This article, from Nature‘s Careers section, has a lot of sound advice for people making it through graduate school. It’s presented as a list of things not to do, and I would agree with all of them. And I think that most anyone who’s been through the experience would as well.
Among these is an admonition not to blindly trust your own data, and I got to learn that one a few times. I would extend it to not blindly trusting anybody else’s either. You can take that too far, and you won’t make any progress if you don’t believe a word of anything. But you have to keep your eyes open, because there’s a fair amount of stuff in the literature that’s just wrong. Most of the time the authors themselves don’t know it’s wrong, but every once in a while it’s deliberate (or deliberately left unfixed). And just in your own work, you have to make sure that your results are from properly working instruments, that you understand what the data are telling you, and (very importantly) that you can reproduce those results when you try the same experiment again. It is quite distressing to realize how often something breaks down along that path, so be ready. Einmal ist keinmal.
It’s equally important to remember that such problems happen to every researcher who has ever set foot in a lab, and not to take it too personally. Kingsley Amis’ advice on dealing with a hangover is surprisingly useful – I remember being struck by it when I first came across it years ago, which is interesting because I don’t drink and have thus never had a hangover in my life. It took me a while to realize why. Amis divides the hangover into the physical one and the metaphysical one, and the latter one extends well beyond the frontiers of drink:
When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.
So for that, just cross out “what you have is a hangover” and substitute “you’re just trying to finish your degree”. The way that you feel at your low points during grad school – and there will be some – is not some grim insight into how you’ll feel from then on. Far from it! If you’ve done modeling and computation, you will appreciate how hard it is to be sure what’s a local minimum and what’s a global one, and so it is with your emotional state. It is peculiarly hard to remember this at the key moments (and hard to really believe it), but that’s why you try to prepare beforehand for these things, and doing so really does help.
The advice not to believe that more work is always better is very well given, too. This is yet another trap, and yet another example of how you can screw things up at both ends of the scale. It is virtually impossible to do solid PhD work and keep to a 9 to 5 schedule. You’re going to be in there nights, you’re going to be in there weekends (although it certainly doesn’t have to be every one of either!) There’s just too much to do, too many problems to get around. But don’t make the opposite error of figuring that 18 and 20-hour days are therefore the only way to go. Humans aren’t made for that – more specifically, human brains aren’t. You will do sloppy work when you’re tired, both physically sloppy and mentally. You’ll think you added a reagent when you really didn’t, you’ll forget to turn a valve, and so on. But you’ll also miss insights that a more rested brain would have picked up on. Exhausted work is grunt work and the only ideas you get at that point are about grunting more loudly. You really do need to give yourself a chance to think about something else in order to do your best work.
And the part about not suffering alone is absolutely crucial. Intellectually, you need people that you can bounce ideas off of, and they need you for the same reason. People know all kinds of odd stuff, and the very fact that you’re working on your degree is proof enough that you have a lot to learn from them. Many are the projects that have been rescued by someone saying “You know, there was this one time that. . .” But socially and emotionally, it’s even more important. You need to have people who will understand what you’re going through when things are bad, and who can appreciate it (and celebrate with you) when something great actually works. Now, it’s true that you’re just sort of thrown in with people in a research department, and not all of them are folks that you would (under other circumstances) choose to hang out with. Some of them are going to be downright weird. But seek out the people that you can talk to and that can help you get through things, wherever they might be.
But there’s another thing that I would be sure to add to any such list, and it’s something that I emphasize whenever I’m talking to grad students: you should never forget that the point of being in graduate school is to not be in graduate school. That is, you have to always keep in mind that you’re there to get a degree and go on to something else – it’s a way station to the rest of your life, not a destination in it. You need to settle in (physically and mentally) enough to get your work done and keep things together, but definitely don’t settle down so much that the thought of leaving doesn’t cross your mind. I realize that to some this advice is completely superfluous; you’re thinking every day about getting out (you can take that too far, too). But there are people who get too comfortable, for some values of the word “comfort”, and find ways to not get around to the crucial experiments that would finish up a degree. Keep an eye out for that, and have your eye on the door. I’m not saying that you should slap things together into the minimal degree possible – no, do good work and get out honorably without leaving angry or disappointed professors behind you. But just remember to get out. Especially in the later years of your grad school career, think very carefully about taking on something that will add time to your degree process, and make sure that it’s really worth it.
So if any readers here are heading into graduate work in another month or so, have a look at the article. All of us who have been through the process are rooting for you and for all the others who are getting through it right now.