Permanent Head Damage: PhD lessons learnt so far

There are things that I didn’t see coming when I started a PhD. Bearing in mind that I did a Master’s that was largely independent and certainly felt like a PhD, I was completely surprised how overwhelmed I felt starting out. I really am in a great environment filled with not only two highly experienced and motivating supervisors but a suite of senior scientists and post-docs that are exceptionally passionate about their trade. I can’t but help imagine what hell PhD must be for people who have none of these things, because truly, this is the hardest thing I have ever done.

As a bit of an overachiever and perfectionist, my experience of the transition to grad school was devastating. In undergrad it was easy to see that I was on the right track – get an A and you pretty much understand your work- but progress in higher degrees is very hard to gauge. Your positive reinforcements come from getting awards and grants and being asked to speak at conferences, for most of which you are competing with people who are seasoned professionals. So, you have to celebrate really tiny successes whenever they occur. I have learned to become overjoyed when controls work in an experiment and celebrate everyday my cells look happy. I’ve also learned that things will take at least 3 months longer than what is planned and am slowly learning to let go of things I can’t get done. Most importantly, I’ve started to see the light, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just my life going up in flames (although that is sometimes how it feels).

Dog fire



If you are just starting out, I’m going to throw you a bone. I am by no means a seasoned PhD candidate but I can reveal to you several pieces of advice about things no one really wants to talk about – especially in a world where saying you aren’t coping means you may have to cope with no funding.

  1. When fielding “how is your PhD going” questions from people who clearly don’t think that doing a PhD is a “real job”… I like to use unnecessarily big words. An example would be, “I am currently analysing the nuclear fission impact of a quark.” Having just bamboozled them, I can silently take joy in the knowledge I have no idea what I just said. Lesson one: don’t let people make you feel small or silly because you chose a difficult path.
  2. You will occasionally feel that a fog has settled and that “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is looking pretty good right now (a sad aside; Microsoft Word just autocorrected “Kardashians” for me).
  3. Sometimes my days feel like wading through molasses and others like running against Usain Bolt. Learning to cope with the pace of a doctorate can be daunting; try to stay organised. I use OneNote for everything and I feel comforted that my lab book and my hair appointments are all in one place.
  4. Everyone feels overwhelmed, but very few people will speak about it and its best to realise early that people don’t always want to. Some people would rather make strange barking noises in the corridor. But that’s ok too. People all cope in different ways and the good thing is that they are coping, so don’t knock them for the way they deal. Some people sink into a depression, which is scarily common (read this great article on the link between mental problems and academia).
  5. You will feel overcome with an occasional sense of disaster and that you will not make any difference to the world. The difference will be small, but it will be made. I call this stage Stage Impending Doom. This usually occurs around the time industry starts to look particularly wonderful- sometimes not even in the field you have studied. I have found myself wondering what it would be like to be a cashier in a clothing store.
  6. Dating isn’t easy. It never is. Very often the person you are dating will never do a PhD and doesn’t understand the magnetism of this stage of life. My personal opinion? Don’t make major life decisions during your PhD. But, on the flip side of that I have known many wonderful scientists who have planned weddings (sometimes married each other!) and had babies all while succeeding marvelously.
  7. If you don’t feel like throwing in the towel at some point, you are not normal. In fact they should just give you your PhD upfront. A very prominent scientist in my field asked me how many times I had quit my PhD once while socialising over finger foods at a conference. I gave him a puzzled look, “well….never.” He proceeded to tell me how he had quit 3 times. Perspective is an ironic beast.
  8. I feel guilty all the time. Out with friends? You should be writing. Going to gym? You should be writing. Having lunch? YOU SHOULD BE WRITING. You get the picture.

    dog science
  9. Every once in a while you will have imposter syndrome where you feel you have no idea what you are doing. But remember: You belong there and you are not simply a Labrador holding a pipette.
  1. You have to learn not to take yourself too seriously. There is a fantastic website that oversimplifies PhD theses (An example; Actual title: Somatotopy of Second Order Lateral Line Projections in Larval Zebrafish. Simplified title: Fish are friends, not food. Until you inject them with rabies and then they’re neither). Give it a read and suddenly your project will really become great again.
  2. Having a great supervisor really is important. Yes, you are responsible for your thesis and work, but having an experienced ear that I can rely on has truly been the biggest blessing I’ve had so far. Navigating the murky waters of science politics is an unexpected terror I have frequently and having back-up is imperative.
  3. Be kind to those newer than you. Some newbies will come to compete with you, even though you have nothing to compete for. Try to be patient and don’t get swept up in this. Maybe they are just trying to gauge how good they are and they are struggling too.
  4. It is entirely possible to spend your stipend on snacks.
  5. It will be hard to watch your friends in different fields move on with their lives (houses, weddings, families) but your time will come, it will likely just take a bit longer.
  6. Always try to maintain perspective and to remember why it is that you wanted to do a PhD. Try not to forget that a PhD is pushing the boundary of all human knowledge. Quite frankly, I think we all need a standing ovation just for that.


