My PhD journey.

PhDLife. How to pick your PhD project.

Deciding to do a PhD is probably one of the biggest decisions you will ever make in your life! A substantial step up in both expectation and skill from undergrad, I am all too aware that the prospect at first is overwhelmingly daunting. But unfortunately no-one can make this decision for you! It is simply a journey that you need to need to begin with as much information as possible about your path as you can possibly gather at that time. That will put you at a huge advantage and I also hope that is one reason why you read my blog for other PhD advice and tips 😛

For me though, the most important step before embarking on the PhD journey is knowing  what you actually want to spend the next four plus years of your life trying to answer! Something that in theory it should be simple enough to work out, but in reality is much more difficult with the plethora of PhD projects on offer. Recently, I’ve been getting a few messages on Instagram from students finishing their undergrad and wanting to start a PhD who are looking for some advice. So I thought there must be others out there with similar questions so I thought I would share my advice with everyone else 🙂 So here it goes…

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It needs to be the right topic!

Probably the easiest and most obvious place to start. If you are going to spend the next four plus years doing research trying to figure out the smallest of pieces of that particular puzzle then you are going to have to enjoy learning and studying about that field. There’s no use applying for PhDs in neuroscience if you have no interest in the brain or neurodegenerative diseases for example. But once you’ve decided on a field, you need to narrow down your interests further. So, if you are interested in neurobiology, are you more interested in finding treatments for Alzheimers or multiple sclerosis, or are you more interested in finding out more about brain stem cells work? The more specific your interests are, the easier it will be to find projects to apply for. However, saying that sometimes being too specific isn’t the best course of action either as trying to get a PhD is incredibly competitive so you might need to broaden your horizons in order to bag yourself that place.

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Right topic, right supervisor!

Choosing a supervisor is tricky because you can’t really get to know a person until you start working with them and socialising with them – no matter how many emails you send and meetings you have. But having the right supervisor can make or break you as a PhD student.

But if you can’t get to know whether you will get on with a supervisor before you start your PhD, how on earth do you decide? Continuing from my last point, you have to start by choosing a problem that interests you, which may seem obvious but you will be amazed at how many students don’t do that. But to then get the most out of your supervisor during your PhD, you have to be interested in what they do. So you are already starting with something in common. My supervisor will take any opportunity to get out of the office and move down to the coffee room to talk about my results and what they mean, simply because they are so passionate about the topic. But it always devolves into more of a chat, but sometimes I learn just as much from these general chit chats than I do from just my research.

Your supervisor will be your mentor, your friend, your confidante, your adviser, your boss, your voice of reason, will always play devil’s advocate and probably several other roles. So, you need to make sure it is a voice you will want to hear for the next 4 years or more. They will be the ones encouraging you to pick that pipette straight back up again when your experiments fail yet again. They will be the ones to challenge that hypothesis you have just spent hours putting together. But they will be that driving force steering you and helping you getting over the finish line that is submitting your thesis.

Now I would say 99% of PhD supervisors are super busy. If you looked at their diaries, they have got meeting after meeting or are away on trips or writing grants plus much more, so how do they have the time to have a cuppa and a chat with me whenever it suits? To be honest, some supervisors only have 30 minutes for you every fortnight so it again depends on your needs and what suits you better, but unfortunately this isn’t something you can gauge over emails and interviews, which leads me nicely on to my next piece of advice.

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Who else is in your lab squad?

Regardless of whether you see your supervisor once a day or once a fortnight, there will always be a group of guys and gals who you will see much more often who I have affectionately called your lab squad! This may be more senior PhD students, medics doing a research degree or lab technicians. They will be the ones to teach you all the things you need to know, show you the ropes for this lab, take you to the hottest spots in town and become an essential source of knowledge and tricks of the trade.

WHEN you get called to interview for your PhD, you must go on a lab tour. Usually this is part of the interview process, but if it isn’t ask before hand to be shown around the labs. But also ask if you can have a chat with the current students and lab group. Fit in around their schedules so if it means you have to arrive 2 hours before your interview or wait for an hour after your interview, do it! These guys and gals will be your source of insider info and give you a feel for whether you will fit into the lab and also whether you would get on with your potential supervisor in a day to day setting. Make sure you have a list of questions to ask your potential new lab squad as your time with them will be limited and precious, so I have thought of a couple to get you started:

What is best about this lab?

What opportunities are there for science communication?

Do you socialise outside?

How busy is the supervisor?

How much support do you get?

Have you been to any conferences or published?

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Money, money, money!

Until you start studying for a PhD, I think most people don’t realise how expensive scientific research is – like one antibody can cost £200!! But you’ve got to think about where that money for your research is coming from and where the money is coming from that is going to allow you to live and eat and survive whilst you are studying.

