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First Steps Into a PhD: Being a Toddler Again

Remember that time, long ago, when you first stood up on your feet and performed a couple of trembling, insecure first steps? No, me neither. But there are numerous documents such as photographs and VHS videos proving that this day existed. And, of course, limitless narratives of my family members, describing that revolutionary moment and how I landed with my face against the floor shortly after.

A few years and many experiences later, I find myself in the same position.

I recently started my PhD in Immuno-Oncology and, although I have Bachelors and Masters degrees in very relevant fields, everything is new for me. Four months into my PhD project and my steps are getting more and more firm every day. Yet the fear of tripping is far from leaving me. I think that most new PhD students can relate to this situation of suddenly finding yourself in deep unknown waters. And, if you also have to move abroad as it happened in my case, the insecurity alarm will most probably go red.

So, as this recent experience taught me one or two lessons, I can share some tips with you. See it as ‘preliminary data’, as we call it in Science.


It's not you. It's them.

Most probably the impostor syndrome has already struck you. You had heard about it, you had read about it, you thought it would never affect you, but here it comes. There are days when you feel completely useless, unready to bear the responsibilities, less smart and qualified than the rest of the PhDs and post-docs in your lab.

Well, get over it. It is only normal that you don’t know where specific antibodies are stored, which are the best settings for the new cytometer, who is responsible for refilling the buffers and so on. You are the new guy and everyone is aware of that. Don’t blame yourself for not knowing everything or for not succeeding in every task right away. Remember that you are not alone. Thousands of PhD students have had – or currently have – the same fears and agonies as you. For all of us, it will take time and much practice to reach the point where we feel independent.

And speaking of practice, that leads us to the next piece of advice.

Get your hands dirty

This one pretty much depends on your project as well as on your supervisor. Some PhDs don’t require working in a ‘wet lab’ or similar situation, with ongoing monitoring and results demanding your attention. But let’s assume that, as in my case, you do have daily experiments to perform. Now, there are supervisors who ask that you only dive deep in the existing literature and reflect on it for the first part of your PhD – a period of weeks or even months. On the other hand, there are those who encourage you to start experimenting, writing and collecting your own ‘results’ as soon as possible.

I must stand up for the second group. As long as your supervisor has a clear view of what needs to be done and they are willing to share the details with you, there is no reason for you to hesitate. Studying is necessary, following older PhDs and post docs around and asking questions is also valuable, but nothing is more essential that taking your project’s fate into your own hands. Start with small tasks. In Science: set up your protocols, try different conditions, organise your folders with your preliminary analysis.

Whatever you do – even during your first semester – matters. Even the smallest progress adds up to a big result. Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s always better to learn from your own mistakes than from those of others.

(Net)work it

No matter if you belong in a large or smaller group, you will meet many new people right from the start of a doctorate. Fellow PhD students, post-docs, technicians, people working in other groups that share facilities or have established co-operations with yours. All of them have something in common. They are important sources of knowledge for you.

So even if you are not the most social person on earth, try and contact them all. Ask them about their work, what do they do experimentally, what kind of research experience they have. This way, when the time comes, you will go to the right person to show you how to operate the confocal microscope or you will know the most experienced person to ask about myeloid cell markers. Besides the scientific part, you are going to spend most of your days in that place for the next three to five years. Your mysterious potential new friends are hiding behind those benches. Go get them!

Rough seas make the sailor

At some point sooner or later you will start feeling more confident around the lab. Your brain will become faster with calculations and your hands will become faster with handling. It’s very tempting to let yourself sink in this long-lasting feeling of success.

From the very first day the only thing you wanted was to be able to track cell lines in the liquid nitrogen tank without asking the post-doc and organise your weekly plan without knocking on your supervisor’s door. And now you are there and it may feel enough. It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Don’t settle for little when you can go for much. By all means, celebrate! Be proud of what you’ve accomplished during these first months. Just don’t forget to level up. Go for more complex protocols. Try more advanced techniques. Question your results and ideas if they don’t make much sense and repeat experiments or expand your research if needed.

And, last but not least, come up with your own ideas and no matter how simple they seem at first, dare to share them with your supervisor. Ask for their advice and guidance while you start taking your project in the direction you wish. That process is what’s going to really shape you as a scientist or scholar, make you an independent problem-solver and, in the end, fill you with joy for what you do. So no matter how tough these first steps may seem today, some years from now the ‘adult scientist’ you, will recall them with pride. Being a toddler again for a while will be totally worth it.




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Last Updated: 23 August 2018