10 Tips for how to get the most from your PhD.

I’m clearly late to this conversation, but because I disagree with the first two contributors, I figured I might as well have my say.

First, there was @Katie_PhD‘s post on “How to make the most of your PhD: The road less traveled“., which (alas) doesn’t give you much of a sense of how to get more out of your PhD.  It’s a great piece, so don’t get me wrong – I’ve read it several times already – but there aren’t any tips for graduate students.

Following on, Nick at “For Love of Sciences” wrote a list of tips that could help incoming and early PhD students get more out of their PhD.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure I really believe Nick’s points cover the topic the way I’d like to see it covered.  Some of them are dead on: Yes, you should move out to a new city, to find a new environment and challenge yourself, but other’s I find myself disagreeing with Nick.  Alas, that’s the point of graduate school, really – to stand up for what you believe in, and boldly state when you think other people aren’t nailing the point as accurately as possible.

So, without further ado, let me introduce my top 10 tips for how to get the most out of your grad school experience.

1. Say yes, until you learn to say no.

When you start graduate school, you won’t know enough about which avenues are the right ones to follow up.  Learn to say yes at first, to tackle any project that comes your way.  You’ll find yourself tackling good projects and bad projects and, as time goes by, you’ll learn how to tell which projects are the bad ones in order to start saying no to them.  When you’re ready to graduate, you’ll even have to turn down a few of the good ones in order to keep your PhD from dragging on too long.  So start with yes, but learn how (and when) to say no.

2. Learn to communicate.

Half of the challenge of a PhD program is to become a good communicator.  Define what good communication means to you and then bust your ass to figure out how you can become as good as possible at it.  Whether that’s communicating science to non-scientists, communicating with your peers, blogging, twittering or even writing grants, make a commitment to learn to communicate in every possible form and then to get better at it.  At the end of your PhD you are going to be judged by how well you can defend your ideas, so why not practice it as often as you can?

2b.  Learn to teach.

Teaching is just another form of communication, but it’s an important one that just can’t be overstated.  If you become an academic, you’ll be evaluated on how well you teach your students.  If you become a blogger, you’ll be evaluated on how well you can teach your audience.  If you become an entrepreneur, you’ll be evaluated on how well you can teach your board about your technology.  The job of a scientist is always teaching and communicating, so get as much practice (and hence feedback) as you can while you can.

3. Take advantage of your university’s resources.

Every university that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting has had some form of courses for it’s graduate students to learn new skills – TAKE THEM!  I’ve gone to some really cheese-tastic courses, and I’ve gone to some life-altering good ones.  You never know which one is which till you try them out, but if you don’t try any of them, you’re tossing away a perfectly good opportunity.

4.  Meet your future life partner.

I cheated on this one – I met my wife while we were doing our masters degrees together, but it was still graduate school and I had been planning on doing a PhD at the time.  Regardless, when else will you be surrounded by people who are fascinated by the same things you are, smarter than you are, and are fantastically interesting people in their own right?

4b.  Make some great friends.

Yeah, even if you don’t meet the love of your life, you can definitely find a few friends.  I’ll admit, I haven’t made a lot of close friends during my PhD, but I’ve made up for that with a wide net of professional contacts and having had the opportunity to rub shoulders with a lot of fantastically interesting and successful scientists.  I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

5. Decide what you stand for, and stand for it.

Along the long and winding road of your PhD, you’ll discover situations that test your morals, your sense of dignity and your ideals.  Everyone is sorely tempted to sweep a bit of dirt under the figurative carpet of their project in the name of having results to show off.  If you don’t believe me, spend some time reading the retraction watch blog. What separates the good scientists from the bad scientists is the moral code to which they hold themselves.

I’ve taken stands on open source code, on re-doing experiments and on re-coding units that were just “good enough.”  Grad school gives you a great opportunity to do the things that matter to you – and do them well.  This is one of the few times that you get to show people who you really are and not compromise on it.

6. Keep good notes

Pretty much everything you do, you’ll either have to show someone else how to do it, or do it over again later.  The better your notes are, the easier things will go for you – and that includes when it comes time for you to write up your thesis.  Trust me, good notes and documentation will make your life SO much better when you’re writing a chapter and want to figure out exactly how that algorithm worked, or need to make last minute changes to a poster  at 3am and can’t remember how you churned out that table…

7.  Be a sponge.

Grad school is also one of the few times that you can really delve into projects that you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to pursue in a corporate environment.  I’ve learned such random/wonderful things as how to play ping pong, how to use professional publishing software and how to draw cartoons.  You never know when these things will come in handy.   (For the record, there are far better examples, but those were way more amusing to me.)

8. Face the challenges.

Not many graduate students get slapped down for trying to take on more responsibility or to tackle the tougher projects.  I’m constantly amazed by the people who just quietly slide through grad school without leaving a ripple behind:  Life doesn’t start once you’re finished – it’s already going on, so hiding behind your desk isn’t going to help you get anywhere.

Perhaps I’d sum it up this way: Have the courage to face problems head on, tackle projects that are bigger than you are and throw yourself into the fray.  The worst thing that’s likely to happen is a bruised ego, but even that’s sometimes a lesson worth learning – and it’s a lesson that’s much easier to learn as a student than in the corporate world.

9.  Don’t give up.

People will ridicule you, people will flame you in emails, projects will misfire, scholarship applications will be rejected.  These are facts of life.  You can’t make everyone happy all the time and even keeping yourself happy can be a challenge some days.  Remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and if you persevere, you will get through.

An investor once told me a brilliant piece of advice in relationship to startup companies, which I’ll paraphrase and apply to grad school.

“Grad school is like a roller coaster: some days will be crazy high, some days will be desperately low.  Sure, you can enjoy the highs, and you’ll despair in the lows, but don’t let either of them change your course – keep a straight and level path and you’ll get through to the end of the ride. “

And that brings me to the last point…

10.  Enjoy the ride.

The longer you spend as a grad student, the more impatient you’ll be to leave, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the time you spend there.  You’ll rarely have such a wonderful combination of responsibility  (or lack thereof), freedom (or at least, lax deadlines) and community (how ever you want to define it.) –  Remember to appreciate what you have while you have it, because things will change once you hand in your thesis.

Here’s to that day coming as soon as possible!  Cheers!