So, how are you planning to fund your PhD programme? Are you going to be self-funded or are looking for a scholarship? If you are looking for a scholarship, do have a look at www.scholarshipportal.com that will help you in search of exciting funding opportunities from the most prestigious universities in Europe. Applying for a scholarship is always a competitive process but it is certainly worth a try. Personally, there was going to be no chance that I would be able to self fund 4 years worth of money for PhD study so I only applied for funded positions. So, make sure you know what options are available to you and what that particular PhD you’re interested in is offering. It is no good  falling in love with a project that would need to be self funded when you don’t have the means to do it!

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Location, location, location.

Where in the world are you going to study? Many students stay at the same university as they did their undergrad. This makes things easier as you already know the city and you might even know the lab squad and the supervisor which makes it easier to suss out whether you will fit in with that lab or not! Perhaps you want to be close to home, or perhaps you want to experience working in a lab abroad. On the other hand, if you don’t want to spend all of your 4 years of study in the United States for example but still want a flavour of international lab life – perhaps look for PhD projects that are linked between universities. For example, a girl in my lab has just spent 2 months in Hong Kong for her project and also a previous Scientist in the Spotlight Catia B was based in Portugal but is now spending her days working at MIT in Boston. These are all things you need to consider when thinking about applying for that PhD project.

For me, location wasn’t really an issue. As long as I could reach the motorway to get home relatively easily I would have gone wherever. The project was much more important for me!

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Why do you want to do this?

Your motivation is an important factor that should guide you while searching for the right PhD programme. Also, you don’t instantly have to enrol in a PhD right after you have finished a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree. A break of a year or two or even more may be necessary to gain perspective and to figure out exactly what your interests are, in terms of a possible subject for your research. Many people opt for landing a job for a few years before going back to study and apply for a doctoral degree. But whichever path you took to reach the bottom of the PhD mountain, you have to know why you want to start this journey. A good idea would be to start asking yourself a few questions like:

Are you motivated by a subject interest or do you consider a PhD degree as a step towards developing your career?

Are you planning to work in academia afterwards and prefer to focus on developing research and teaching experience?

Or are you willing to develop your career in industry? In this case, you may search for the PhD programmes that involve collaboration with industry.

Whatever your motivation for doing a PhD, there will be one out there for you. I’m not going to lie, it is super competitive and you will have to do a lot of searching coupled with rejection after rejection after rejection! If you survive past this stage and get to accept a project, then you are already showing the resilience of a proper PhD student and the motivation to succeed no matter what gets in your way.

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Picking the right PhD project for you is tough! There is so much to consider and even then you don’t want to be too picky because of how competitive it is to get accepted onto a program. But sink some hours into searching for that project, contact PhD supervisors or even your potential future lab squad members and ask as many questions as you can, but do remember these people are busy and allow them time to get back to you, and always be applying to multiple projects – don’t just apply to one and wait for the outcome even if it is your dream project. It is something that constantly needs to be fine tuned and adjusted and worked at, but all that time and effort will pay off in the end.

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Are you studying a PhD and have some other advice about how to pick the right PhD project?? Then please share in the comments below.

Science love.

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.

My PhD journey.

PhDLife. How to get your focus back.

Hello science lovers!

I am back 🙂 But firstly I want to say a HUGE thank you to my awesome guest bloggers Heidi GBri LAlice G and Laura M for holding down the Soph talks science fort whilst I was away on holiday. If you missed their blogs, then please do catch up on them – they are so varied featuring some PhD advice, a day in the life of a PhD student, a cellfie and some science you can do at home with a little Fantastic Beasts treasure hunt – so there is something for everyone! Also, I am always open to collaborate with people on scicomm projects and always looking for guest bloggers so please do not hesitate to get in contact.

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Anyway, back to today’s blog! So, there’s been a bit of radio silence on the blog front recently from me due to my holiday, then getting over jet lag plus it was bank holiday here in the UK so I gave myself that day off too! I was back in the lab for 2 weeks where I was furiously trying to get those last few results for my first ever manuscript and then I had another week off for a friend’s hen weekend in Spain plus the Pint of Science festival last week! All in all – it has been a bit of a hectic few months really with no routine in place. But that is just life! Sometimes it gets in the way of science hah! and you just need to embrace the time out of the lab and enjoy yourself!

Today marks the start of a new phase for me where I can get back into my routine and set aside my writing time to keep up to date with all my blogs and my Instagram posts and a new science vlog venture that I want to experiment with – plus all my actual lab work of course! But sometimes not having that routine for a while makes getting back into the saddle more complicated than perhaps it should be!

