The importance of “planning” during a PhD

I usually count myself lucky, because, in the programme I’m in at Wits, the maximum time it takes to complete a PhD is 4 years compared to many other universities and countries, in which a PhD is MINIMUM 3 years. NO THANK YOU. As much as I enjoy my work and work environment, I refuse to exceed the maximum duration of my PhD. Although, this is easier said than done. Let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone plans on extending their PhD, but given the circumstances, one has to be able to adapt, especially when studying towards a PhD. Nevertheless, apart from the uncontrollable forces (such as COVID-19) that keep you from reaching your milestones during a PhD, having a plan is the next best thing.

If you’re starting your PhD in the same lab, you worked in for your MSc, count yourself lucky. You don’t have to spend precious time being trained on new techniques, principles, equipment and so on. If you’re like me, I’m sure you already know how frustrating the entire process is (educational and advantageous…BUT frustrating). However, again, this is something you may not be able to control. Perhaps you’re in the same lab, but your PhD project is completely different to your Masters and requires just as much training and time. So, instead of focusing on these uncontrollable issues (which we tend to focus on the most!), you can focus on what you can control, and plan it!

Speaking about “uncontrollable issues” …let’s talk about South Africa’s biggest problem, load-shedding. Unfortunately, our country has been facing excessive load shedding during these past few months, and although costly, generators, inverters and solar panels seem like the best way forward to allow us to keep working consistently through the day, especially in the long run. During load shedding, we are fortunate enough to have a generator on campus, that is until the generator breaks down and we can say goodbye to all our hard work sitting in those -80°C freezers. Apart from that, when the generators are working, there are specific experiments or equipment that cannot be used due to the amount of energy it takes. So, load shedding definitely impacts the amount of work that can be done in a day. On the “bright” side, at least we have a load-shedding schedule so we can plan our days to some extent.

It’s imperative to start planning your experiments, setting realistic timelines, completing progress reports and scheduling presentations from the very start. That way, even if your plan starts to fall apart, you can always re-program your next few months. For example, I assumed that I would start my first batch of experiments in August 2021, and I will have completed those specific experiments by December 2021. Instead, there were a few issues with my cell lines, and I only ended up starting those experiments in September 2021 and finishing them off in the first week of Feb 2022. Although I deviated from my schedule, having it there and knowing that I was falling off-track motivated me to get work done. For me, that is the power of having a plan. It doesn’t keep you from falling behind, but it motivates you to keep going.

Doing a PhD means requires growing your project management skills. One other way to do this, besides your own personal planning, is to learn from your seniors. For example, a colleague of mine is involved in a pre-clinical trial, and since I will hopefully be involved in my own one next year, I was placed on this project by my supervisor. This allows me to experience the entire project while receiving training which would be advantageous to me when my time comes. I’ve also started to note down the most stressful parts of this project, such as the ordering of all the chemicals, flasks, drugs and mice, the advanced planning that is required, and some of the pressure points in the project. Having all this information and experience is like having a cheat sheet before my project starts. Apart from the experience of working on the project first-hand, I also listen and take the advice of my seniors in the lab. This includes tips on doing group experiments, prepping for future experiments, starting my write-up, and time management.

All these tips and plans are crucial for keeping me on track. I enjoy having a goal to strive for, but if I don’t achieve it, it only motivates me to keep going. And when you keep going, one experiment at a time, eventually, you’ll soon be able to see the finish line. Plan. Execute. Fail. Keep going!

What is important when choosing a supervisor? Finding the one…

A common topic among graduate students is how their supervisor is treating them, and their relationship with their sups or in general their relationship with one. I have found this to be one of the most important aspects if one wants to continue from their undergraduate to postgraduate education. How does one make an informed decision on finding the ‘right’ one? Unfortunately, for many people, this decision was either made for them or they were oblivious to the matter. People like me for example who did not have a clue what postgraduate studies entail or have any mentors or friends to guide them through the journey end up being miserable or the opposite because they found great people to help them through the journey.  

Choosing the right supervisor is not only beneficial for your health but the progress of your work too. Many articles have been published regarding supervisor-student relationships and the outcome that comes with them. Dr Harry Hothi’s blog post on the qualities of a good supervisor summarized them as having a strong understanding of your research field, demonstrated by consistent and significant publications, having a proven track record of PhD supervision, having the time to support you, and doing so by acting as a mentor rather than a “boss.” Another article written by the University of Otago indicated that the qualities that would constitute a good supervisor are; support, availability, interest and enthusiasm in the student’s work, knowledge and expertise in the field, interest in the student’s career, good communication, constructive feedback, a supervisor who provides direction had an experience and interested in the supervision, finally, a supervisor who is approachable.

Here are some of the tips you should take when choosing to embark on the graduate journey.

  • Do your research; Do thorough research on the supervisor’s work, the excellence of his/her work and the relevance to what you desire to do now and in the future.
  • Find out about them; one of the most important things we have to find out is your potential supervisor’s interpersonal skills, and whether their personality aligns well with yours. A supervisor can have all the academic or scientific skills in the world but how he treats people and how he treats his students is paramount. This will not only affect your mental health but your being, physically and emotionally.
  • Ask one of their past or present students about them. Asking not only helps you see the supervisor from another person’s perspective but also helps understand how people understand the supervisor’s leadership and receive them.
  • Have a meeting with them before the journey begins. I know most of the time we are desperate to go to school or just excited about the project. Please have a one-on-one meeting with your prospective supervisor before you register for your degree. Find out how they deal with conflict resolution. How do they deal with personal matters, for example, if you were to get pregnant, or find a part-time job? What kind of support do they provide for their students (mental health, writing workshops… anything)? This will in a way help you make the right decision.
  •  Collaborationsask the supervisor how it is done with other students and postdocs and the possibilities of it.
  • Independence – as an emerging researcher, how independent one can be?
  • Conferences, seminars and workshops – which conferences they prefer for students to apply to and the frequency.
  • Research publications – how many papers do they expect from you? What are the norms regarding authorship? What are the timelines?
  • Mentorship – he should advise on how he normally does it in the group.

My take is that even though I have experienced only a few months of the PhD journey, it can be hard, lonely, and daunting. Please find a supervisor who will guide you, encourage, support, and challenge you and most importantly realistically listen to you. Yes, the topic of interest, the school and funding are fundamental in graduate school but finding a good supervisor will help you even in dark times. Some people have the experience of their life during this journey, which is beautiful to watch and experience, soak in it and enjoy.