January 2012

Surviving a bioscience Ph.D.

Use your thesis committee for more than just a stamp of approval. These fellow scientists form an important part of your nascent scientific network. If you ask for advice, you can benefit from their experience, not only for your thesis project, but also in other areas of your education and professional development.

Getting from the thesis proposal to the defense requires a large amount of time and sustained effort. Staying motivated is not usually the central issue unless something is wrong in your relationship with your project, your thesis adviser, or your friends and family outside the lab. It’s important to realize that you’re likely to go through a low-motivation period at some point during a five- to seven-year span. Be clear and honest with yourself about the causes of motivation problems, and don’t wait to seek counseling or other help.

Besides creative thinking, hard work, dedication and perseverance, the completion and defense of your thesis require other skills. Chief among these are organization, time management and pride in your work. Scientific research is a kind of knowledge work, meaning that it requires you to generate and analyze data; attend, organize and present at meetings; and write reports and proposals. The main problem in knowledge work is managing how effectively you work on your own. There are many tools and resources for best practices in knowledge work. I recommend using books, including “Getting Things Done” by David Allen (2), and online sources, including “Study Hacks,” a collection of essays by Georgetown University computer science professor Calvin Newport (3, 4). The key is to set reasonable project goals, milestones and timelines with input from your thesis adviser. Project execution requires deliberate practice (3, 4) and working effectively each day (2).

A healthy, productive lifestyle
Stress stemming from hard work over a long period can affect other aspects of your life, including personal relationships. Getting regular exercise and healthy amounts of sleep and eating well provide disproportionate research benefits in comparison with spending more time in the lab. A “work hard, play hard” mentality helps us lead rich, rewarding lives outside the lab while nourishing our creativity for solving research problems. Nevertheless, making steady progress in bioscience research probably requires more than 40 hours per week dedicated to designing and performing experiments, analyzing data, reading the literature and writing manuscripts or proposals. My typical work week is 50 to 60 hours, including time spent working at home. Each individual must find a balance that provides for steady research progress while leading a fulfilling life. Finally, mismanaged stress and traumatic events both in and outside the lab can harm Ph.D. students’ mental health. It is vitally important that grad students utilize counseling when needed and take any other necessary steps to protect their mental health along the road to defending their theses.

  1. 1. Bradley, M. J. Why pursue a Ph.D. in the biosciences? (Aug. 2011) ASBMB Today.
  2. 2. Allen, D. Getting Things Done. Penguin Books: New York, 2001.
  3. 3. Newport, C. The grandmaster in the corner office: What the study of chess experts teaches us about building a remarkable life. Study Hacks. Newport, C. published Jan. 6, 2010. Accessed Dec. 4, 2011. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/06/the-grandmaster-in-the-corner-office-what-the-study-of-chess-experts-teaches-us-about-building-a-remarkable-life/  
  4. 4. Newport, C. Beyond Passion: The science of loving what you do. Study Hacks. Newport, C. published Jan. 23, 2010. Accessed Dec. 4, 2011. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-the-science-of-loving-what-you-do/  

Michael-BradleyMichael J. Bradley (michael.bradley@yale.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.


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This article makes many great points many of which, I wish I had read while I was in graduate school. In particular it is critical to realize whether you are a person that requires a hands-on guided adviser, or one that prefers and works well with full independence.



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