Now you’re up to date on what has been happening in Soph’s Science World – it’s time to get back to it and introduce why I’m writing about getting your focus back in the lab – which you can probably already guess considering I’ve barely been in the lab over the last 6 weeks!

Anyway…

The path to the top of the PhD mountain is not a straight forward easy one. Instead it is full of peaks and gullys combined with episodes of increased pressure from the increasing altitude as you crawl towards the summit! I know – not painting doing a PhD in very good light with that description! But this is unfortunately the case! Sometimes along this journey, you take the wrong turn and have to re-trace your steps or you simply choose the wrong path and get completely lost. This is completely normal for PhD life – in fact I would be in utter shock if someone managed to stay along the same path with no hiccups for four whole years in the UK, or even up to seven years if you are studying for your PhD in the US! So there is no need to panic if you are feeling confused or completely unmotivated whilst studying for your PhD at any point along the trek and it is perfectly okay to need to stop for a while as you climb that mountain! All you need to do is learnt the best ways for you to get back on track and regain that focus again afterwards!

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Recently, I have found myself just staring at my To Do Lists (yes lists!) at my desk trying to plan this week’s and next week’s experiments. It was all there in front of me, but I was so confused about what I had done, what needed prioritising and even what needed doing for my paper and for my final thesis that my thoughts just became a complete muddled mess.

It was driving me insane! I felt like I had lost track of where I was with different ideas and experiments piling up and it gave me an idea for this blog post – How to get your focus back! I needed the advice myself and made a mini plan of action that might help me and it worked for me so I thought I would share in case any of you are suffering with the same issues.

So when we have lost track of our PhD path, how can we get motivated and focused again? Here are my 5 top tips for regaining your PhD motivation and focus:

  1. Organise a meeting with your supervisor

This was the first thing I did! I’ve written and passed my PhD transfer 6 months ago now. In that thesis, I had a plan for the rest of time as a PhD student which I am on track for 🙂 but sometimes the results you get in science take you in a different direction to what you thought – which is partially my case. Some of my results have revealed something quite interesting that we didn’t expect and I’m trying to get to the bottom of that on top of the other plans I had. So, I just wanted to sit down with my supervisor and tell them what results I do have, and what results are in the  process of being finalised so we can work out what needs to come first and what we can do after that has been completed.

I love these little meetings we have because its not just talking about each individual experiment, but it’s discussing what my results could mean and how I can go about proving that. We sit and work out what the bigger picture is too and where my research fits into this big wide world of science – which I love doing! I find this really helps me to focus again and makes you realise why you are doing this!

At the end of these meetings, there is usually a huge whiteboard full of drawings and arrows and notes until we have that final picture – which I then make a note of in my notebooks before it gets rubbed off and I’m back to square one! The picture where we know where each result fits with the other one and what gaps there still are to fill in! I don’t know why but it gives me a huge buzz and inspires me and motivates me to want to fill in those gaps ASAP. So that’s why whenever I get a little lost, this is my first port of call to regain focus!

2. Keep lab book up to date

I’m usually quite good at this but being super busy and working long lab days one after the other just results in me getting further and further behind sometimes. It is probably one of the reasons I lost my focus to begin with – all those Western blots I was doing were merging into one and I couldn’t for the life of me remember which ones I had done, which I had samples for and had not got round to yet and ones that I just needed more samples for.

It was all a bit of a mess and my results were piling up without actually having written them in my lab book! Plus I had all the other experiments I was doing to complicate it even further. It eventually reaches a point where you have to spend the whole working day and sometimes even longer just writing up your lab book – and then you are not getting any experiments done!

My best advice is taking that 10-20 minutes at the end of each day to write it all in! Even if it does mean you’ll be home closer to 7pm than 6pm. This is always what I have tried to do but as you can tell sometimes it just isn’t what you want to do at the end of the day – but it definitely is the best way to do it!

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3. Plan a break or a holiday

Okay so I’ve told a tiny little lie. I was feeling like I had lost my focus about a month or two ago and actually wanted to get a plan sorted before I went away on my planned holidays so I wouldn’t be thinking about it whilst I was away. I know most people probably would want to get away and then deal with what they left upon their return. But whichever way is best for you, taking a holiday or just simply taking a day or week off work will work wonders!

Unfortunately though I don’t think I can use this advice right now 😦 Although I would love to get away again and have already been looking at flight prices for my next destination. I might have to wait a while for that next adventure though.

But with the amount of time I have had out of the lab recently, I have been able to complete recharge my batteries and this morning (if you can believe me) I was actually excited and keen to get into the lab and finish off those results for my manuscript. I’m keeping everything crossed that it will all be done my the end of this week – but it is science at the end of the day and it might take me a little bit longer – but I’m keeping my hopes up! The break away has given me a clear mind on what experiments to prioritise and just re-energised my love for what I do! So if you need a break – the best thing to do is just take one!

