The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 1

The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 1
3 years ago

The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 1

Since I was little, cooking has been one of the things I enjoy the most. My grandmother worked her whole life preparing meals for children either at schools or hospitals, and she taught me everything I know. I remember being on my tippy toes trying to reach the kitchen countertop (not that much difference now with the lab bench!), watching how she mixed the ingredients together.

To me, cooking is very similar to science. Although in science you don’t get to eat the final product (I hope!), but you do need to follow a protocol and pay attention to the details. Going faster or skipping steps won’t make the end product any better. In essence, this is what a PhD is for me. A recipe that you follow for three or four years, the outcome of which will give you incomparable knowledge, wisdom, and pride in a wonderful final product… your dissertation.

However, a PhD is certainly no piece of cake. My PhD is one of the things I am most proud of, not only because of all the wonderful science I’ve had the pleasure to work on, but because I’m not the same person I was when I started. I am now stronger, more resilient, independent, committed, and ready to become the scientist I always dreamed of. In this article, I want to share some of the things I learned from my PhD that have helped me to get where I am now. I want to pass on my recipe for PhD success, or at least, one that will help your PhD journey taste a little sweeter! Let’s bake this cake together, shall we?

Step 1: Create a solid PhD foundation

The dry ingredients of a cake are like the foundation of your PhD. The flour provides structure, the baking powder elevates it, and things like salt or sugar enhance the overall flavour. Thorough research, honest communication and solid commitment are the staple ingredients of any PhD. So grab your best mixing bowl and let’s create a solid base!

Read carefully and thoroughly from start to finish

It’s important to start your first year building a foundation by reading the literature. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s vital. The first four months of my PhD were dedicated to reading every paper I could find, so that I could understand my project and get a good idea of what experiments to do first. Remember to keep strengthening this knowledge base throughout the entire duration of your studies. There is no such thing as “I’ve read all the papers, let’s move on”. The foundation of your PhD has to be constantly revised so that you are prepared for your dissertation defense. Keep reading, even if it seems you are too busy for it. As your field of study changes, more papers are published, and the answer to that tricky experiment might just be hiding in that one paper that’s been sitting in your favourites tab for six months now.

Pro tip: Organise your papers by subject in different folders. You can’t imagine how much this is going to help you when you write your dissertation.

Make space for clear communication

The second ingredient to add to the foundation of your PhD is a mix of communication, respect, and trust. This applies to your supervisor, colleagues, and those in your closest circle. Remember that these elements are two-way streets, so you should get what you give. If you are not getting any input from your supervisor, find an alternative within your school or faculty. There will always be someone ready to listen to you and help you with your PhD.

If you think you are in a supportive and collaborative environment, I’m a firm believer that honest and transparent communication leads to trust. In fact, those were the main pillars of my PhD. From the moment I was hired, I was super honest with my supervisor, which has translated into many years of successful work. Being a scientist requires dedication, but remember that you are also just a human being. I’ve always been honest about my struggles with imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, etc. As much as we think we’ll be considered weaker or inferior scientists for expressing mental health struggles, we need to be brave and share our difficulties with others. If they are right for you, they will understand and guide you. And if not, focus your energy on the people who bring out the best in you.

Commit to the process and pick up new skills

The final ingredient for a solid foundation is commitment. A PhD is not about being super smart, working ten hours per day and reporting as many results as possible. To me, a PhD is about establishing yourself as a scientist and discovering the path you want to follow. It’s a long run, and you need to be prepared to commit (excluding your time off, of course). The project you are working on won’t run itself. You have an amazing opportunity in front of you that will allow you to become an expert and acquire transferable skills. And you even get to write a book about it!

My PhD was quite successful. I published two papers as a first author, and another two with colleagues and collaborators. I delivered ten oral communications, engaged in teaching, science communication activities, and lab management duties. Sure, I worked a lot, but I think part of my success was due to my commitment from day one. Each day was an opportunity for me to learn something new about my project. I did it because I love science, and science needs consistency. Also, science - just like baking - can be a lot of fun!

Step 2: Smooth and shape the structure of your PhD

Now that we’ve established a solid base for this PhD cake, it’s time to add the fats. Ingredients like butter or oil need to be precisely combined with flour to reach equilibrium. This is because if we reduce the fat content, the gluten contained within the flour has more space to move, resulting in a tougher product. And if we add them in excess, the cake just collapses. But if we add them in the right amount, fat content can help to obtain a smooth cake. Like fat ingredients, experiments and scientific skills will help you to smooth the solid foundation and really give some shape to the structure of your PhD.

Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Experiments are needed to prove or disprove your hypothesis, and this is how you should think about them. I’ve seen countless PhD students performing endless experiments just to fill up their schedule and make them seem busy. I’ve also seen PhD students that are scared to do experiments in case they get negative results. But negative results belong to science. That is how hypotheses are constructed, and how we learn. Experiments, successful or otherwise, are key for your training as a scientist because they will help you learn and become an expert.

When I started my PhD, I used six months of my time just to optimise real-time quantitative PCRs and western blots. You can’t imagine how many noisy amplification curves I got, and how many blank blots I observed with a face of disapproval. I was very worried that I would never get those stunning graphs I saw in other papers. However, I eventually decided just to focus on the techniques, and trust the process. Not only did I get beautiful results that became part of my first publication, but I now consider myself an expert on both techniques, and I’ve even had the pleasure of teaching them to other students and postdocs.

