Every phase of my PhD came with its own unique set of challenges and uncertainties, from finding my footing in the lab to deciding on research directions and navigating unexpected hurdles. Now that I’ve recently defended, I’m excited to share some insights I’ve gathered along the way. My research as an MD/PhD student centered around methods for analyzing single-cell genomics data, but these tips are applicable to students across various fields. No matter where you are along your journey, I hope these tips will help you not only survive but also thrive.
1: Before joining a lab, talk to every current member one-on-one.
Carve out time to have coffee chats and informal meetings with each person in the lab during your rotation, including graduate students, post-docs, and technicians. Ideally, these should happen outside of the physical lab space so they feel comfortable being honest with you. Ask about their experiences, any pain points, and whether they’d join again. You can learn so much from these conversations!
2: During lab meetings, ask those “dumb” questions.
Sometimes, I feel embarrassed to ask a question because I assume everyone else already knows the answer, but chances are, if you’re wondering something, someone else is wondering too. By voicing your questions, you also help create a lab environment that encourages open dialogue and shared learning.
3: Ask for help and pass it on.
Running a new protocol or doing a new kind of analysis? Don’t be afraid of asking for help from a labmate who’s more experienced! This can help save a lot of wasted time and prevent unnecessary errors. In return, be generous with helping newer folks in the lab when you can. I once helped put together a slide deck on how to access the computing cluster, and it became a helpful resource for onboarding new members.
4: Strike a balance between low-risk and high-risk projects.
There are many strategies for choosing research directions. Low-risk projects offer a safer bet with established approaches and a higher chance of publication. On the flip side, high-risk projects can take you into uncharted territories, sparking innovation and posing more novel questions, but they come with a higher chance of setbacks. I’d recommend keeping 2-4 active projects on your radar, with a good mix of low and high-risk. That way, you can make steady progress while also pushing boundaries and dreaming big.
5: When a project feels overwhelming, just figure out the immediate next steps.
It’s okay to not have the whole game planned out ahead of time. Just map out the next 3-5 key steps, and get a move on! Oftentimes, your results will reveal new problems and insights into the project that help you adapt your plan. Remember, research is an iterative process.
6: Reach out to other scientists about their work.
When I’ve had trouble using a method or had a question about a public dataset, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that emailing the first or corresponding author is usually quite effective. Turns out, people are actually nice and helpful! Similarly, I once cold-emailed someone in a different lab on campus who had a really interesting dataset, and that kick-started a fruitful collaboration that formed the basis of one of my thesis projects.
7: Find ways to make common tasks more efficient.
Automating common tasks can save you tons of time in the long run. For example, I noticed that launching my computing environment consumed several minutes each time I began my work, so I created a bash shortcut that streamlined the process. Now, by typing just three characters, I can navigate to my project’s directory, activate the conda environment, and launch a Jupyter notebook.
8: Keep an eye on the administrative stuff.
Be proactive in ticking all those administrative boxes. Schedule your qualifying exam, get your committee together sooner rather than later. These things can slip through the cracks if you’re not actively making sure they get done. It can be helpful to map out a timeline for yourself to see how it would all fit in, even if the timeline is sure to be modified along the way.
9. Consider mentoring junior researchers in the lab.
Mentoring undergraduates and graduate rotation students in the lab can be super fun. It does involve a little extra teaching and meeting time, but watching them grow and contribute is so rewarding. They often brought fresh perspectives to the projects and taught me about managing others and scoping tasks based on their strengths and skill level.
10: When writing, done is better than perfect.
Especially for first drafts, just focus on getting the content down rather than obsessing over perfection - it doesn't need to read beautifully. Once there’s a draft, prioritize getting feedback from others. Several rounds of revisions will make the writing much stronger.
11: Make health a priority.
A PhD is a very, very long marathon. Exercise, eat well, take breaks, and get enough sleep. At several points, I’ve felt the physical toll of prolonged stress on my body and mind. In those times, it’s helpful to pause side projects and drop unnecessary tasks to focus on the important things and take care of oneself. Seek out peers who lift you up, and who you can lean on for support in tough times.
12: When in doubt, show up and stay interested.
When I left for graduate school, my undergrad PI (the incredible Ami Bhatt at Stanford) gave me a simple piece of advice: “just keep showing up.” When things fail and the going gets tough, staying engaged in the work is already half the battle. Progress in research is often not linear but exponential, so you will not see all the progress you’re making day by day, but rest assured, you’re making it.