Guest blog: How to survive a science PhD thats not in the lab.

Happy Monday all! Hope you are all enjoying the Easter weekend. I certainly am! As you are reading this I am currently on the plane or have landed and enjoying the sunshine in beautiful Barbados for the next two weeks!

But do not fret! I have an army of guest bloggers that are going to be looking after Soph talks science for me whilst I am away so you can still get your science fix twice a week!

So I am going to hand you over to my first guest blogger, Heidi! You are in safe hands!

Ciao! See you in 2 weeks ๐Ÿ™‚



Hello! I’m Heidi and I’m a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Aberdeen!


My research looks at improving the way we recruit participants into clinical trials, to try and make the process more efficient and more evidence-based than it currently is.

Clinical trials are the best way of testing whether new healthcare interventions (e.g. drugs, devices and types of surgery) are better than the current standard of care. Trials change the way our NHS runs and makes sure that we’re improving public health to the best of our ability.

Did you know that almost half of all clinical trials don’t recruit the correct number of participants? That’s a big problem, because trial statisticians calculate how many participants are needed to ensure the results of the trial are viable – if the trials don’t recruit that target number, the results could be false. That raises big ethical problems because people who have taken part in trials that they went into, thinking they would improve knowledge, but they could actually be giving us incorrect results.

Currently methods we use to do recruitment into trials don’t have a lot of evidence behind them, so over the course of my PhD I’m hoping to improve these methods so that the trials we run are more reliable.

Before my PhD I did an undergraduate masters degree in Pharmacology, which had a big focus on lab work but I really wanted to move on to a scientific job that was closer to patients – during my undergraduate dissertation I discovered just how rubbish I was at Western blot – too impatient! – so felt like a more applied role would fit me better.


As I’m sure you all know from reading the above, Soph is away on holiday (lucky thing!) so I am here to keep her blogging game up and give you some insight into what it is like to do a science PhD that is not based in the lab – I know, weird right?! I work in a big open plan office when I’m on campus, and I do a lot of work on my laptop at home too – a big perk of my project is working from the sofa with a giant mug of tea and some biscuits! This non-lab work can be anything from reading papers, doing systematic reviews or my personal favourite bit of PhD work – conducting qualitative interviews. Interviews are my main method of data collection, so I get to spend a lot of time talking to different people who are involved in trials which I find super interesting.

Doing a PhD that’s not in the lab can be weird sometimes, so here are my top 5 tips on how to survive an office based project.

  1. Stick to a routine

Without needing to book lab space or get started with experiments early, it’s easy to leave certain parts of your work to when you feel like it – spoiler alert – you’ll never feel like it. As with any PhD there are parts that aren’t super fun; abstract screening for a systematic review for example. It all needs doing though, and sticking to a routine as if I’m an employee rather than a student has really helped me maintain productivity through tedious tasks. My usual routine involves a 9.30am start in the office, lunch about 1.30pm, and then I walk home about 4.30/5pm. I usually go to a yoga class, go to the cinema or just chill in front of the TV after work and then I do another hour of emails and writing later on in the evening.


2. Set boundaries

Related to my earlier point, sometimes it’s just not possible to stick to a routine. Certain times of the year are busier and you need to put in the extra hours to make sure everything gets done. That’s pretty normal with most PhDs I think, but not being lab-based there have been times when I’ve found myself looking up from my laptop at 1am and not realising so much time has passed. I set definite boundaries even during the super busy times. I need a decent amount of sleep, and I need to spend time with my family/friends/boyfriend; those things aren’t negotiable for me. I plan work a few weeks in advance to make sure I meet deadlines with plenty of wiggle room; it took practice in the beginning but now it comes pretty naturally.


3. Make friends in your department.

Doing a science PhD thatโ€™s not based in a lab is sometimes really weird, and it can be quite lonely. Thereโ€™s no shared space โ€“ Iโ€™m not working with lab-mates. At the moment my desk is on the 1st floor and most of my colleagues are on the 3rd floor, so making friends was a bit tricky at first. Now I try to catch up with colleagues regularly, it helps me stay in the loop with work but itโ€™s also really nice to make friends and get to know people away from the academic stuff.


4. Get involved with projects outside your PhD.

Obviously your PhD project is the reason why youโ€™re at work, and it has to be your main priority โ€“ but getting involved with other projects is such a brilliant opportunity! Extra projects give you the chance to be productive when youโ€™re just not feeling the PhD, they add to your CV and prove that youโ€™re able to multi-task too. As well as that, getting involved with projects linked to your own research work will help with networking and potential next steps once the PhD is done (eventuallyโ€ฆ).


5. Find a way to present your work at least once a year.

Presenting doesnโ€™t have to be talks and posters at conferences or professional meetings โ€“ though they are both brilliant things to do. Presenting could also include public engagement activities;ย for me doing public engagement has been a part of my PhD that I didnโ€™t think Iโ€™d get to do before I started the project. I wasnโ€™t sure how Iโ€™d be able to contribute when my work isnโ€™t lab-based. Lots of wet-science topics can be covered creatively to make them understandable and accessible to the public, but I work in clinical trials. The first thing the public think of when you mention clinical trials is โ€˜human guinea pigโ€™ โ€“ not ideal and most definitely not true! So far Iโ€™ve been involved with a brilliant public engagement project where we did a trial involving chocolate, a much easier way to get the public to listen.

heidi 2


If you have any questions about clinical trials or anything mentioned in this blog post, please get in touch! Catch me over on Twitter or head to my blog.

Huge thanks to Sophie for letting me write for her blog – don’t forget to keep up to date with all her new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find her and her Soph talks science blog onย Facebook, Twitterย and Instagram.


3 thoughts on “Guest blog: How to survive a science PhD thats not in the lab.

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