taking a step back, I see now that knowing when to ask for help is an attribute of a successful PhD student, not one who is failing.

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No stroll in the park, but I’d do it all again

When I started my PhD, part of me wanted to create the image of a professional graduate student, who knew it all and tried to avoid asking for help for as long as possible. It’s safe to say that, thankfully, that notion has left the building.

By asking questions and delving outside of my comfort zone, I am doing far better than the first year who wanted to keep up appearances. I’m at my most fulfilled and confident when I am just as much myself at the office as when I’m at home, and I wish it didn’t take over 2 years to settle into that state of mind.

A PhD is no stroll through the park, but I’d do it all again in a second (though, I’d leave out a global pandemic and Brexit the second time around).

Three years in and Anita is feeling her most confident and settled to date in her PhD.

Three years in and Anita is feeling the most confident and settled in her PhD.

Anita’s top tips:

Don’t hold yourself back from new opportunities in fear of not feeling ‘ready’ - imposter syndrome sucks, ignore her

Prioritise friendships, and even better form new ones with others going through a similar experience

Celebrate even the tiniest milestones, it’s easy to feel a lack of progress if you’re only focussed on the end goal

Sharing your experience / struggles is not a sign of weakness or incapability

To help beat procrastination, identify the root cause. Does the task seem too difficult/ easy? Can you make it more attractive?

Listen to yourself if you need to take a break, burnout is no joke

Although it is your PhD project, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn and collaborate with others

Anita is a third year PhD student on the BBSRC funded Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (NRPDTP). If you're interested in undertaking a PhD, keep an eye out in the Autumn for the next round of PhD recruitment opportunities.

Anita Scoones

Article author

Anita Scoones

PhD student