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What to expect when you’re getting your PhD

Summary of useful information when you are starting with or thinking about getting your PhD

What can you expect when you enrol as a PhD-student?

In general, work with its ups and downs, especially in the beginning, and always with the “pressure” to obtain valuable data and to publish it. The project you work on often has a fixed goal and the study might not always be successful.

What will your thesis be?
Your thesis will consist of several chapters, which are often based on either published articles or submitted articles. The aim is to get 2-3 articles published or in press, and 1-2 chapters (very often) submitted. Inevitably, at the end, you will have to defend your thesis successfully.

What are the common pitfalls you can expect on your way?
  1. Can you do all you need to do in 3-4 years?
  2. What if your project fails?
  3. How to deal with supervisors and colleagues?
  4. How to deal with work–home?

1. Can you do all you need to do in 3-4 years?
Very often is it difficult, if not impossible, to do all you want and need in those years. The schedule below will give a more realistic idea of the time involved.

Timeline (indication)

first month:
orientation and start experimenting
first year:    
collect data for your first article
second year:
finish draft version of your first article
collect data for your second article
third year:    
publish your first article
finish draft version of your second article
collect data for your third article
fourth year: 
collect all the data required
publish your second article
arrange your job extension
fifth year:     publish your third article
write your thesis

Given the urgency of your time path, stay focused on your major line of research. But always have 1 or 2 independent side projects. And always focus on the articles or chapters you will need for your thesis. When planning your experiments and long-term milestones, take the ‘research reality factor’ in account. This factor is: ‘time it takes to perform the experiment’ divided by ‘time you thought it would take to perform the experiment’. This factor often varies between 2 and 4.

2. What if your project fails?
Make sure to have backups ready with alternative technologies. If the failure is caused by technical complications, you can easily switch to another technology. But also don’t be too discouraged by negative or different results. Don’t give up too soon.
If you have negative results in the end, and the experiment is done scientifically solid, publish them or include them as a chapter in your thesis.

3. How to deal with supervisors and colleagues?
Some projects require a close cooperation with colleagues, technicians and/or postdocs. There are also projects in which you are working more alone on a separate topic, which can mean that there are no colleagues around with experience on the topic. Realize what you prefer, before you accept such a project. Try to find out during your interview as much information as possible about the project and make sure that the project you accept is the best one for you.
Remember that a PhD is the highest academic degree available. Therefore, a lot will be expected of you. Work with a proactive attitude. When starting your project don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something, or ask for help when you don’t know how to proceed. Also, ask your supervisor for help, ask technicians and other PhD students in the lab for practical help. Don’t invent the wheel again. Besides publications, additional information from other groups in your field can be very useful.
It is important to prove yourself during the years of your project. It might seem obvious but it is important to be very well prepared when you have a work discussion or presentation. Be sure that you can fully explain why you did or did not do something.
Remember that you are the one that needs to get a PhD. Take charge and plan ahead. Work with a healthy urgency: you only have a limited time span for this.

4. How to deal with work – home and your career?
Supervisors will expect you to work evenings and weekends. Plan your experiments as well as possible. It is hard work, but you have the right to plan a holiday as well. Also ask for consideration at home when you cannot make social calls or appointments because of experiments going haywire.
A proactive attitude is also essential in planning your career. Make sure that your PhD is
part of a bigger plan. Discuss your career ideas with supervisors and colleagues and figure out what is needed to achieve your goals. Make sure to prepare your application letters, C.V. and job interviews well. Have them checked by a senior experienced colleague.

Results of a small survey filled out by a few PhD Students and Supervisors

Results of a small survey filled out by a few PhD Students and Supervisors

Results of a small survey filled out by a few PhD Students and Supervisors

The text and results of the survey is used with courtesy of Dr. Ir. G. W. Jenster of the Dept. of Urology, Erasmus MC
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