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What is expected of an advanced PhD student


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#1 JulianneW

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Posted 16 February 2011 - 10:26 AM

Hi everybody,

I have a couple of questions and a bit of venting, and I was really hoping for some insight/opinions – please be as honest as you can.

My general question is, "what is expected of an advanced PhD student, and how to develop such skills?"

Before my PhD, I worked in a different lab with the worst atmosphere ever – bullying, humiliation, dirt competitiveness, sabotage, no payment, etc. And no supervision whatsoever. Dreadful experience that left me with absolutely no confidence on myself.

Because of that, even though I changed labs for my PhD and I have a nice boss/lab now, the trauma lingered and during my entire 1st year I wouldn’t dare to ask for any help or even ask any basic questions or discuss any topic. But I worked very long hours and all seemed ok. For the second year, due to health and personal problems, I wasn't able to dedicate myself as much as I should, and I admittedly neglected my work a bit. I now feel like I didn’t develop the most basic skills of a PhD student and researcher.

I find it really hard to identify the next obvious experiments in the thesis, to elaborate good experiments, to know which technique is better to answer a certain question, or to relate the theoretical background to the key questions. I see colleagues at journal clubs and presentations asking the most brilliant questions, and I don't seem to be able to formulate those questions myself.

I know I need to cop on and make up for lost time, and develop the required skills as quick as possible, and hopefully still go on with the project.

But…how? What are the main skills I should be looking for, and how do I develop a practical plan to acquire them? I keep reading I need to develop critical thinking and independence, but where do I start?

I feel completely lost, and even though I don't think I'm stupid, I wonder if I'll ever have the skills that are needed to do well in science…

I would really appreciate any suggestions/insights! Thank you very much in advance!

Julie

#2 Adrian K

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Posted 16 February 2011 - 01:31 PM

Hi everybody,

I have a couple of questions and a bit of venting, and I was really hoping for some insight/opinions – please be as honest as you can.

My general question is, "what is expected of an advanced PhD student, and how to develop such skills?"

Before my PhD, I worked in a different lab with the worst atmosphere ever – bullying, humiliation, dirt competitiveness, sabotage, no payment, etc. And no supervision whatsoever. Dreadful experience that left me with absolutely no confidence on myself.

Because of that, even though I changed labs for my PhD and I have a nice boss/lab now, the trauma lingered and during my entire 1st year I wouldn’t dare to ask for any help or even ask any basic questions or discuss any topic. But I worked very long hours and all seemed ok. For the second year, due to health and personal problems, I wasn't able to dedicate myself as much as I should, and I admittedly neglected my work a bit. I now feel like I didn’t develop the most basic skills of a PhD student and researcher.

I find it really hard to identify the next obvious experiments in the thesis, to elaborate good experiments, to know which technique is better to answer a certain question, or to relate the theoretical background to the key questions. I see colleagues at journal clubs and presentations asking the most brilliant questions, and I don't seem to be able to formulate those questions myself.

I know I need to cop on and make up for lost time, and develop the required skills as quick as possible, and hopefully still go on with the project.

But…how? What are the main skills I should be looking for, and how do I develop a practical plan to acquire them? I keep reading I need to develop critical thinking and independence, but where do I start?

I feel completely lost, and even though I don't think I'm stupid, I wonder if I'll ever have the skills that are needed to do well in science…

I would really appreciate any suggestions/insights! Thank you very much in advance!

Julie


I'm, still residing in a more-or-less-the-same-atmosphere lab like yours. I totally understand how you feel because I feel almost the same like you: lack of confidence, lack of skills developed, solitary etc.

But then, hey, I thought you said you currently have a journal club, You have a good supervisor, and I assume your colleagues are nice and friendly because they are willing to share in the journal discussions, right? Isn't this what you (and myself) had wished for, prayed for every night before you join this lab? You just got your prayer answered (while my prayer is still pending...sigh...)!

I can see you have the ability to identify your own weaknesses, isn't that something you should be happy with? I would personally say you have yet to fully breakthrough your own "barrier", you have yet to "open your heart" to talk with others. That is your main problem for now. Try talk more to your supervisor and colleagues regarding your problem. They were the among the best to help you.

Regarding which skills you want to develop, why not try to develop skills or techniques related with your work to begin with? Real-time PCR, flow cytometry etc, you name it. Learn some software such as endnote or Latex, perhaps programming languages like perl or python. Examine how such techniques will help you in achieve your goals. Join more workshop, conferences, read more journals and do talk and share with others and get other's opinion. Again, You can always ask your colleagues: "how you manage to think of this approach/question/plan? Do you read it/ see it/ somewhere? Why would you say is a good approach?"

