By Apple Chew |



Although 6 months is early into the journey of a PhD, it’s often good to reflect on what one has learnt since starting the degree. Here are some tips from a science PhD student who has spent their time to do so.


Listen to your body.

There are days when you want to work day till night. There are days you wonder why you bother turning up at all whilst being unproductive and scrolling through the news. A PhD can be (and is) a mental-energy guzzler.  Stop working when you need to and don’t try to drag your feet through your day. The benefit of a PhD is the flexibility in arranging and scheduling your experiments. So, postpone your experiments when you really need to. There were times I didn’t listen and ended up with failed experiments due to technical mistakes and a frustrated and tired human walking into lamp posts in the evening. You can always come back the next day with a new focus and purpose!


Your labmates are crucial to your PhD.

Where’s chemical ABC? Do you have this kit? Should I keep this on ice? Without them, you wouldn’t even survive the first two months. They will also be your source of laughter, gossip and news. Make sure you maintain a good relationship with your peers.


Your online calendar and task managers become your best friends.

My calendar is full of red, blue, yellow and purple highlights; important, not-so-important, experiments and annual leave. The first few months of your PhD gives you an opportunity to establish a solid standard operating protocol or routine for the months and years to come. Organization, scheduling and planning is key to ensure your PhD runs smoothly alongside personal development by participating in extracurricular activities. You’re never too ‘old’ to join university societies!


Choose wisely on how to spend your time.

Time flies – literally so spend and waste it wisely. Attending seminars and workshops are beneficial supplements to your PhD. However, it is important to keep in mind which ones are worth attending. Spending precious time attending cool-sounding seminars isn’t a bad idea in itself, but you need to know why you’re attending the event and how it contributes to your research or personal development.


[“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham]
See… told you that you should have listened to your body!


Connect with more people.

Doing a PhD can be lonely. You can spend a whole day sitting in front of a computer and talk to only your labmates and supervisor whom you are likely to see everyday. I joined a monthly storytelling group at the start of my PhD with fun themes such as ‘A lightbulb moment’ or ‘What went wrong’. It helped to highlight what PhD students have in common with each other, alleviating post-work stress and improving mental health in general with laughter and food. Always keep an eye out on social events organized by the school!


You will be forced to condense your research into one sentence.

What do you do? Uhh… genetic engineering, uh, in microalgae. I have no doubt you will get this question first week into your PhD; you probably haven’t even started reading deeply into your project. To put your project into a nutshell is a challenge. The elevator pitch forces you to think about the element of your research topic. It also forces you to think of the why. Time to time, you might get so lost in the doing that you forget why you’re even pursuing your research question. This justifies why it’s important to occasionally meet new people and strangers to prompt the question.


What are you interested in? Uhh… neuroscience and trees!

Woah there, why are you working on microalgae then? I have learnt that it is okay to have different interests to your PhD research subject. A PhD is not just an opportunity to pursue a subject or question of interest. For me, it is also an opportunity for personal development, to improve awareness and identity, discover your potential and aspirations. It is common for people to do a PhD in order to pursue their long-term degree goals or pursue a career in academia, regardless of the research field they work in.


It’s okay to work on weekends.

When I tell people I’m going into the lab this weekend, I would say that 80% of the responses I receive are negative. Work-life balance is essential, yes. Always be mindful about giving yourself some me-time. However, everyone will have their reasons for wanting to work on the weekend: sometimes I work weekends to replace my weekday annual leaves, sometimes I really want to and feel like it, sometimes your experiment gets delayed into the weekend and you have no choice. Don’t let people stop you from being hardworking and achieving! It’s a different scenario if you force yourself to work on weekends – that’s a big no-no.



Apple Chew is a first-year PhD baby in the Molecular Plant Sciences department at King’s Buildings, University of Edinburgh.


Header image © Good Free Images
Comic used with permission from