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4. Make a list of the experiments you need to do next

For me – it is 10 times easier to get your focus back if everything you need to do is written out in front of you. I usually make these lists after the meeting with my supervisor so I know what they want me to do and so I have a feel for which ones are more important and so need prioritising.

My life gets a little bit more complicated as I’m currently working with 3 different cell lines so I have a list for each one. On my list is the result I need and then under it all the experiments I need to do to complete that including Bradford assays and how many more samples I need to collect for that particular experiment.

If you haven’t noticed already, I’m a bit of a organisation freak and so they are colour coordinated for experiments were I need to image my cells, experiments that are just for my thesis and experiments that need prioritising to put in the paper and so on. If you looked at my list, it probably looks a mess – but it is my organised chaos of lab life!

That is obviously what works best for me, but making a simple list and maybe then ordering them so you know which ones need to be done first may be the way for you! It also shows you that it can all be broken down into small manageable chunks too that are not overwhelming anymore! But I would definitely recommend having that list so you can see what you need to do, but more importantly you get the satisfaction of ticking it off once you’ve done it!

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5. Ask yourself two very important questions.

My final piece of advice for getting your motivation back is more of a reflection where I want you to ask yourself:

What do I want to achieve?

And why am I doing this?

For me, reviewing your long term goals and aspirations every so often along this PhD journey is a real motivator. You actually realise what you have accomplished so far and how you can achieve your goals! Knowing that in about 18 months I will (hopefully!) be Dr Arthur and I would have placed one or maybe two pieces into the jigsaw that is the biological world will be more than worth it that all those low moments with zero motivation will be long forgotten! Plus just think of all the doors that will be open to you once you have reached the top of that PhD mountain!

So just sit there and think for a few minutes! Reflect on what you have achieved so far during your PhD study and then use that to inspire what you can achieve in the time you have left on this journey. I assure you that all those little experiments in the lab do mount up into a much bigger picture and they will not be time wasted!

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I hope after reading that you feel a little bit more inspired and motivated to head back to the lab tomorrow and just crack on! I know I am!

Some of you must be studying or have finished your PhD and lost your way a little bit at some point! How did you get back on track? Please share your advice in the comments below so we can all make this PhD journey a little easier for each other.

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Science love.

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Guest blog, My PhD journey.

Guest blog: How to survive a science PhD thats not in the lab.

Happy Monday all! Hope you are all enjoying the Easter weekend. I certainly am! As you are reading this I am currently on the plane or have landed and enjoying the sunshine in beautiful Barbados for the next two weeks!

But do not fret! I have an army of guest bloggers that are going to be looking after Soph talks science for me whilst I am away so you can still get your science fix twice a week!

So I am going to hand you over to my first guest blogger, Heidi! You are in safe hands!

Ciao! See you in 2 weeks 🙂

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Hello! I’m Heidi and I’m a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Aberdeen!

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My research looks at improving the way we recruit participants into clinical trials, to try and make the process more efficient and more evidence-based than it currently is.

Clinical trials are the best way of testing whether new healthcare interventions (e.g. drugs, devices and types of surgery) are better than the current standard of care. Trials change the way our NHS runs and makes sure that we’re improving public health to the best of our ability.

Did you know that almost half of all clinical trials don’t recruit the correct number of participants? That’s a big problem, because trial statisticians calculate how many participants are needed to ensure the results of the trial are viable – if the trials don’t recruit that target number, the results could be false. That raises big ethical problems because people who have taken part in trials that they went into, thinking they would improve knowledge, but they could actually be giving us incorrect results.

Currently methods we use to do recruitment into trials don’t have a lot of evidence behind them, so over the course of my PhD I’m hoping to improve these methods so that the trials we run are more reliable.

Before my PhD I did an undergraduate masters degree in Pharmacology, which had a big focus on lab work but I really wanted to move on to a scientific job that was closer to patients – during my undergraduate dissertation I discovered just how rubbish I was at Western blot – too impatient! – so felt like a more applied role would fit me better.

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As I’m sure you all know from reading the above, Soph is away on holiday (lucky thing!) so I am here to keep her blogging game up and give you some insight into what it is like to do a science PhD that is not based in the lab – I know, weird right?! I work in a big open plan office when I’m on campus, and I do a lot of work on my laptop at home too – a big perk of my project is working from the sofa with a giant mug of tea and some biscuits! This non-lab work can be anything from reading papers, doing systematic reviews or my personal favourite bit of PhD work – conducting qualitative interviews. Interviews are my main method of data collection, so I get to spend a lot of time talking to different people who are involved in trials which I find super interesting.

