Advice for newbies

This is the first guest post by Squishy Scientist, a self confessed ‘crusty old post doc’, who is keen to share her insider knowledge with you.

So you’ve enrolled in your PhD – what’s next? Although no one will probably tell you outright, learning to fit into the existing academic culture is one of the most important tasks for the newbie. Although this post is written for science students, I hope what I have to say will be helpful to other ‘first timers’.

Unfortunately ‘academic culture’ can be a slippery concept. If you take the 21st century approach and ask Google, a quick look at the top ten image results for “scientist” is quite disturbing. Scientists are portrayed as men, mostly senior in years, who wear lab coats, have shocking outcrops of grey hair and predominantly work with bubbling vials of green goo.

This image is, of course, wrong. Scientists work in teams made up of people of varying ages and at different points in their career. It’s an international environment, with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures – and definitely better hairstyles. In your first week as post-graduate student meeting people is the most important thing to do – well that and not licking the floor (otherwise known as OH&S).

Other people are your best guide to how things work. Of course your most important guide is your supervisor. You have probably met them, but you may not yet have discussed your project in depth. This is the time  to get to know each other better, so talk about what interests you, what attracted you to the lab and this area of research in the first place and what you want to learn.

You will need to work out a meeting schedule with your supervisor early on; this can be difficult. Unfortunately most academic staff do not have administrative support; it can sometimes be difficult to pin down a date in their non-existent diaries. I’ll never forget the time when a professor’s wife rang the lab looking for her husband, only to be told by an embarrassed post-doc that the professor was actually at a conference in Cuba!

Many universities insist on co-supervision of post-graduate students. If you have two supervisors, or even better – a thesis committee – then make use of them. Introduce yourself to them all as soon as you can and put aside some time to talk about your project with them. Many secondary supervisors are happy to meet up on an ad hoc basis when there’s something you want to discuss.

If your supervisor is a senior post-doc, or junior professor, then you may find yourself side by side in the fume hood, setting up nitration reactions together. However, if your supervisor is the head of the department, then they may not be as accessible in the lab environment. So in your first week, ask your supervisor who is the most appropriate “go to” person in the lab for the basics. Where are the tubes kept? How do I switch this microscope on? Do we have any more butanol? The kind of thing your supervisor may not have a clue about if the last time they put on a lab coat was when a photographer from the newspaper came to visit.

Whoever your contact is, make sure you also establish with them that they’re happy to help you out with the basics. It is my observation, as a crusty old post-doc, that there is a growing expectation from post-graduates that other lab members exist to teach new students. This is not the case. Ask all the questions you need, even if they sound stupid (they’re probably not), but ensure you respect the time of those around you and they will respect you.

Speaking of respect, my top tip for the first week in your new lab is to make every effort to befriend the support staff that you will be working with. The engineering staff are the ones who will unlock your centrifuge when it gets stuck with your samples inside, the purchasing officer may end up rushing an emergency chemical order through, even though you should have got the paperwork done by Thursday, and the IT people will calmly ask you if you’ve turned it off and back on again when the printer won’t work. These are the people to turn to in times of trial, learn their names, say hi to them in the lifts and thank them every time they make your life just a little bit easier.

Try to spend time with the other students and research fellows; it’s important to find out what they do and how it might fit in with what you want to do. A great way to do this is to schedule a short one-on-one with each of your new lab mates, a coffee, or over lunch. Don’t be shy. Although you might think you’re a bit of a geek, so is everyone else, and you’re all in this together. Most departments will run welcome BBQs or organise a social night for students to get to know each other and the rest of the department. Make sure you go. Introduce yourself to everyone and don’t worry if you have to ask someone’s name twice.

The friendships you make as a graduate student often last a lifetime, both in and out of the laboratory, so what are you waiting for? Enjoy!

Related Posts

The lonliness of the long distance thesis writer

On life in the lab and failure

What do you learn from a PhD? (maybe not what you expected)

12 thoughts on “Advice for newbies

  1. JB says:

    Any advice for newbies who are not on site? I am working as a remote candidate (in humanities). Not sure who I should be befriending other than my postman, the only person I see all day!

      • Linda Kirkman says:

        Use twitter! The sense of isolation is diminished when you can feel a sense of community via #phdchat, even though you are continents and topics apart. And follow Inger, too 🙂 @thesiswhisperer

  2. WittyKnitter says:

    Twitter is good. Reading other students’ blogs is good. Trying to get to the uni for student seminars is good too, but even if you can’t get there regularly, you should try and visit at least once a year. If your faculty has any kind of student research get-together, at which people present on their work, that would be ideal. And keep in regular email and/or skype contact with your supervisor(s).

    But I think your question points up a huge difference in the cultures of sciences and humanities PhDs (with other disciplines fitting more-or-less between). Being remote can make it even worse. I’m glad Inger is planning a post on this.

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