10 tips for an efficient, successful, and fun Ph.D./postdoc experience!


By Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

I often hear that the Ph.D./postdoc time period is tedious, stressful, and seemingly never ending! Trust me, it doesn’t have to be. Here are 10 tips that I strongly believe can not only make your Ph.D./postdoc years prolific, successful, and rewarding, but also one of the best parts of your scientific career!

1. The lab is your playground, have fun!

As I say to my team, the lab, or the field if you work outside, is YOUR playground. Experiment as much and as often as you want, and try as many things as you can. If you have an idea, try it! This is science. Nobody knows before doing a new experiment if it will work, so just try it! This is the beauty of research, no matter the field. It is always full of surprises!

2. Work on more than one project at a time!

I recommend always having two types of projects going on at all times. At least one that is high risk/high reward and one or two with lower-hanging fruit, to ensure publications and a timely graduation. This way, if you get stuck on one project, you still have something that’s working and producing results while you try to overcome that brick wall, and, importantly, keeping you motivated and happy.

3. Write the experimental section as you go!

Just do it! Set time aside at least once a week to write the experimental section of your research papers for every experiment you completed that week. This way you won’t forget the details of what you have done, and you will not have to try to decipher what you scribbled in your lab notebook years later*! Writing the experimental section as you go (even if some of it might never see the light of day) will literally shave months off your Ph.D.!

*Note: This is often what a lot of people do when they are in a rush in the lab.

4. Take time to write well and create nice figures/tables!

People do not see what you do in the lab. If you present your work in a mediocre way, people will think that is how you do your science. There are a lot of papers out there--make sure people want to read yours! And don’t underestimate the power of a good visual, even in scientific papers. A well-written and thorough paper will ensure your experiments are reproducible.

5. Pick a Ph.D./postdoc supervisor wisely!

You should pick a supervisor with whom you are comfortable discussing your career and monthly/yearly goals, and reviewing your progress with on a regular basis. The person you choose will be part of your scientific family for life (if you so desire), so choose your supervisor wisely! Having a great relationship with your boss is critical to an enjoyable Ph.D.

6. Engage with your thesis committee often!

Your thesis committee members are not there just to quiz you at your candidacy exam. They are there to offer help and support during and after your Ph.D. Remember, you will need letters of recommendation, and the more you interact with your committee, the better they will know you, and the better the letters will be.

7. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

You cannot do it all! This will push your research further, you may uncover more context for your project, and you will make new friends! I also gave this tip in my blog about 10 pieces of advice for a successful and rewarding career in academia.

8. Start building your network NOW!

The connections you make in grad school/postdoc will be there for life! It is never too early to get to know people. Some of my best friends and collaborators I met in the lab, when they came to give a lecture at my university, or at conferences during my Ph.D. and postdoc years.

9. Learn how to engage with the public (and promote your work)!

Why do all this work if you are not going to let people know about it in a way that they can understand? Make sure your work gets the attention it deserves. Use social media and the media office at your institution, and go to conferences to share your work. Make sure to discuss your work in a way that’s appropriate for the audience.

10. Find balance!

“A healthy brain in a healthy body” -- Nobody, no matter how much they love research and science, should be in the lab 24/7. We all have something else we love. Find a way to balance research with other hobbies. This is critical to a happy and successful Ph.D.!

I hope that by using these tips now, later you will look back at your Ph.D./postdoc years with fond memories! I would love if you could share some of your additional tips—tweet them to me at @GTsodikova!

About Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova

I am a medicinal chemist (associate professor) at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on understanding and combating infectious diseases, particularly bacterial and fungal infections. I am also the founder of the SciCats (Science Cultivates Academically Talented Students) outreach program. You can follow me on Twitter @GTsodikova.