Doing a PhD that’s not in the lab can be weird sometimes, so here are my top 5 tips on how to survive an office based project.

  1. Stick to a routine

Without needing to book lab space or get started with experiments early, it’s easy to leave certain parts of your work to when you feel like it – spoiler alert – you’ll never feel like it. As with any PhD there are parts that aren’t super fun; abstract screening for a systematic review for example. It all needs doing though, and sticking to a routine as if I’m an employee rather than a student has really helped me maintain productivity through tedious tasks. My usual routine involves a 9.30am start in the office, lunch about 1.30pm, and then I walk home about 4.30/5pm. I usually go to a yoga class, go to the cinema or just chill in front of the TV after work and then I do another hour of emails and writing later on in the evening.

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2. Set boundaries

Related to my earlier point, sometimes it’s just not possible to stick to a routine. Certain times of the year are busier and you need to put in the extra hours to make sure everything gets done. That’s pretty normal with most PhDs I think, but not being lab-based there have been times when I’ve found myself looking up from my laptop at 1am and not realising so much time has passed. I set definite boundaries even during the super busy times. I need a decent amount of sleep, and I need to spend time with my family/friends/boyfriend; those things aren’t negotiable for me. I plan work a few weeks in advance to make sure I meet deadlines with plenty of wiggle room; it took practice in the beginning but now it comes pretty naturally.

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3. Make friends in your department.

Doing a science PhD that’s not based in a lab is sometimes really weird, and it can be quite lonely. There’s no shared space – I’m not working with lab-mates. At the moment my desk is on the 1st floor and most of my colleagues are on the 3rd floor, so making friends was a bit tricky at first. Now I try to catch up with colleagues regularly, it helps me stay in the loop with work but it’s also really nice to make friends and get to know people away from the academic stuff.

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4. Get involved with projects outside your PhD.

Obviously your PhD project is the reason why you’re at work, and it has to be your main priority – but getting involved with other projects is such a brilliant opportunity! Extra projects give you the chance to be productive when you’re just not feeling the PhD, they add to your CV and prove that you’re able to multi-task too. As well as that, getting involved with projects linked to your own research work will help with networking and potential next steps once the PhD is done (eventually…).

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5. Find a way to present your work at least once a year.

Presenting doesn’t have to be talks and posters at conferences or professional meetings – though they are both brilliant things to do. Presenting could also include public engagement activities; for me doing public engagement has been a part of my PhD that I didn’t think I’d get to do before I started the project. I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to contribute when my work isn’t lab-based. Lots of wet-science topics can be covered creatively to make them understandable and accessible to the public, but I work in clinical trials. The first thing the public think of when you mention clinical trials is ‘human guinea pig’ – not ideal and most definitely not true! So far I’ve been involved with a brilliant public engagement project where we did a trial involving chocolate, a much easier way to get the public to listen.

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If you have any questions about clinical trials or anything mentioned in this blog post, please get in touch! Catch me over on Twitter or head to my blog.

Huge thanks to Sophie for letting me write for her blog – don’t forget to keep up to date with all her new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find her and her Soph talks science blog on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

My PhD journey.

PhDLife. The importance of a lab social life.

I’m not the most chatty and social person in the world! Don’t get me wrong I love going out and socialising – I just don’t think I’m very good at it! But practice makes better right?

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Lately I think I’ve been sending myself a bit stir crazy with lab work! I’m a genuine believer that a routine is a good thing for everyone – but doing long days in the lab 6 days a week, going to the gym on the same days each week and not doing much else has just been messing with my mental state a little and getting me down. So, I had to break it up a little and do something else.

 

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Whenever I ask other PhD students for what advice they would give their first year PhD self, one top tip that always comes up is having a work life balance – something that I am not good at as I am a bit of a workaholic. But I do think it is particularly important to have a social life with your lab group too, as well as any other friend groups, so you are not just driving each other insane discussing why that Western blot didn’t work or whose turn it is to feed the cells over the weekend. It is a chance for you to feel like normal human beings for once and talk about normal things outside of the lab or office environment, and not be monotonous science robots.

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I love my lab group! There are only a handful of us, but I am sure they will agree with me when I say we are useless at organising socials.

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This week we managed to get out together for the first time since Christmas. A social which was well overdue to celebrate lab members passing transfer vivas, engagements and welcoming of new students to the lab.

