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Pillalamarri Srikrishnarka shares 10 tips he wish he knew before starting his STEM-based PhD program at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. A final year scholar, Pillalamarri emphasizes networking and time management, he provides useful links to other resources.

This post is going to be an outpouring of advice and tips I wish I had known while working towards my PhD. Coming from the STEM field, I had the greatest opportunity of working with people from different fields, ranging from Chemistry to Electrical Engineering.

Some of this advice comes directly from my own experience, while others from guidance and readings passed down to me. Although these are coming directly from my own experience as a STEM researcher, much of this advice will be applicable for other disciplines. I have also provided a list of further resources at the bottom of this post, so please do check them out as well.

1. Manage your time well

Time management is a key attribute of success. But don’t worry, it is also a skill which you can develop over time! The first two years of a PhD are crucial; students are not only expected to take up a few courses but to define and start exploring a research problem. Unlike your undergrad, you don’t have as much time to party! 

2. Your literature review is important

​Create a detailed plan of your literature review to help you determine gaps in your field. Be careful not to fall into many rabbit holes of research, there can be no end to searching the literature! Do try to be precise and smart with your search. Summarize and critique the literature you come across because this can also assist in identifying gaps in your field.

3. Learn new skills

Try broadening your skill sets during your PhD journey. It could be by learning a new language or gaining hands-on experience with the various instruments and equipment present in your lab/department. Find activities or hobbies that boost your communication, writing and presenting skills. These new experiences will help you in the future.

4. Plan your experiments

Before starting any experiments or simulations, have an open and frank discussion with your supervisor so that you both understand the requirements and targets. It’s necessary to be upfront so that both of you are on the same page. Each department has its own safety protocols and I highly advise you to follow them; not just for the sake of clearing the safety exam, but because it makes excellent practice.

5. Set your goals

Set SMART goals. Identify your long-term goals and carefully break these down into weekly and daily goals.
If publishing a paper is your ultimate target, set time aside for drafting the manuscript, making figures, and analyzing data.

6. Collaborate with others

The journey of PhD will be much more fruitful if you can collaborate with others and benefit from the sharing of expertise. “If one wants to walk far, walk with a team” – Ratan Tata is truly apt here. If possible, try to do interdisciplinary research so that you can widen your field of expertise.

7. Attend conferences and seminars

I used to treat conferences like a vacation or leave from typical lab settings, as an opportunity to have a break and eat amazing food. This changed completely as I realized that conferences are unique opportunities to create new connections and network. They can help you develop new concepts, ideas, and themes. By listening to others talk about their research, you can develop your own ideas.

Plenary lectures are typically given by eminent scientists at the pinnacle of their respective fields – and these lectures can give you an overall picture of the field of study. This can help in identifying the “why” of your research problem. Make use of these events – I highly recommend you concentrate on other presentations from emerging researchers and scientists. Present your research and gain recognition in the scientific community. Attend your interdepartmental seminars – these are vital as they assist in understanding the research conducted within the university/institute.

8. Socialize

The PhD journey can be quite lonely, so it’s important to mingle and socialize with both lab mates and outsiders. Sometimes a struggle can be greatly alleviated when discussed with others. A dinner, movie, or even a date once in a while can remind you that you are a social being and your presence in society is important. Try not to compare your work with others as you do this, your PhD requires original work and your journey is unique to you.

9. Thesis writing

The best thesis is a completed thesis, so work with your supervisor towards this aim. The first draft is always important, don’t worry about making it perfect at this stage. It will go for a couple of rounds for correction depending on your supervisor’s taste. But make sure you BACK UP your writing!

10. The defence – and what’s next?

Once the external examiner evaluates the thesis, all that is left is your Viva-Voce. Upon successfully defending your thesis you shall be conferred with a Doctorate. What next? Well, many graduates face a simple, but crucial question. Post-doc, academia, R&D labs, industry, start-ups. By this time, after all the blood, sweat, and tears spent during the PhD, you will have the ability to create your own path and I have no doubt that you will be successful.

I would like to end this post by saying that while a PhD will be bumpy – it’s a journey that builds character.
I’ll end with a quote I love, and am constantly trying to live up to it, “Stay hungry and stay foolish”.

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