I honestly don’t know how so many researchers manage to regularly and frequently write such interesting blog posts. Presumably they have substantially more responsibilities and less free time than a PhD student like me and yet I seem to struggle to find the time to write posts. I generally think I’m fairly organised so perhaps I just haven’t had the right inspiration. Continuing with my reflections on PhD life and how crazily busy it can be, this post is about the excitement and stress of trying to learn what feels like a million new things all at once.
One positive aspect of a PhD is how many opportunities (and requirements) there are for learning and acquiring new skills. I was always thought of as a bit of a nerd by kids at school as I was genuinely interested in the lessons. I love learning new things, an attitude I think every scientist probably has, as what else would keep you going in the pursuit of knowledge? The feeling of understanding a new idea, successfully using a complicated technique or interpreting your own results is quite satisfying and rewarding.
So far, my PhD experience has been that of a very steep learning curve, which has occasionally been a bit overwhelming. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the week or mental energy for it all. There are advanced statistical techniques to master, unfamiliar software packages with command languages to get to grips with, an ever-expanding physical pile of printed papers and more saved in folders or bookmarked that need to be read, not to mention learning presentation skills, an appropriate style for paper-writing, identifying the various bits of paperwork and bureaucratic processes needed to do anything (like applying for a course, obtaining permission to travel to a conference, knowing who and where to get signatures from, completing a research proposal to access a data set etc.) and also navigating your way around the hierarchy and politics involved in your research group and others. I’m sure I probably missed off another dozen things from that list…
The sheer amount of things to learn aside, a big challenge is not knowing where and how to go about learning them. I have always been pretty good at social learning – I have an older sister whose mistakes were an invaluable source of knowledge when we were growing up (e.g. never dye my hair green if I want to be allowed out of the house anytime soon). In academia, I’ve found it equally vital to have a mentor I can turn to regularly with all my questions and as a source of knowledge and advice. Talking to other PhD students and post docs who have recently gone through all the bureaucracy and PhD steps I’m going through is brilliant for picking up tips.
However, specific advanced statistical methods and software packages can be relatively novel and uncommon so there often aren’t any convenient courses or graduate lectures that cover them. The internet can be helpful but if you are completely new to something complicated, it can also be a bit tricky to get the specific information you’re after and apply it directly to your work. My main supervisor is patient and brilliant but I feel guilty emailing her too frequently. I try to keep my emails to a minimum but there seem to be so many things going on which need her input or I feel like I need to keep her in the loop about.
Sometimes I can easily see how a PhD can feel a bit isolating, especially when your specific topic and the techniques you are using are quite different to those of other PhD students you work near. Although it is an independent project, I think that a reasonable level of support is absolutely crucial to be able to progress at a reasonable pace, particularly in your first year. If possible, it’s good to have some links with a number of other researchers (so you don’t come to rely too heavily on a single person) with a variety of skill sets and experiences (your supervisors, other PhD students and post docs). Generally people seem to be more than happy to give some advice and answer specific questions. Being able to then pass the knowledge and tips on to someone else really makes you realise you have a grip on it and feels quite nice!