But for me, there are 5 main reasons why a lab social life is so important:

  1. You have a chance to get to know your lab mates properly – what they enjoy doing, what they are good at, where they come from, the list is endless! Building those relationships outside of the lab can only make working relationships in the lab better!
  2. It makes celebrations that bit more special – A ‘congratulations’ or a ‘well done’ is all well and good and very much appreciated from lab mates when you get that final significant result you need for a paper or when something special happens in your personal life, but is becomes so much more personal and special if these people want to celebrate it with you whether that is simply with a few drinks or by organising a much bigger social like trampolining or a day trip to a nearby town or city!
  3. It is obviously a prime opportunity to get funny photos and stories of your supervisor, which can always come in handy 😛
  4. Sometimes it is just nice to not talk about science – You might say that you can chat generally while sat in the office or having lunch, but with everyone in the lab doing different experiments at different times, it can be difficult to all be in the office just for a chat all at the same time. So a social outside of work gives you that opportunity!
  5.  It gives me back my focus – as I mentioned at the start of this post I have been driving myself a bit mad recently with lab work and getting a bit muddled so organising a social gave that all important break in my routine, even if it was just some food and a few drinks on a weeknight. It gave me the change up I needed to just head back into work the next day with a different mindset ready to plan and prioritise my next few experiments.

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With my lab’s poor organisational skills when it comes to socials – who knows when the next one will be?! But it probably helps to have some ideas of what you can do. So, at the end of last year we went as a lab to a trampoline park and for our Christmas outing we hopped on the train to Winchester and spent the afternoon and evening mooching around the Christmas market before our food. A safe bet is going out for a meal and some drinks but I wanted to know what activities you got up to in your lab socials? Or does anyone have any ideas that my lab could try – we are thinking of bowling next! Getting more adventurous again! 😛

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But also, how often do you go out with your lab group? Is it as important to you? And what advice do you have for keeping a lab social a regular occurrence? Let’s help make each other as scientists more sociable 🙂 Share your advice and suggestions in the comments below so everyone can try 🙂

If you’re not going out with your lab group. Why not? Organise something today and get to know your lab mates properly and not just how good they are at their jobs!

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Guest blog, My PhD journey.

Guest blog: How to infuse more travel into your PhD

Welcome to my first ever guest blog post!

I’ve been very excited to get different PhD perspectives and experiences as part of my blog so it can become more of an encyclopedia of knowledge for any prospective PhD students out there, or anyone that is curious to be honest!

I have a serious case of wanderlust as you can see from my sister blog Soph talks travel and I long to just be in a different city or country just exploring most weekends! But unfortunately I am finding that studying doesn’t leave much time for travel. But more so, PhDs don’t leave much money to be able to travel, but there is someone who manages. Someone who is in the lab like me but still manages to get all over Europe.

So I thought there would be no better way to start my guest blogs than with this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight in fact. Catia is back! And is chatting to us about how she manages to study full time as a PhD student and still manage to travel to various places so frequently!

My question to her is –  How? simply how do you do it?

Here is her anwser:

Catia from ‘A Pulgarita is back! And writes my first guest blog post on Soph talks science.

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Hi all! It’s Catia here! It’s a pleasure to be back and collaborate with Sophie again for a much awaited post about how to travel more during your PhD – or any other research activity! As you know from my blog, I love travelling and try to make my days count for exploring as much as possible. But first of all I want to ask you the following question:

How do you define travel?

If the answer is something along the lines of making a Round the World trip and having a ton of money, dear friend, let me now ask you a different question:

If you had a friend coming over to visit from another city and wants to know about where you live, would you be able to give them a complete tour of the nicest and best places?

I’m sure for most of us, the answer is no. So, this leads me to my first recommendation:

1. Explore your city!

As locals, we sometimes frown upon the tourist attractions since they are too crowded, or we have already visited them during our childhood. However, remember that you might not live in this city forever, so why not take advantage of the one day you are not spending in the lab and go to a free day at some museum or gallery? Even better, take advantage of a sunny day and just walk! Have you heard of a new restaurant or cafe opening? Get out of work a bit earlier, get off the bus/tram/metro a few stops earlier and explore the area on foot and take lots of pictures. I do this a lot in Lisbon and love it! The city is so vibrant now! It’s also how I’ve spent my first weekend after the big move to Boston for my PhD studies which you can read about here. The plus of being able to explore this way is that you spend much less money and don’t waste precious time that you need for your PhD and it keeps you sane!

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2. Assess what you do with your free time.

Ask yourself why aren’t you travelling more? Is it a time related issue? They key to find the root to your problem is to sit down and assess how you are spending your free time. Are you making sure you are using the holidays you have contractual right to? Or are you using those days to work more? It is perfectly okay if at some stage of our lives the PhD takes over, but this should not be the norm – also for the sake of your mental health. Also, are you not getting out there and exploring because you are spending too much time watching Netflix or on social media? It is also perfectly okay, but reassess if travelling is  really a priority to you. If it is, make a commitment to! Probably once a month, cut back some time on a chore that is taking away from your travel or exploring time and get out there! Get engaged in planning the trip and maybe put aside some time from other activities will bring you some new insights. Everything is manageable.

