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5 Pieces of Advice for doing a PhD

Written by: by Nazma F. Ilahibaks

'You're going to do a PhD after your masters,' my Master's program coordinator proudly announced during a lecture. 'Hell no!,' I thought. Three years later, I find myself finalizing the Regenerative Medicine PhD program. What happened? It was an incredibly personal decision to pursue a PhD. Many MSc students eagerly apply for a PhD position for different reasons, personal or professional. If you're one of those MSc students, you're undoubtedly getting tons of advice left and right. It can be overwhelming to find appropriate advice which can help you in the long run. Before getting those two letters "Dr." in front of your name, consider the following words of advice to help your decision-making process and circumvent unneeded stress as you embark on your PhD journey.

1.Start with the end in mind

Starting with the end in mind is one of the lessons of Stephen Covey in his best-selling book, '7 Habits of Highly Effective People'. How does the completion of a successful PhD trajectory look like for you? Why do you want to pursue a particular topic? I've often heard people say, 'I do not know what to do after my master' or 'the topic is kind of interesting’. Many people who do not know what to do before their PhD, also do not know what to do after their PhD.

A doctoral program is a hard road to travel for the next 3 to 4 years when you are simply 'interested'. You must have the drive to pursue scientific discovery, perform research, and develop its clinical application. You need to commit to the research topic for years, pivot, deal with failure, and push forward throughout the roller coaster called a PhD program. In short, clarify why and how successfully completing your PhD will look like for you.

2.Your PhD is not the same as your Master's degree

'It's crazy how many hours you work,' is a frequent comment PhD candidates hear from Master or applied science students. Yes, early morning, late night, and weekend are part of the game. Transitioning from your Master's to a PhD means you are responsible for conducting original research and contributing to your research field. You're done with following a series of courses and preparing for exams. Now, you become responsible for multiple projects, providing education, publishing, presenting, and streamlining the operational activities for your research. Be honest with yourself if you’re up to the challenge to handle this research marathon.

Side note: while performing significant research, you're also required to take courses as a PhD candidate. These courses are aimed to broaden your knowledge and equip you with skills to advance your research. Ultimately, obtaining your doctoral degree is dependent on your scientific contribution to the field, i.e., publications.

3. Do your homework

Do your due diligence on the PhD program, research institute, research group, development opportunities, and support you can get while obtaining a doctorate at the institute. Actively seek out information on these matters via the internet or by talking to people already in the position you would like to be. To get answers, contact counselors, professors, career centers at the institute, or alumni. Notably, try building relationships early on with the people you would like to work with, for example, through an internship. The people you work with, especially your promotor and co-promoter, are essential factors to help you and your research develop. Be intentional in forming good working relationships with them and honest in communicating your goals.

Tip: if you find yourself in specific research areas lacking expertise, go out and seek experts on these areas or techniques. Do not stay stuck at your lab bench trying to reinvent the wheel. Go out and find collaborations to progress the research. This is how you do not waste precious time and use resources optimally.

4. Let it be more than doing only research

Being a PhD student is not only about performing endless hours of research. The beauty of a PhD trajectory is to develop yourself and your skills further. Your hosting institute will cover many courses to improve your hard- and soft skills. Use these courses to your advantage early on. Furthermore, communicate with your supervising team how you would like to evolve yourself throughout your PhD trajectory. For example, you can pursue courses to obtain your teaching certificates or clinical trial design certificate. Also, you can expand your skills for becoming a scientific writer or scientific illustrator.

Personally, I pursue a PhD to combine nanomedicine and gene therapy towards a clinical application for cardiovascular disease. In particular, I'm driven by translating research into a clinical application. Luckily, my supervising team supports my drive. Their support allowed me to explore my doctoral research’s translational potential through pitching for investors and completing a business incubators' program.

5. Take a break and figure it out

After obtaining your Master's degree, you may want to jump right into a PhD position. Especially high-achievers, you may have just submitted your master thesis and already are on the lookout for the next challenge. Or you may be scared that if you're too long out of the game, it is hard to come back into the academic environment.

Directly applying to positions without careful considerations may get you nowhere fast. Have you considered what type of research you want to do, e.g., in silico, in vitro, in vivo, bioinformatics, or field research? Which research field inspires or motivates you? Do you know where you want to live during your PhD and what's important to you for your country of residence, e.g., receiving a salary, the weather, the culture? Do you want to pursue a doctorate in an academic environment, or does an industrial PhD fit you better? What purpose would obtaining a PhD serve you, e.g., becoming a professor, going into industry, creating a start-up company?

Get specific answers straight before you embark on a PhD journey. This clarity helps you during challenging times. When some answers are still unclear for you, try to gain answers by getting research experience and talking to people.

Word of advice: coming back into a PhD position after having worked as a young professional in the industry may be difficult. After receiving a decent salary and having regular working hours, doing a PhD involving a lot of overtime and potential salary cut, may not be so attractive after all. However, this reality is different per person.

Taken together, everyone has their own reasons for embarking on a PhD journey. Be clear on why you would like to pursue a PhD. Do your homework on which hosting institute and group matches with you. Also, realize your PhD is not anything like your Master's. It's more a research marathon than a research project that lasts for a couple of months. Develop yourself throughout your PhD program by developing your hard- and soft skills. Finally, carefully consider specific personal and professional questions to see which PhD position is a good fit for you.

Did this advice help you, or do you think it will help someone? Share it!

Do you prefer to gain experience in the life science industry? Check out the open vacancies at

© Nazma F. Ilahibaks, 2022


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