So you're a going to be a new science PhD student?

2 December 2020

Mary Clark, a UCL PhD student in the Biosciences department is here to give her top tips for those new Science PhD students among you!


We're aware that due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, some of you may be starting your new PhD remotely and not on campus as you'd expected. Worry not! You'll still be able to access all the support and online tools you require digitally until you're able to arrive on campus. 

So, you’re starting out as a new Science PhD student and you’re looking for the manual titled ‘how to do the best PhD in the history of ever’. Well, fellow young heart, let’s start off by agreeing to a thing: there is no one ‘correct’ way to do a PhD in the Sciences. Everything is relative. However, there are a few tricks of the trade that I’ve learnt during my short time as a PhD student in the Biosciences department:

1) Supervisors

As a Science PhD student, you’ll likely have a primary and secondary supervisor (sometimes even a tertiary one) and you'll be having your initial meetings using Microsoft Teams until we return to campus. Hopefully, by now, you would’ve had a Teams chat to get a better understanding of a) what their expertise is b) what their schedules are like and c) their preferences of contact.

However, with regards to regular meetings, you’ll probably be having most of those with your primary supervisor, so it’s a good idea to start scheduling in how frequently you’ll be having those as soon as possible (weekly or bi-weekly ones will do just dandy).

An important thing to remember is that your supervisors will be your first port of call if and when anything crops up during your 3 or 4 year period with UCL. So definitely try your best to build a good rapport with at least your primary from the beginning by keeping them in the loop and responsibly communicating with them of any queries, questions, and ideas you might have.

Visit the ISD Remote Learning page for further support and advice around getting started remotely.

2) Reading

How much you should read as a new PhD student is quite a hot topic of debate for the Science PhD community (and may differ depending on what field you’re in). However, it is ‘generally’ advised you have a good grounding of knowledge of your topic from the very beginning. One of my previous supervisors once told me that a mistake most (Bioscience, but also other) PhD students make is that they only start reading just as they come towards the end of their PhD.

Reading tends to give you a good indication of where the gaps in our knowledge lie, sparking ideas for experiments and theory development that you now have time to try out. What’s more is that the fast pace of global scientific discovery means that its literature is constantly being updated, so try your best to have a steady relationship with it and avoid the last-minute cram as much as you can.

Don’t quite know where to start? It’s a good idea to start by reading up on all of the past work of the lab you’re in. This will give you a good idea of the ‘story so far’; one that you’ll be expected to tell during presentations. Also, perhaps sign yourself up for Google email alerts of newly published material containing keywords you’re interested in.

You'll most likely be using one of the many UCL Libraries as a starting point for your reading. For those of you able to come onto campus in September, there will be reading and study spaces available however they may be in higher demand due to UCL adhering to social distancing guidelines. If you're starting your PhD remotely, you can access all UCL Library resources online.

Find out more about support and access to digital library resources if you're working remotely due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

3) Lab time 

This might not apply to all science PhD students (looking mostly at you, Theoretical Physicists) but a question almost every Science PhD student asks is: how much time should you be spending in the lab? Well, naïve, past me, again: there is no one universal set number of hours. As a PhD student, you’ll be expected to be able to organise your own time to best suit the needs of your experiments and other responsibilities, but also allowing yourself enough time to be out of the lab and doing other things. Other activities include where possible and feasible, getting involved in university societies/activities, attending conferences (most likely digitally to begin with), giving presentations via Teams, joining book/journal clubs, and just spending some time at home with family. Balance is key here which, once you’re up to speed with what goes on in the lab, will be much easier to maintain.

Visit the Doctoral School's Response plan to coronavirus page to find out more information around your access to labs going forward due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

4) Documenting Work

Keeping a lab book that you update daily is an absolute essential (even if you aren’t usually based in a lab). What you may think you’ll remember for forever, you will, two months in, forget (trust me on this one). Write everything down, even experiments that don’t work out (this will come in handy with troubleshooting).

In general, lab books should contain methods, results, and thought processes of all experimental attempts, written out as you go along. And, if you like to be neat about it, it’s a good idea to have a ‘rough’ notebook beside you in the lab and then copy out information neatly into your main lab book later on.

5) Writing and publishing

In the UK, publishing papers isn’t always/typically a requisite for completing a PhD. However, they do look really good on a CV. As a new student, you probably won’t have enough data to start writing up primary research right away, but you can always start off by writing reviews. If you’re stuck for ideas, perhaps mention this to your supervisor and see if they have any for you. Either way, your first year will likely be your ‘least stressful’, so honing in those writing skills now will have your future self thanking you loads.

Visit the Students' Union Advice Service for Language and Writing Support.

Visit the ISD software database for free access to helpful note-taking/citation/writing software such as Endnote, MS Office, etc.

6) Other stuff

Like any other PhD, doing one in the sciences requires a lot of additional stuff to take on board as well as what I’ve already mentioned. What’s most important is that you spend these 3-4 years procuring a fleshed-out, yet broadened skill set. Keeping in mind the new ‘interdisciplinary’ approach a lot of science fields (especially those of the biological and psychological sciences) are now veering towards, you could invest a little time into a coding course (I strongly advise you check out the Sysmic course as an introduction to Matlab and R, ran by professors from UCL). Having a good Google around for seminars taking place internally and externally and other courses ran by the UCL doctoral school (including those on managing anxiety of a PhD run by UCL's Student Psychological and Counselling Services) will give you opportunities to increase your knowledge further and also meet lifelong friends.

View ISD's Digital Skills Development course available for PhD students. 

PhD research gives you the space to be creative and explore the field that you enjoy and personally see the most potential in. It allows you the freedom to push scientific horizons, develop strong opinions, and work alongside some of the greatest minds out there. Lastly, although PhDs come with their various responsibilities (including, in some cases, teaching other students), be sure to enjoy your time. Ask questions and be your incurably curious self. Scientists love talking about their work and want to know what you think too. As a colleague of mine, Simone Webb, said last week, being a PhD student really is the chance of a lifetime. 

Mary Clark, Biosciences PhD student