3. Make a ‘travel piggy bank’.

Have you ever had a piggyback? Did you have one when you were a child? I had one of those clay ones that you couldn’t open unless you broke it! As storing coins is not so convenient (I did it once and the bank didn’t want to let me deposit the money!) and I don’t recommend storing lots of bills or notes in your house, I’ll share with you how I do my travel piggy bank. It works like a charm! I try to pay most of my small expenses by cash only. Whenever I have a small note hanging around in my wallet at the end of the day – usually a 5 or 10 Euro note – I put it in my travel piggy bank and I get disciplined to not touch it until it’s full. Keep it in a safe place and keep on adding. When it’s full, count the money and deposit it. Add this value to some place where you track the total and voila, you know what you can spend on your next trip! And remember, the less you spend on things that only have an immediate effect in your life, the more you have available for travelling. You can sell things you don’t need anymore too and add to your piggy bank.

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4. You have the money? Just book a trip already!

So you gathered some money and there are some days you can take off work. The best day to ensure that you will not use these days to work thinking ‘I won’t go in case something happens in the lab’ is to book a trip! On a plane! As far away as possible! Why? Because having the trip booked and the money invested! It’s an insurance and a commitment! And when you have the trip in sight, and knowing how fun it will be, you will force yourself to work harder in the lead up to those goals. Whether it is writing that manuscript sooner, or spending more time in the lab, you will have the extra motivation. Of course, discuss first with your supervisor if it’s okay to take these days off, but a full weekend of 3 days won’t hurt your work! For instance, I booked my tip to Norway 3 months in advance of the actual date of the trip. I knew I would be there with very limited internet connection and I wouldn’t want to take my laptop. Also, Norway is one of the most expensive countries to visit – so if I went there and I kept working instead of seeing the fjords, it would have been better just to stay in Portugal where it’s cheaper. So, I had a couple of work deadlines to accomplish at that time. I started using some weekends that I knew I wouldn’t use for travel to work harder. Also, I was working after work in a library to put more work, and guess what? I delivered all the work before I traveled and I had one of the best experiences of my life.

5. Are you currently on a trip? Don’t feel guilty!

Most of us in the science world are perfectionists to a fault. I also share that trait. So, you got on the plane for the trip of your dreams, but are you still worrying about the results of your work and how that experiment didn’t go as planned? It’s okay and it happens, but remember that you’re doing this trip for yourself. To have fun! To relax you mind after all the hard work you put in. After all, you will have a great PhD, but isn’t it better to remember it as a positive time in your life, where you managed to keep doing your passions to some extent? So relax and soak in the experience. Work is always waiting for you when you get back anyway.

6. Go to conferences, or an exchange period abroad.

Could your project benefit from a stay in another laboratory abroad? Does your supervisor support it? Then go for it! I was quite lucky in this regard since my project had the collaboration with my MIT supervisor already, so my Portuguese supervisor just said ‘Enjoy the MIT experience!’. Also, if you already have work to showcase, assess with your supervisor if there is money to send you to present it at an international conference. Conferences are relevant for networking and also for practicing your presentation skills from my experience, but you get the added bonus of the travelling. Even if you don’t have much time outside of the conference for sightseeing, something always sticks in your mind. In 2013, I went to the Congress of the Society of Biomechanics conference in Marseille, France – and let’s just say despite having to cart my luggage, a conference bag and a poster, I still explored the city as much as I could! Tip number 1 also applies to conferences. I am lucky to have already traveled to some fantastic locations due to conferences. So make sure you take advantage of these opportunities to develop your CV and more importantly your travel CV 😛

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Catia at a conference in Marseille but still taking every opportunity to explore a new city

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Thanks to Sophie for letting me write the piece for her blog and I hope you like my tips! Do you have any to add? I’d love to hear back from you. I’m always eager to learn!

But I’ll leave you with this thought: Travel and my PhD – what does it mean to me?

I have already traveled to five different countries since the beginning of my PhD 2 years ago. The holidays I’ve spent and also the small getaways in my hometown and nearby area helped to refresh my mind and make me more eager to work after resting. It also made me a happier individual, since I am following my passion for travel while I am acquiring skills that will be relevant for new work journeys. Finally, now that I’m in the US as a visiting student, I truly believe this opportunity abroad will complete my PhD research and bring me insights on an area that I wouldn’t have much supervision on in Portugal. So, whatever form traveling may have for you during your PhD, I encourage you to strongly think about it, if that’s your passion. Everything will fall into place!

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Well now I feel prepared to tackle my wanderlust! Those are some great tips – thank you Catia! I will start saving now and booking that next trip as soon as physically possible! The conferences for me are not an option right now, but hopefully my publications will be out there soon so I can spread my research around the world. Remember to follow Catia’s blog for more travel tips on so many different places – so there will probably be something for you on there!

