Harder, harder

One careers seminar offered to undergraduates during my degree discussed the pros and cons of pursuing postgraduate study. After the seminar, I spoke to the Careers Tutor responsible for undergraduates in our department. I told him that I was finding the degree course really difficult, and I was not sure if it was worth applying for PhDs as I did not feel certain I wanted to do one.

To the “finding it really difficult” comment, he smiled

We like you to be challenged.

In a similar vein, one lecturer covering a challenging topic during the course found his lectures met with complaints about how incomprehensible the material was. After explaining the concept for the second or third time and pointing us towards some reading material, he seemed exasperated

These things don’t come for free, you know.

I am reminded of these two conversations, and particularly the latter one, when I am grappling with my research. For some students, the biggest challenges to their degrees are practical ones, such as access to data, or not getting on with their supervisor. Others face disruptions ranging from problems with equipment to their supervisor being made redundant.

For me, the single biggest challenge of my PhD so far has been learning the new techniques and material I need to do the research in the first place. Figuring out what I need to know, and how to find the information, and which bits I are going to be useful to me and which avenues are actually dead ends, seem to take me a lot of time. In contrast to the

Here’s a set of Gilsons and a labcoat, now GO!

experience Cath documents, my PhD feels a bit more like “Here’s Google…make a start…”.

This contrasts with the undergraduate degree where in hindsight the biggest challenge was exam technique. It took me the best part of three years to figure out that the way to get through the exams was not to tackle the entire contents of (your preferred edition of) Stryer, more to study about one-third of the course material in detail.

I am coming up halfway through my PhD and I wonder if the challenges will shift as I progress. I am curious to know what the biggest challenge was for other people. Is writing-up universally the biggest stumbling block, is it getting started, or do the real challenges only arise post-PhD?

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7 Responses to Harder, harder

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Harder, harder | Blogging the PhD -- Topsy.com

  2. Speaking as a supervisor, Erika, I think projects vary dramatically in what is required and hence where the stumbling blocks may be. Some projects build straightforwardly on a previous PhD, so that it is clear what needs to be done and why in order to progress things. Others are going in totally new directions for the group and there may be all kinds of new experimental hurdles to overcome. Yet others may be ill-defined and much harder to grapple with, a general feeling something interesting lurks in there somewhere but a lot of forays are required to find precisely the right direction to go. Sounds like you may have got one of the third category, which ultimately may be the most rewarding of all but can take almost their entire timecourse to develop fully and become clear.

    For me, the hardest part of my PhD was learning how not to break things. My supportive supervisor said that breaking a crucial and delicate accessory 3 times out of 3 wasn’t a problem, but it would be if it became 10 out of 10. It didn’t!

  3. When my research gets difficult, I remind myself that if it were easy, someone would already have done it.

    I was in one sense lucky in my Ph.D. research because the path forward was relatively straightforward. On the other hand, my results were fairly mundane, and no one cares any more about what I discovered.

    I had friends with difficult projects, and not all succeeded. One friend, however, won the Nobel Prize for the work she did in graduate school. (Really.) So research projects can be a kind of lottery.

    The two most important skills I learned in graduate school were (1) how to design an experiment, including all the controls; and (2) how to give a good oral presentation. For many people, a third important skill is learning how to write clearly (personally, I’ve never had a problem with that).

    Good luck with your research.

  4. chall says:

    “Is writing-up universally the biggest stumbling block, is it getting started, or do the real challenges only arise post-PhD?”

    For me it wasn’t the write up. The hardest part was probably to read up on enough stuff to know which types of experiments would be “best” or more appropriate to do … and the questions to ask in order to “solve” the hypothesis with the correct techniques. And in my case, connect the “experiments I want to do” with “the experiments I will be able to do with X amount of money and the equipment already existing in the department”… it was a bit of a struggle sometimes, to find alternative ways to answer stuff that could have been done with A, but since my bacteria didn’t work with that or we didn’t have the money to buy expensive reagents/machine B I had to make it work with C (which needed to be good enough to warrant doing it… or just drop the questions and explore other interesting things).

    Sure, writing up was a bit of slow start (since I procrastinated it for a bit) but since I did my PhD where you have to publish papers first and for the write up part of the thesis “just write an introduction to the field, where your research fit in and condense what you’ve found and not found, and finally where you think this should continue going” (all in all maybe 30-60 pages) being bound in front of your 4 papers/manuscripts, that seemed easy enough after having to have planned those publications and gotten them submitted/accepted.

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    For me it was the time management aspect. In the first few months I had all these big gaps between experiments, and didn’t really get how the senior students, postdocs, and techs were always so busy! (I read a LOT of papers during those gaps, so it’s not as if the time was completely wasted). It took me a while to learn to stop thinking in a linear way, and to figure out which parts of future experiments could be done in advance while waiting for the results from current experiments that would decide which exact assays to run next. Perfecting new techniques with positive and negative controls, starting the first few plasmid cloning steps before I knew exactly which promoter mutations I was going to make, that kind of thing.

  6. Erika Cule says:

    Thanks for the replies everyone. It looks like there is not a consistent biggest challenge then – and that writing up is not universally the biggest hurdle. (Although I might well feel differently when I am writing my thesis.)

    @Athene – What I am doing is a mixture of the first and third “types” you mention. I can imagine that the mindset of a student doing a PhD of the second type is different to how I think about my research. No breakages here so far!

    @Conrad – In the middle of my PhD I am finding it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and it is interesting that you say that the most important things you learnt were not specific skills related to your project.

    @chall – Seems you faced more practical issues than I do, because of the nature of your research. As previously discussed, PhDs in the UK are not typically awarded “by publication”. However, what you say is another reason that it is useful for PhD students to submit their work for publication before they submit their thesis. As well getting the publications in their own right it gives the student a starting point for their write-up.

    @Cath – I remember the time management issue from the summer placement I did doing western blots, which involve many stages and a lot of waiting around. Like you, I did a lot of reading in those days!

    Thanks for replies all.

  7. Hi there, just wanted to say, I liked this post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

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