I just finished up the first year of my PhD and here’s what I learned

Well, here I am, sitting at home in my least-comfy comfy clothes because my most-comfy comfy clothes need washing. I am reflecting on the first year of my biomedical PhD program so that maybe someone can relate to it or find an ounce of inspiration in it.

I started my PhD last August with heaps of pre-existing imposter syndrome with an external façade of “I know what I’m talking about” confidence — a pretty good start (spoiler alert: that attitude has not changed much). My program was an umbrella program, so we had a mixed bag of 50 students with interests ranging from neuro to immuno to genetics. We spent the majority of our first year together in and out of class and this is where I learned my first big lesson: it’s a tough crowd, so find your people. It can be two people or it can be twenty. The friendships and support systems I made at the beginning of the program are the reason I’ve maintained a semblance of sanity. Whether it was studying for that dreaded exam together, grabbing a coffee when lab got overwhelming, or venting about that one experiment that just refuses to go well, it was the people around me that kept me going. These people are on the same rollercoaster as you, therefore they are your best source for advice, camaraderie, and a beer or two.

Surround yourself with the best people.

As my PhD journey continued, I realized that it wasn’t as rigid as I had initially thought. I got some excellent advice from great mentors that made me come to my second big lesson: I can and should customize my PhD experience. I began tailoring my PhD experience by attending seminars outside those hosted by the medical school. I attended many seminars in the computer science, statistics, and even marine science departments, took good notes, and brought back knowledge that I could apply to my own research. Widening my educational reach by attending seminars and workshops was a huge advantage for my research and my network. Also, it became evident just how important self-learning is. When I realized that machine learning may advance my research, I borrowed some books and joined free online modules and began to self-teach. Bonus note on this topic: faculty tend to host incredible libraries in their offices with collected books over years of teaching and learning so take advantage of that! Most of the time, they will be more than happy to lend you a book or five.

Customize your academic career.

My second semester was mostly online due to Covid-19, so I picked up on some interesting work from home habits and tips. Within my two months (and counting) of working from home, I have had productivity highs and lows. My highs: I managed to finally submit that review paper that had been collecting dust, I learned Tableau, my lab work saw some incredible highs, and I learned how to make a really delicious homemade spaghetti Bolognese. My lows: I had streaks of low productivity as a result of burnout, I felt disconnected from my peers, and my lab work seemed to stop or slow significantly at times. I combated these lows by reinvigorating my motivation. Let me tell you how.

1. Zoom with my PI — even when I had nothing to contribute that week. This method always seemed to result in new questions and exciting things to explore, leading to increased productivity.

2. Twitter! Science twitter is an unbelievable community and though I am not actively tweeting, I follow some very relatable and inspiring people on there that helped in bringing my motivation back.

3. Reading articles on the medium.com. Don’t underestimate the power of reading an article about productivity to increase personal productivity.

Appreciate your highs and lows.

So, obviously I left out some huge lessons that are typically discussed by other folks such as picking the right mentor and conducting meaningful research, but those seemed fairly well covered. If you want to hear more about those topics, I highly recommend listening to the Hello PhD podcast. This article was more of a personal reflection of what stuck out to me over this past year. I hope you read something you liked in here and hope it sticks with you.

PhD Student at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine