by Hortense Le Ferrand |


Dear young PhD student,

Having successfully graduated from my PhD in material science, I would like to pass on some advice so that you can fully enjoy the next few years. Since I did a lot of experimental work for my own PhD, my experience is mostly centered around life in the science lab. I am sure however that this can be applicable to other research fields as well.

First of all, there are the little things which you probably already are aware of. For example, be open to discovering new approaches and ideas, even if they look completely irrational. Keep track of all your results – and I mean all of them – in well-organized lab and note books, but also in power point files on your laptop with the appropriate date and number for your project to easily track them down later. Having a PPT file will help you get a globalized view of the results! This also gives you a document ready to show at an informal meeting or discussion about your work.

The most helpful pieces of advice I’d like to pass on to you, I received from friends outside of my research field and even outside of academia. To give you an idea, they are musicians, pharmacists, teachers and project managers and they have probably experienced more of life than I did because I was still a student. And that’s the first important thing: no matter how your research is going, don’t forget life outside of the lab – or your thesis. It is so refreshing to meet up with friends who don’t know how to handle a pipet! And life is not all about results and science, there are many other things that should not be forgotten. I think most of the success and happiness in the work we do, as graduate students, is closely related to human relationships. You need to make sure that your working environment suits you and that you are satisfied with the interactions you have with your colleagues.

This might be tricky in a very international environment where we all react differently. Nevertheless, here are a few tips. If you help someone, that person will help you in return. If you complain to your friends, someone might bring up an idea to solve the issue. Don’t hesitate to ask, even if it is a stupid question. You might feel silly at the time, but, well, nobody will remember it, and maybe it was not that stupid in the end…

I‘ve learned to live my (lab-)life like I conduct my experiment. .Just as with an experiment, make a plan, but be open to deviations from the original plan. Open your eyes to see if you can use anything unexpected to your advantage. Additionally, just as with any scientific experiment, the aspects of the PhD life – i.e. interactions with people, locating a place for a conference, conducting a bibliographic research – will have more chances of success with a little preparation beforehand: what do you want to ask, where do you need to go, what are you looking for…. Moreover, if you are not too excited at the beginning, you will be less disappointed if it turns out wrong. And most importantly, if you have an amazingly successful experiment, celebrate!

But the most important advice of ALL that you need to remember is to have fun! I have noticed some people having a lot of fun rearranging chemicals or equipment very neatly, others spend ages carefully focusing images under a microscope or reading tons of books so that they know all the equations… As long as you feel good with your way of working, keep going.

Dear young PhD student, as you are embarking on a long journey with ups and downs, you might want remember to have at least one moment of fun each day of the week. This way I’m sure it will all go smoothly. And no pressure, there is no such as thing as failure.

Have fun!


Hortense Le Ferrand graduated from her PhD in Material Science at ETH Zürich, Switzerland, a couple of months ago. Pursuing a post-doctoral visit at Purdue University, her current research focuses on bio-inspired smart materials and structures. Aside from the lab, she also loves art, nature and culture, which she enjoys sharing through her personal blog.

(c) Feature image: Edward O. Wilson, ‘Letters to a young scientist’. In this book the American biologist narrates how he became a researcher. It is a pleasant and interesting book, which I recommend to anyone to read!