10 secrets to become a successful research student

It’s the middle of October and everyone, whether you’re at nursery, high school, a fresher, or at grad school, is well and truly back to school and in the swing of things. This year was my 23rd – and hopefully final – ‘back to school’. A truly depressing thought I know. But as I have been in the student game, pretty much my entire life, I thought I must have some wisdom to pass down! As I’m edging nearer to my days as a student and my time studying for a PhD, I thought I would share my 10 secrets to becoming a successful research student! So whether you’re a newbie PhD, doing some research before applying for a PhD, or in that mid-PhD slump looking for some motivation, hopefully these tips will give you a helping hand!

I’m sure there are so many more hidden secrets, but these are the ones that I have found to have been incredibly important along my journey to the grad school cap and gown!


Secret 1 – Deal with your supervisor

This is probably THE most important relationship you will have during your research career.  You need to make sure that you get the supervision you need as supervisors are notoriously busy. For you grow and progress through your project, you will need the advice, the knowledge and the drive from your supervisor to help you reach certain milestones. And that will all be made much more difficult if you and your supervisor are not getting on. It’s up to you to get their attention, schedule meetings with them so you can both catch up with each other and both bounce ideas off of each other – neither one of you can be doing all the hard work. And talking of hard work – your supervisor might be expecting you to achieve ALOT in a very short amount of time and then want you to be mentoring a new student or do more experiments or more writing! And it is OK to say no! Your supervisor will be there to push you, but it is just as important for you to know your limits. Look after your supervisor, and they will look after you!


Secret 2 – Structure your time

One of the joys of being a research student is that you basically get to be your own boss! You get to decide when you do what experiment and when you sit down to write that next paper. But sometimes with too much freedom, procrastination starts to sneak it – definitely for me! So I try to keep my motivation by scheduling what achievements I need to do by certain deadlines. For example, I knew I had about 10 weeks from my last week off until Christmas and I had a list of things I wanted to achieve by then. So, I planned out a Gannt chart and then split that up into smaller tasks for each week. I will do the same again from January until March when I take another break from lab.


Secret 3 – Write and show as you go

The thought of writing a huge 300 page thesis at the end of the four years is something that terrifies me! I’m also a bit of a stress ball so the less stressful I can make my submission process the better. As part of my PhD program I’ve had to write a heap of different project reports and a transfer thesis which helped keep me on top of the literature and getting my results into final format. But I haven’t had to write anything like this in about a year now. The next thing will be my thesis! So, I’ve tried to keep on top of the writing slowly but surely against to try and make everything that little bit smoother in the long run I hope. Any new methods I’ve written up have already been shown to one of my supervisors and as it’s only about a page or two at a time, they are happy to read it! Plus in the long run it means I don’t have to keep chasing my supervisor for feedback, they don’t have to keep giving up huge chunks of time just for me and I don’t end up with a page covered in red pen that I need to change.



Secret 4 – Getting the help you need when you are stuck

As the famous saying goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. I couldn’t agree more. What is the point in sitting on an issue for a few days or even weeks trying to fix it yourself, when someone sat just over your shoulder has the answer. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. I think it is a sign of strength! Plus a research project is incredibly time dependent, so there is no use in trying to resolve an issue yourself. Talk to people! The lack of communication in labs truly frustrates me sometimes! Asking for help just means that you will learn something and are able to teach someone else.


Secret 5 – Dealing with writers block

There has been many a time where I have sat down to write a paper or another section of a thesis or a grant proposal and my mind has gone blank. I can’t concentrate and I don’t know what to write! Sometimes I am just not in the mood to write and will leave it and come back another day with a fresh look! My other ways of dealing with writers block is to schedule in a time and a word count goal and work to that! Maybe finding a writing buddy might help! Or maybe you need to take time away from the screen to actually work out what you need to write about. Whatever the reason, every research student will suffer from writers block at some point. Much like everything else, we just need to find a way that we can overcome it that suits us!


Secret 6 – Be realistic

Okay, so you’re not going to get a Nobel Prize after finishing your research project! Most research students go in with unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve in the next few years. This is your big chance to contribute to science right? Unfortunately, probably not! Doing a research project like a PhD is just you learning how to do research! You are learning how to become an independent researcher! Yes, you need to finish a thesis, but the likelihood is that it probably won’t be perfect! And it’s not going to uncover a major discovery! But at the end of it, you will know how to design a research project, carry that out, deal any problem you might encounter and many experimental skills and writing skills. Something that is much more valuable!


Secret 7 – Juggling multiple commitments and not having enough time

This one kind of links back to Secret 1 and learning to say no to your supervisor. But there is not going to be a time in your PhD where you are not needed to be juggling many commitments. It is just something you will have to deal with. Whether thats running multiple experiments at once, or doing your own work whilst teaching a new student, or finishing up in the lab, writing a grant, looking for jobs, writing a thesis, going on holidays to keep your sanity and still wanting to do your science communication – you will always have more things to do than you can manage. Some things have to get done, some things will be able to be delayed. But you will learn to prioritise and time manage more and more throughout your project! In fact, you will become so good at juggling that you could probably join the circus at the end of it all!


Secret 8 – You get out of it what you put in

While the flexibility of a research project is amazing! It can often lead to more and more procrastination and eventually guilt that you’re not achieving much, and then you might be getting worried that you haven’t got enough data for a PhD, or your colleague has published more papers than you. Realistically, noone can make you do more experiments and make you work in the lab for 20 hours a day, but if you want to have published 3 papers by the time you pass your PhD viva – there’s only one person that is going to stop you – and that’s you! I know science is  unruly sometimes and will dictate what you can and can’t do – but negative results are not going to stop you from getting a PhD, and hopefully soon there will be a revolution in publishing negative results too, so that is not going to hold you back either. You can put as much time and effort into your project as you want! There is no issues with that! But if you want that 500 page thesis or 5 published papers – it’s not going to happen if you do two experiments a week!


Secret 9 – Your attitude towards your research

Noone is going to do your research for you. You are the one that is going to have to want to do all those experiments and troubleshooting to answer your research questions. This is why picking a project that you actually enjoy is crucial, and you’re not just doing it because it’s working with that big name or some super cool technique! You will be expected to get results and if you’re not going to want to do it, then it’s going to make your time on the project very miserable! If you truly want to answer those research questions, then no hurdle you encounter will stop you.


Secret 10 – Keeping going when the going gets tough

Not throwing in the towel at every possible occasion and forcing yourself to continue is what makes a successful researcher. You don’t give up, yes you might get extremely frustrated, but you just come back a day or two after and try to fix the problem! The number one skill that a researcher needs is resilience! If you give up at the first sign of an experiment going wrong, well you’re probably not going to make it through the first week. Sometimes the problems can be fixed, and sometimes they are just inexplicable. And unfortunately you just have to get over it and carry on! If you can do that, then you’re one step closer to being that successful researcher.



There is so much advice around about looking after yourself whilst you are studying for a PhD or doing a research project – which I 100% agree with as you do truly need to look after number 1! But there does come a time where you do actually need to get down to some work at the lab bench and I haven’t found many sources where naive newbie PhD students, like I was once upon a time, could learn about what makes you a successful PhD in the lab! It needs to be balanced with being a happy and healthy individual, but hopefully this post gives you an insight into what qualities a good researcher needs!

Science love.


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