At least, you had done the good and right thing by joining this forum. Welcome :)
Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the lion not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.

..."best of our knowledge, as far as we know this had never been reported before, though I can't possible read all the published journals on earth, but by perform thorough search in google, the keywords did not match any documents"...

"what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger"---Goddess Casandra reminds me to be strong

"It's all just DNA. Do it."---phage434

#3 Maddie

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Posted 18 February 2011 - 08:58 AM

Hi Julie

I did my PhD a long time ago and to be honest, I think it takes years to become an efficient researcher (except for a few genius of course, don't we hate those people? :P ). But in general, I think that one cannot expect young students to be experienced scientists, so don't feel bad. The important thing now is to catch up. Ask questions (as my friend pito would say: “If you don't know it, then ask it! Better to ask and look foolish to some than not ask and stay stupid").
If you feel stuck in your project, then come here and ask for advise. It's not possible to always work alone because after a while you're out of ideas. Then, one day, you'll be chatting with someone who will suggest something and you will think: Gosh why didn't I think of this myself? This is totally normal.
Sharing, discusing ideas is part of being a researcher, so don't hesitate and ask away...before they ask the question during your PhD defense :lol: .
This forum is anonymous, we have people from every level and no one is judged. I've found so many useful information over the past year. I take this forum as a blessing, truly. Plus I met some really nice people ;) .
Rebuild your confidence brick by brick. We'll help.

Good luck.

Maddie
Theory is when we know everything and nothing is working. Practice is when everything is working and nobody knows why. Here, we combine theory and practice. Nothing is working and nobody knows why.

A. Einstein

#4 lab rat

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Posted 16 April 2011 - 08:49 AM

I agree with Maddie. I think you will gain much more information from someone who has spent 20 years at the bench optimizing protocols than trying to slog through literature by yourself. I know that recovering after a bad experience is hard, since I'm doing that very thing myself now! ;)

Is the PhD so important? Maybe you should talk to your supervisor and consider just taking an MS. Then you will be much more marketable to a broader range of positions--you can be an instructor or a lab manager, a biotech salesperson, whatever.

To be perfectly honest, I have seen a number of young investigators self-destruct in the first few years of their profession. Lack of confidence and overconfidence are equally bad. The difference is the impact of the fallout on colleages and subordinates. If you are struggling with confidence issues now, how will you endure the pressure of advising students, maintaining funding for technical staff, etc?

Do not take my words as endorsement to quit. I'm just offering professional advice based on my experience in academia. Do not focus on the skill set only--consider the big picture. Skills are learned with time and practice, but personality is mostly set. Earning a PhD and performing as a PhD require a thick skin, patience, social and political skills, creativity, and a great deal of emotional investment. How much are you willing to invest, and what returns do you expect?

regards,

lab rat
42..."An immutable fixed-precision number of unlimited magnitude." <a href="http://en.wikipedia....amming_language)" target="_blank">http://en.wikipedia....amming_language)</a>, accessed 25June2009.

#5 kajmak

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Posted 16 April 2011 - 07:13 PM

Well, if from such unsupportive environment at your previous work place you went on and started a PhD I don’t think you lack confidence. What you are experiencing is normal, especially within a first year. As Maddie wrote, it takes years to be experienced.
Maybe some people will expect you to clean their dirt and lack self esteem but you need and have to show others that you do not give up. Everything takes time, don’t expect fast, clean results. That’s a beauty of science, you never know where it takes you. And your project will probably change title few times, but that is part of a deal. You walk in the direction where your results take you.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you are ‘advanced’ and as such a lot is expected from you. You just a student. I was at a seminar where man with 30 years of experience in a field answered as ‘I do not know’ to one of the questions. He is like a living encyclopaedia, everyone looks up to him and yet he is not ashamed to say that he doesn’t know something. Do not expect much from anyone, you are not on your own but you have to be prepared to be. Never get disappointed. Most of all PhD is about you growing as a person.
If you take lab rat’s advice and even ask your supervisor about possibility of downgrading your PhD to MS you will automatically show that you are not able to sustain a bit of pressure. And even if you continue as PhD student your supervisor might not take you as capable anymore. It is good to talk about you fears but not to people you work with, especially to your supervisor. Because there will come time when all your weaknesses will be used against you, doesn’t matter how nice people seem to be now.
Forums like this do wonders. Without exposing yourself you learn that you are not the only one to go through something that seems very hard.




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