Six limiting maxims PhD students should avoid.
During my time as a graduate student researching analytical sensors in the Dwyer laboratory at The University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown, I made a lot of mistakes — some of which matured into valuable lessons. If you are already in graduate school, or have decided to start, here are six things I recommend you do not do.
Compare yourself with others
I’ve met many scientists who spiral into stress and disappointment because they compare themselves unfavourably with others. Every research field, project and graduate student is unique. In some fields, it can take years to find a breakthrough worth publishing; in others, it’s easier to publish frequently. I became worried by the third year of my PhD, when it seemed as if it was taking me longer than others to publish my research project. It took me almost six years to complete my PhD, but my hard work paid off when I published a piece on my flagship project in Nature Communications, alongside almost a dozen other publications and two patent applications from various other projects. Instead of looking at what others are doing, learn to be introspective. Grow from your mistakes, and find more efficient and effective work tactics.
Blindly trust your data
I have learnt to be suspicious of my data. Consider what could go wrong when obtaining them — if something seems weird or wrong in some way, it probably is. I was once designing a sensor that would detect minuscule amounts of chemicals with a laser. One day, thrillingly, the signal looked fabulous: the laser power was turned all the way to the highest setting instead of my usual setting; and the higher the laser power, the higher the signal. Although it looked great, it turned out that the equipment was enormously overestimating the sensing performance and was therefore producing useless data. Be aware of issues such as sample contamination, labelling errors or faulty instrument calibrations. Just because you yourself obtained the data, do not blindly trust them.