Six lessons for PhD students

I started my PhD without realising what it was and what drove me in the first place. To be honest, there was just a sudden opportunity and I did not have a clear view on other career opportunities. Neither did I proactively develop those. The road towards a PhD is bumpy, especially in the beginning.

Talking to other (former) PhD students, many of them started similarly and face similar challenges. One of them is Marjolein, a good friend and former Ghent University colleague. PS: Marjolein is the UGent nominee for a prestigious New Scientist pize.

Marjolein: “My master’s thesis made me realise I liked research, so I wanted to continue doing it. I knew I would have to pursue a PhD but didn’t have the scores (and was to late) to apply for personal funding. Luckily a friend brought me into contact with my supervisor just at the right time. I thought ‘even if this never turns into a PhD, at least I will gain some useful experience for my further career.”

I nearly quit in the first year

I still remember the first meetings with my supervisors, and I still have the notes. 3 things became clear:

  • I didn’t know a f*** about my research domain
  • I only understood 10% of what was discussed during the meeting
  • My notes were really poor

At the end of the first year I did not feel the progress I made, and I saw my contemporaries starting successful ‘real jobs’. I lost a big deal of the initial motivation and was considering to quit… until that first paper got accepted.

Inexperience and lack of knowledge combined with the lack of tangible results is a major hurdle in the first year of the PhD. Get over it and don’t be afraid to talk to your more experienced colleagues. Everyone has been there!

If you just started out, you might recognise the situation. Simultaneously, you might not realise that this will all change drastically during the coming years. So apparently over 4 years I learned:

  • a lot about my research domain, with people starting to ask me questions
  • to manage and structurize information flows (How? Here’s a post on that)
  • to put into perspective failures and challenges along the road

So from this I derived the following rule:

If you understand less than 50% of what’s being said in meetings, if you think the people around you are much smarter, and you’re struggling with information, be happy: you’re probably learning.

I printed 50 outdated papers in my first week

At the start of my PhD, I experienced total chaos. Where to start reading? What to do first? Am I actually smart enough? The other researchers seemed smarter and were progressing, waw.

The questions and thoughts are just overwhelming. Do you know how I started my first week? I decided to print some papers to learn about my topic by reading myself to dead. So I thought: let’s go chronologically and print the oldest ones first starting in the 70s or so. While not realising I had to print 1000s of papers, I started with a whole pile of around 50. Bad English combined with a lack of understanding made things worse, making me read papers twice or more, very slowly. After one week I gave up and got rid of a few kilograms of paper. Something was not working.

Marjolein has a similar experience: “I started out on a project but with the intention to apply for a personal scholarship along the way. So I started reading and preparing the best I could. Often however, just getting started and trying and failing in the (virtual) lab will teach you so much more than trying to master theory first. This is one of the most important lessons I try to convey to the students I guide today as well.”

This makes me think of Ray Dalio’s quote (I was reading his book ‘Principles’):

The satisfaction of success doesn’t come from achieving your goals, but from struggling well.

Here’s the point:

Although it might seem there is a plan, most often there is none. At first I did not realise I was in charge of making the plan, and not my supervisors. A plan allows you to struggle well.

Then things started changing

This is how I think my confidence/motivational curve looked like over 4 years of PhD and Marjolein’s curve is very similar:


Everyone has a specific curve, for example I had (former) PhD students telling me they were dying in year 2, and not everyone has 4 years. However, I guess the following phases can be distinguished:

  • Phase 1 – Dying: you start rather motivated, but very quickly you realise that knowledge, structure and experience are missing. You are like a chicken without a head seeing only one thing: limited tangible progress.
  • Phase 2 – Surviving: You tend to stay in the race and feel some personal improvement. However, you are not yet skilled enough to make a lot of progress. You still face a lot of ups and downs, but the minima and maxima might become less extreme. You might publish a paper.
  • Phase 3 – Progressing: You are most likely able to publish a paper that is largely based on own ideas or initiative. This further boosts your confidence. You go to conferences more confidently and can start telling about your research.
  • Phase 4: Accelerating: You might call yourself a researcher with a real job. Others are now asking you questions, and you are able to help them. You also become more able to develop a vision. And most important: likely you start thinking about life and your career…

Marjolein: “Somewhere between phase 3 and phase 4, you are most likely taking up some peripheral tasks as well, such as guiding masterstudents or starting PhD students, organising team activities or conferences, managing part of the lab, … these tasks provide a very important sense of fulfilment outside of your research that can help you handle the ups and downs your research will bring.”


Marjolein and me at a  young professional conference we organised together. Most of the organisers were PhD students.

Six Major recommendations

  1. Set some goals. Goals force you to develop vision and to prioritize. Making the perfect plan is difficult, but you should do some effort. Also boost your productivity using some simple tricks.
  2. Write a review paper your first year (tangible output!) and start reading the most recent papers published in good journals (learning). Read review papers (understandable).
  3. Go to a (specialist) conference in your first year, even if you’re not able to present (if the money is available, I think your supervisor should allow it)
  4. Reach out and build your network within and outside your university. You might need it later. Also read outside your discipline.
  5. Talk to industry, if possible and think about the WHY (in terms of impact) of your research. Never -NEVER- alienate from the ‘real world’. And realise that you have rather unique (valorisable) knowledge.
  6. Talk to peers and don’t be afraid to ask for their help and experiences in their own PhD. You’ll notice everyone goes through the same things and will find comfort and trust in this.

Why it’s all worth the effort

After my PhD my career evolved a lot. But I’m still driving on science. I’m now running a Ghent University spinoff company in which I’m valorising university IP. I’m thriving on the network I built. You should find out in which environment you’ll thrive.

Marjolein now is a successful scientist solving our water problems. But even more important: she inspires many and connects people while mentoring young scientists.

A PhD will not only bring you research skills, but so much more that you can employ in your further career. On why you should persist, and which opportunities exist, I will tell more in a future blog post. Share if you like and subscribe.

Thanks to our guest blogger Marjolein Vanoppen

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