Things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD

I love to learn new things – my continued professional development is full of courses for that reason. But sometimes realisations come a little to late, are frustrating to learn or really mess up a bit of research. Here I’m going to share a few of the things that I have found out that I wish I’d found out just a bit earlier. Some of these points are more specific to climate modelling, others are general.

  1. If your data looks weird – it probably is. ‘Real’ data is known for being a bit unreliable, but that doesn’t mean that model data is always ‘right’. Any number of things can go wrong in the model set up, the post processing, your own analysis. Check it out. Don’t ‘think about it and look it later’.¬†You will only have to deal with it later, and when you do, the problem may be a lot more serious (if for instance, you’ve done other work or analysis based on the weird results.) Get tenacious about figuring out what is going on with the things that look strange.
  2. Make good friends with support staff.¬†Technicians, PAs, admin staff, finances and especially IT support – these people can make your life easy, nice, can help you out when you’re in a hole. Especially the IT staff. They do difficult jobs, with too much work for not enough money. Get to know them, appreciate them as people. They often can give more practical help than the big shot profs.
  3. Anything that you do that isn’t contributing directly to your thesis is a distraction. It might be a necessary distraction, or even a beneficial distraction, but it is still a distraction. That means that teaching, organisational roles, outreach and going to lots of events are things that need to be taken on mindfully. Remember that these things are not the point of a PhD – getting a thesis is – and weight time accordingly.
  4. Have lots of things on the go at the same time. At the beginning of my PhD I said things like, ‘I want to finish this before I do anything on blah’. But the reality is that not only are there quiet times for particular projects, which leave you twiddling your thumbs, there are times when you just can’t face certain tasks. Having several other things that you can do, as alternatives to your main project, is really useful. It’s even better if they also contribute to your PhD and aren’t just the lit review.
  5. Remember to enjoy it. I realise that this is a really annoying thing to say. I was pretty irritated when someone said it to me, but I think that it is true. Most PhD students have a lot of freedom: three years + to explore what they think is most interesting. Many PhD students don’t have imminent danger of unemployment, grants to submit or reports to write. Often there is no-one checking up on what you’ve achieved week to week. That’s scary, but it is also liberating and PhD students can enjoy it.
  6. Code things. We all know we have to learn to code, but using those tools is the key bit. It feels like time wasted when you have to debug code to do a simple task that you could do manually in the same amount of time. But hold the faith. It really will save you time in the long run. Not maybe on this particular task, but there will be another task the same or similar. There always is. Even in the odd case that there isn’t, the practice in problem solving with code is really important. Moreover, elegant commented code is a sign of a tidy computer, a tidy mind and tidy research.
  7. A PhD student is still a student and still learning. Getting things wrong sometimes is inevitable, necessary and part of the process.

That’s it. So far….