A day in the life of a PhD student. Chapter 1.

Since my I won my first science prize!!! …. well sort of! blog post all the way back in February, I’ve actually won a science prize! It was another three minute thesis competition – but it was the actual university- wide competition where I won the audience prize within my Faculty’s heat- so I must have some sort of talent for trying to explain my research to a general audience as they liked it πŸ™‚

I do try and explain what I do, but every time I visit home there is ALWAYS someone who wants to know the details. Now most people I know back home already know that I’m doing a PhD in stem cell research, so that’s not the question they ask me. They are more interested in what I actually do in a typical day – which is generally quite hard to describe as it is so varied! I imagine most of my friends and family think I’m leading this glamorous lab lifestyle where I’m constantly doing more and more experiments with no issues, and that each and every day I’m one step closer to finding a cure for cancer or that big discovery that is going to change the world. But unfortunately, it is quite the opposite! A day in the life of a PhD student is typically a long, drawn out fight with cells and equipment to get experiments to work. And this is repeated over and over again until you finally get that one day where everything fits into place! Everything works, you have your EUREKA! moment and it makes up for all those other days!

Now I’m probably painting what I do in a really bad light! It is not that bad, I promise! It’s frustrating, yes! But I do love it!


So I thought it would be fun to start a new little series called ‘A day in the life of a PhD student’ and I will pick a few different days to try and demonstrate how varied my days can be whilst giving you a taste for it. Obviously, these blogs are going to be personal to me and are not reflective of every single PhD in every single field. It’s all about variation!


A typical day starts around 7:30-8am when I wake up usually depending on how much I have to do in the lab that day, and how long it takes me to actually get up πŸ˜› I conveniently live (literally!) a one minute walk away from work so I don’t have to get up extra early to travel etc. I usually get into the office about 9am. First job – look at the ‘To Do’ list, go get some ice and start ‘defrosting’ the samples that I need for my first experiment of the day – a Western blot. The next half hour or so is spent waiting for samples to thaw, checking any emails, setting up the rest of the equipment I need for my Western blot and preparing anything else I might need for later experiments.

9:19am and we are ready to embark on day 1 of my two day Western blot protocol. Western blotting in simpler terms is a technique I use nearly every day which involves loading my samples into a gel and seperating them by size. Then, using antibodies, I can pick out my protein of interest to measure how much there is in each of my samples.

So the first step is to make my gels and allow them to set which comes with its own issues! While they are setting I usually prepare my samples ready to load. Before the gels have set, we add a comb into the top so after they have set, it gives us gaps in the gel to load my samples into.

Gels set. Check.

Samples prepared and loaded. Check.


So, by 10:49am my samples are slowly moving through the gel and starting to seperating by size, which you can see in the photo above. As well as loading my samples, I also load a marker into one of the wells to run alongside my samples. This helps me to determine when to stop the seperating, as it shows me where a protein of a certain size will be roughly on the gel. But this seperating stage could take anything from an hour to two and a half hours!!!!

So while I’m waiting for my samples, I need to make up new buffers and solutions I need for most of the experiments I do. This really isn’t an exciting task but it’s just one of those things that needs to be done. It involves just weighing out different combinations of chemicals, mixing them usually in water and then checking their pH, or their acidity, and adjusting that if necessary.

12:04pm and it’s time for stage two of day one of the Western blot πŸ’ͺ🏼 This is the transfer stage where we want to move the proteins from the gel onto a membrane – which just looks like a bit of paper! This also keeps the proteins in the same position on the membrane as the gel, so the bigger proteins will be at the top and the smaller ones towards the bottom! This stage needs to be left for at least two hours – which means it is lunchtime! ☺️

12:35pm means food! Good job really as my stomach had started to rumble! Alongside stuffing my face, I scrolled aimlessly through Facebook and started doing some research for an article I want to write for Signal to Noise magazine. Check them out here! Or on Twitter @Signal2NoiseMag

13:59pm and I’ve been back in the lab and finished my next task – the Bradford assay. The aim of this is to work out how much protein is in my samples. I mix some of the Bradford reagent with some of my sample and it turns from brown to blue – so the more protein there is in my sample, the stronger the blue colour. You can see this with the two columns on the left in the photo. These are my standards which increase in concentration hence you can see them getting bluer and bluer!

If you had read my previous post Feeding time in the lab then you will remember that I work with embryonic stem cells and they need feeding every single day! So 14:32 is cell culture time! This time is spent just feeding my cells, setting up siRNA experiments and just the general stuff we need to do to be able to keep out cells growing happily!

As well as my work on embryonic stem cells, I also do a bit of work on some cancer cells – called teratocarcinoma cells. As with all cells these still need feeding but only every 2-3 days, so they are a bit easier to look after as they don’t need as much care and attention! So at 15:28 these cells again needed feeding today and I collected some protein samples from them, which I will eventually test in a Bradford assay followed by another Western blot!!

16:04 and it’s time to finish day 1 of the Western blot! My membranes that I transferred my protein onto earlier in the day are put in these tubes that have my antibodies in. They are put on this roller overnight to allow the antibodies to stick to my protein of interest so I can detect them tomorrow! I have tried not to bore you with loads of details about the Western blot and all the different stages, but hopefully you have a feeling for some of the steps. If you want to learn more about the Western blot, please feel free to get in touch and ask questions! And hopefully I can show day 2 of the Western blot in another later blog post in this mini series!

16:27 and it’s probably a bit late to start anything else today, so it’s time to head back to the office and write up everything that I’ve done today in my lab book, check emails again and prepare a ‘To Do’ list for tomorrow.

For me this is a fairly busy day, but when I am busy the time flies away. There was so many other things on my ‘To Do’ list that I wanted to get done today but time ran away from me so they are on tomorrow’s ‘To Do’ list now!! But it’s home time for today at about 5.30pm!

Hopefully this has given you a bit of an idea about what I might get up to in a working day! And maybe it’s got you intrigued, so I hope you are looking forward to the next post in this series but feel free to ask me any questions in the mean time. I’d be more than happy to chat to you about it ☺️

But that’s another day done, and another step closer to finishing my PhD πŸ˜›


11 thoughts on “A day in the life of a PhD student. Chapter 1.

  1. ahh! hahaha I love this post. reminds me of all the days I’ve done westerns. maybe lab days will be more exciting if we spend time documenting it like this….


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