The best piece of advice I have is that PhDs have been done by at least 15 million people on earth. You can do it too.

head case

The dangers of misinformation and miscommunication

I will start this article, I’m fairly confident, the way that no good story has ever started:

I was standing in the line at home affairs last week. I happened to strike up the usual conversation one has at these places; “Why is the line so long? Do you need photos?  (It amazes me that no one ever knows the answer to this question!) Are we going to be here so long that the sun will absorb all of our moisture and when our families come looking for us all that will remain is our tortured souls still hoping for our passports?” Having run out of things to complain about, I asked my fellow brave soul what he did for a living. He was a very high powered investment banker who also had a PhD. I learnt that day that education truly is not enough when ignorance is a dominating plague.

I wish I had told this man I was a struggling actor or an astronaut – but then again he would have had an opinion on that too. “An astronaut? Really? I heard the earth is flat and the moon is Gorgonzola. Is that true? Wait, I know it’s true. So don’t respond.” I didn’t though. Sadly I said I was a HIV researcher and his face darkened. A frown dug its way into his forehead and I could hear the 10 ton piano that was about to fall on me strain in its support. “You know,” he said in a suddenly condescending tone, “I don’t buy this whole ‘HIV’ thing. (He actually did the inverted commas with his fingers, which somehow made the whole thing worse.) I heard that it was the Americans.” I realised by the way he sneered the last part of his sentence that nothing I said was ever going to change his opinion. Valiantly I tried to explain that HIV was a zoonosis and had jumped species on at least 3 different occasions. (Read more about why this doesn’t happen that often.) I spent what felt like an entire lifetime trying to convince him about the scientific evidence. And in the end, the best line emerging from this conversation was his, “Well, you can have your opinion and I will have mine.”

The benefit of having a science degree is knowing that the most popular opinion is not always the right one. Having been trained to question everything, I’ve since understood, is not a skill everyone has. In society, the loudest (most obnoxious!) person is the one who gets heard (once again think Donald Trump) while in science you will get laughed off of a conference stage without any data. This is possibly the root of misunderstandings in science. The people listen to the strongest voice and all the while the white coats are in a corner throwing around statistics. Even when scientists are completely right, some rapper may still convince a few people the earth is flat (see this hilarious exchange between B.O.B and Neil Degrasse Tyson – thank goodness for him!).

Another huge contributor to the hall of misunderstanding and strange theories is the media. Now let me be clear; it is not just the journalists who misinterpret. It is the job of a scientist to simplify and explain their work. One of my science heroines Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (co-discover of HIV), who I was privileged to hear speak, said that at the end of your life you do not remember the journal articles you published or how high their impact number was, but the lives you have changed with the work. If you can’t communicate and translate your work, who will it ever truly benefit? I find that if you can explain your project to your Granny so she understands why you are doing it and how it may help the world, you really understand it yourself.

As a postgrad it’s easy to feel lost; to feel that your work is too far removed from any kind of real-world application. It is easy to think that you’re just doing this to get a degree. However, it’s good to communicate your science for lots of reasons: 1) you can prevent misinterpretation, 2) you can make people feel that they can engage with science and not have their heads explode, 3) you can help scientists in queues at Home Affairs retain their sanity when non-scientists begin to ask questions and 4) you can feel relevant. It’s important to remember it really is our duty to not lock ourselves in a lab, but to reach out: to teach not only the uneducated but the ignorant too. It’s up to scientists to add their voice, otherwise we may be drowned out by the loudest opinions. It’s up to us to build public trust in science. If we are only heard when there is crisis then we are never heard in calm (see this article by Tolu Oni).


Scientist news cycle
How science communication works… (

There have been miscommunications that have done very serious damage too. One is most certainly the notion that vaccinating your child will result in autism (read here why this isn’t true). This has resulted in 100s of unnecessary deaths from measles in small children. Another is that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, perpetuated by our very own ex-president Thabo Mbeki. Some “facts” are even started out of fear as a rumour: in a small town called Vulindela, wonderful things are being done by the organisation we work with (CAPRISA), to try to reduce unwanted pregnancies and HIV incidence. One of the proposed ways to do this was to insert IUDs into young girls following extensive education on the matter. The programme had to be stopped because one of the girls told all her peers that maggots would grow internally. Naturally teenage girls were then hesitant about IUDs. A far more famous case of misinformation is what happened to Hendrietta Lacks in 1951. With questionable ethical practice, doctors treating this woman took samples of her cervical cancer and made a cell line (cells that are descended from one cell and have the same genetic features) that was able to be kept in culture indefinitely. This cell line is one of the most widely used in clinical trials today; a form of which we use to test the efficacy of HIV vaccines. This woman had no idea what these doctors and scientists were doing and many years later, her family thought that she was still alive because scientists had “immortalised” her cells (Read more about this incredible story in Rebecca Skoot’s novel).

Miscommunications in science can be deadly and disturbing and we have to find ways of changing this. As a PhD student it is my job to pick the hard questions and find answers but, it is imperative that I find ways to explain the hard questions in a way that anyone can engage with them. Solutions can come from the strangest places, even the line in home affairs.