Unspoken rules and other things Ph.D. students need to know

This is the second part in a series
Elizabeth Stivison
Aug. 13, 2021

Working toward a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences in a way is like moving to a new planet and trying to do scientific research there. The research is hard, of course, but so is learning how this new planet functions — the language, rules and culture. And people don’t always tell you that stuff; they just expect you to jump in and do a good job on your research.

Last month, I wrote about things that can be useful to know before you start a Ph.D. program. This week I am addressing things to know once you've started grad school.



Author order on papers has meaning. In the biomedical world, the author on a paper whose name is listed first is the person (grad student or postdoc usually) who did the majority of the physical work and data collection, possibly wrote the paper, and collaborated with the principal investigator who runs the lab to come up with the ideas. Some Ph.D. programs require that you publish a certain number of papers as first author before you can graduate. Co-first authors exist too. That's when two people participate in the work significantly and are both listed, usually with an asterisk to clarify that they both “contributed equally.” The author listed last on a paper is usually the PI. The second author usually made a significant contribution to the paper. Middle authors are the people who contributed one technique or collaborators who did a few experiments. 

Impact factor exists. And some people, including some funders, care a lot about this number. All journals have impact factors. This metric is meant to indicate how big of an impact a journal has on science and research. The impact factor of a journal is determined using a formula involving the number of times its articles have been cited and the number of articles it has published. (See how impact factor is calculated here.) Journals that are broad (and famous), such as Nature and Science, have impact factors in the 40s — high, because they are cited often. Journals with more narrow scopes often have lower impact factors. That does not mean the quality of the work is poor — only that it does not get cited as frequently (likely because it is relevant to a smaller subset of scientists).

A résumé and a CV are different. A résumé is a short, one-page (typically) list of your relevant work and qualifications. A CV can be several pages and include all your schooling, publications, grants, awards, conferences you’ve attended, talks you’ve given, posters you’ve presented, service/volunteer activities, etc. Many PIs have their own CVs linked somewhere on their websites, and you can look at them to get an idea of what to include on yours (even if they’re out of date). Academic jobs often ask for a CV. (Industry careers columnist Courtney Chandler wrote about how résumés  and CVs are different.)

Professors have different titles, and they have meanings. The biggest one of note is that assistant professors typically haven’t gotten tenure yet, while associate professors and full professors have. More info on these different titles can be found here.

Your qualifying exam changes you from a Ph.D. student to a Ph.D. candidate. While you’re taking classes and doing rotations, you’re a Ph.D. student. Then you complete your qualifying exam, and you become a Ph.D. candidate. Qualifying exams vary so much from school to school and even department to department that there isn’t much more for me to add about them here other than they are some type of test, written proposal, and/or presentation that is usually the last chance the school has to easily kick you out. If you fail your qualifying exam, you might get a second chance to redo it; but if you fail again, you could be forced out of the program. Once you become a Ph.D. candidate, something really terrible has to happen for you to be forced out.

Most schools or departments have handbooks for Ph.D. students. There’s usually important stuff in there. If you don’t think you received one, look on your department website for it or ask for a copy. It should include details about requirements for progressing through your degree, how to take leave and how to deal with problems.

Committee meetings really are for your benefit. I wrote a whole column about Ph.D. committees. They are the people who, in most cases, actually decide if you can graduate or not. They also have good advice for you. People get mad if you delay the meetings too much.

You do need to get to know other professors besides your PI.  You will need mentors and references later. Your committee is a good place to start, but so are all the PIs you see around you day to day.

Go to your department’s seminars and events. This is a way to network with other PIs and students and to keep informed about the research going on in your department. If you end up having trouble down the line, it will be good to know people from years of attending these things.

You can take vacations. You’re still a person and need time off. Just ask your PI about it.

Projects fail all the time. What you start working on probably won't be what you finish writing your thesis about. That’s OK. It happens to everyone because we are wandering into the unknown, and our ideas are often wrong.

Ask for feedback. Some PIs are really hands off, and silence from them does not always mean approval. Better to find this out early.

Lab notebooks are seriously important. Spend some time figuring out how you want to keep yours, and/or how your PI expects it to be done. See if there are rules about whether you can take pages out and what you can write with. The notebook is not only a resource for you to keep your work straight; it also can be used in legal investigations should things go really wrong. And a good lab notebook will make whoever takes over your project when you leave really happy.

There might be rules about whether you can work a part-time job on the side. A Ph.D. is a lot of work, but you can usually do some limited number of hours of work on the side. That policy might be in your handbook. Ideally, if you do this, it would be to pick up a skill for your future career, such as teaching or writing.

You don’t have to struggle alone. Support systems exist. Schools always have clubs and support groups. They can really be lifesaving. Counselors and therapists work at schools too. So do ombuds.

It’s OK to say "I don’t know." If you give a seminar and someone asks a question you don’t know the answer to, you can say so. Try: “Good question! I don’t know. I’ll look that up.” Or some variation of that. It’s often better than rambling uncertainly. Then go look it up later. Similarly, some of your work is figuring out whether you don’t know something or no one knows something.

You generally can switch labs if it’s really terrible. When things are bad, often gritting your teeth and just finishing as fast as you can is the right choice. But it’s not the only choice. And sometimes you really need to get out of a situation or environment. It’s hard to do, but you aren’t trapped. You can leave and find a new lab, and essentially start your Ph.D. over, minus the classes.

Imposter syndrome is a thing. That feeling that everyone else is better than you and you are here by some mistake has a name. And while you might think, “Oh, yes, other people might have imposter syndrome, but I’m the one actual imposter here,” I would just venture to guess that that’s probably not true.


Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling.

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