Find her blog A Pulgarita here and follow Catia and her blog on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and more!!!

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or if there is something you want to write about on my blog then please get in contact – I would love to hear from you!

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My PhD journey.

PhDLife. Time for an upgrade!

After having to delay my transfer viva in December for health reasons, I woke up this morning slightly regretting agreeing to reschedule my viva for Friday the 13th :/

Naturally I was nervous and anxious about what to actual expect from this. It wasn’t until 2pm so I spent most of the day waiting and worrying. Tried to distract myself with some lab work but then felt guilty that I wasn’t reading my thesis.

Finally, the time came and I made my way over to the correct room whilst thinking about how daunting a PASS or FAIL exam was. You either have it or you don’t!

But an hour and a half later and….

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I PASSED! I managed to defend my thesis and my data! I know what I’m talking about! The defence is over! It’s up! Done! Finished! Until the main one at least – but for now I can forget! I could actually get a PhD in the end now!

That’s one of My science New Years Resolutions completed and ticked off too! A good start to the new year!

My supervisor has always said to me that she always notices a change in the student after they have transferred and I’ve always thought to myself ‘I won’t be one of those’ – probably because I don’t feel my lack of self-confidence would allow me to change that much. But I’ll be honest, I already feel a lot better. So there is some kind of revitalising upgrade effect, or maybe it’s the relief that is is over! Only time will tell!

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So, here’s to FINALLY being able to get back into the lab and not have to worry about writing or revising just yet! Time to get some more data!

S.x

Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

My PhD journey.

PhDLife. Printed, bound, delivered.

Hello again everyone! With the Festive season fast approaching, it’s been a time for starting to tie up loose ends in the lab before the Xmas break, which is what I have spent the last few weeks doing. So I firstly want to apologise for the lack of posts over the last two weeks, but unfortunately some things had to be prioritised 😦

But hopefully, you are all back with me now – and I just wanted to write a quick update post to let you guys know what I have been up to. Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have an idea about what PhDLife has been like for me the last two weeks, but I thought there was no harm in a quick update.

So…

Stage 1 – Frustration.

PhDs are hard and for all the highs, there are hundreds of lows! For the past month or so, I feel like it has been the lowest of all the lows in our lab – which has left me stressed out and frustrated! There have been a few incidents to report – first, our stem cells are infected 😥 and the feeder layers we grow them on 😥 so to start from scratch there won’t be any more stem cells for any experiments before Xmas 😥

So instead, as I do some work on cancer stem cells – we have resorted to using these until we have cells again, so last week was spent bulking up so the whole lab had some cancer stem cells to use 🙂

At least I got a pretty picture out of it 🙂

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Secondly, all our fluorescence microscopes that took these pretty pictures and various other expensive machines in the lab had different problems – which are all resolved now. And finally, the seal on our freezer broke so was left open all night and all my brand new antibodies and brand new £350 kits are now rendered useless 😥

It has been one thing after another – we have been fighting a losing battle recently!

But on the bright side, it means no more weekends until the new year, and it’s nearly my birthday and Xmas holidays 🙂

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Stage 2 – My first centre seminar

Ive done my fair share of seminars just like the next PhD student. But I’ve never been much of a public speaker but found myself getting better and growing in confidence with each seminar I did. Yet this time I felt like I had taken a hundred steps back. This seminar series includes lots of postdocs and PhD students from the institute and is an informal series aiming to give people practice with presentations. But I was SO nervous! Not sure why! Maybe because I felt very under prepared compared to previous times, or maybe because everyone in the building could be there including all the profs and all the other super intelligent people I encounter on a daily basis! What if they don’t like my talk? What if they completely disagree with what I’ve done? What if they ask me god awful questions after? My imagination was going a bit crazy! but after all that panic, everything went smoothly!

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Stage 3 – The transfer thesis hand-in

So, I discussed in a previous blog post what a transfer thesis is and why I need to do one! So, finally, after what seems like an absolute age!!, my transfer thesis is completely edited, printed, bound and delivered to all examiners and supervisors!

I feel like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders when I finally pressed ‘PRINT’! Although it only took a few days before I started thinking that I should read it again and start learning everything in preparation for my viva! 11 days and counting!

My top tip for writing a thesis of any kind is simply make some progress each day, whether it is a sentence, a figure or a whole chapter, you feel much better mentally if you’ve done something! Well, at least it helped me! What would your top thesis writing tips be? I think we should all share to try and help each other in this time of pain and suffering :p!

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So – there’s my latest update on PhDLife. New blog posts will be back soon 🙂

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S.x