Nobody bakes a perfect cake on their first attempt

In my third year, I was trying to prepare a polymer that was part of an artificial scaffold, which was the overarching aim of my PhD. Unfortunately, after more than seven months, I had no results. There was no way I could obtain that polymer. I had numerous meetings with negative results, which skyrocketed my imposter syndrome. In addition, it didn’t help that I was trying to synthesise a poorly reported polymer, so I barely had any examples to follow while reading the literature. Of course, I was tired, sad, and worried about the last year of my PhD. When you are in a spiral of negative results it’s tough to keep going. However, I eventually stopped to do some self-reflection, and what I realised was powerful. First, I realised I needed to rest. And second, I recognised that I was following the wrong approach. I was seeing my failed experiments as an absence of results to report, and not as a learning curve. I focused too much on telling myself things like “Another meeting without results”, or “This Friday I really need to solve this issue”. After taking a break, I studied my failed results, organised a meeting with my supervisor, and presented a plan based on what all those failed results were telling me. Three weeks later, I obtained my polymer. After screaming (and shedding a few tears of joy) in the lab, I felt incredibly proud of myself. Not only because I’d got that polymer, but because I’d realised it was a mistake to consider my experiments solely as a route to generate a graph, a number, or a result to report in a meeting. Experiments are much more than that. Experiments require planning, drafting, analysis, and most of the time, repetition. It is what makes you a practical scientist. Results are out of our control, and who is to say what is a good result, and what is a bad result? Hypotheses fail, but that is science. You fail, you learn, you read, and you try again. In the end, an entire chapter of my dissertation was dedicated to those failed results, and my examiners loved it. They told me it was incredibly clear, and it perfectly matched with the rest of the story.

Now that I have passed my PhD, I am happy to say that I adore focusing on following a protocol, and I very much enjoy the process of preparing an experiment and performing each step with diligent care. Whatever comes after is science, and science requires failure and learning.

Step 3: Enrich the flavour of your PhD with engagement and collaboration

Well, this cake is really shaping up! When you finish mixing your dry and fat ingredients, it’s time to add a liquid, such as milk. Liquid ingredients are important because they hydrate the other proteins you’ve been adding. In essence, liquids enrich the cake and add moistness. Scientific conferences and science communication have the same effect on your PhD as the liquids in a cake. Science is about sharing and collaborating, and as scientists, we need to advocate for a collaborative environment. Engaging in these activities will positively enrich the flavour of your PhD.

Sharing your creations with others

Scientific conferences played a big role in my PhD. In my first year, I delivered an oral communication in Munich, and in my third year, another in Rhodes, Greece (yes, that was awesome!). I also engaged in multiple local conferences and seminars. Presenting your work in front of an audience can be really intimidating. I remember shivering before my talk in Munich, which was in front of all the “tendon gurus” who had published all of those beautiful papers I truly admired and respected. But like everything in life, you just need to be brave, take a step forward, and start talking. It gets easier with time, and for me, each talk I delivered was like a mini dissertation defense. You present your findings and people ask you questions. It’s a wonderful exercise not only to know your work but also to get input from people with multifaceted perspectives and experiences. Also, the networking that stems from conferences is uncanny. I’ve met some wonderful people and collaborators. And let’s be honest, who can resist conference coffee and biscuits?

I’d also recommend engaging in talks directed at non-scientific audiences. You have to truly analyse your work, and explain it to people who do not know scientific terminology. Giving people a bite-size taste of your research and sharing what you’ve created is one of the sweetest parts of the PhD process. I had the pleasure of presenting three seminars to a non-scientific audience. It was on those occasions that I learned the most about my work and multiple ways to present it, which was extremely beneficial when it came to my dissertation defense.

Towards my third year, I also began engaging in science communication events via social media. I now have a podcast about women in STEM. Of all the decisions I’ve made in my life, starting my podcast has been one of which I’m most proud. I’ve met some incredible women who are unparalleled role models to me and the next generation of scientists. I’ve learned so much about myself just from talking to them and sharing my aspirations as a scientist and as a person. If you can, I would strongly recommend engaging in science communication activities. It doesn’t have to be a big event, just something that allows you to share your research and meet other scientists from different cultures and backgrounds. Find something that you are willing to share and that brings you joy. It will help you so much to grow and to know yourself better. Plus, you will make wonderful friends!

Passing on your skills to a new generation

Last, but not least, if you want to add some juice and flavour to your PhD, I would recommend engaging in some teaching activities, especially if you want to pursue a career in teaching or become a university lecturer. This could be through lab demonstrations, workshops, or simply by supervising students in your lab.

Teaching undergraduate, master, and PhD students made me realise I want to teach throughout my career. It has made me appreciate how much I know about my work, and seeing my students progressing in their careers brings me much joy. Some people say I look like a mama duck around the corridors of my department with four of five ducklings following behind me!.

Pro tip: Consider teaching activities only in or after your second year when you can dedicate a little extra time to your students.

Coming up in Part Two...

Don’t miss Part Two of Noelia’s brilliant recipe for PhD success in which she shares the delicious delights of dissertation writing, the importance of self-care… and provides the oven gloves to help you handle the heat of your dissertation defense! Read The Recipe for Sweet PhD Success - Part 2 today.


Dr Noelia D Falcon is a senior research associate at the School of Pharmacy, University of East Anglia, UK. She completed a BSc in Marine Sciences and an MRes in Biomedicine back in her home country of Spain before moving to the UK to undertake work experience and eventually complete a PhD. She works in Dr Aram Saeed’s Lab carrying out research on tissue engineering and biomaterials. She is also the host and creator of the I Belong Here podcast, which aims to showcase and share the stories of women in STEM from all around the world.

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