On Friday, the 22nd of July (exactly one year since I graduated from the University of Bristol!) I attended a first-year PhD students meeting at the Wellcome Trust. This meeting was for all 140 students funded on the Trust’s four-year phd programmes to gather together for advice, information and networking. The objective of the meeting was to highlight opportunities for us to think about, such as the Sir Henry Wellcome postdoctoral fellowships, public engagement opportunities and policy internships - and also provide a space for all the phd students to meet. I found the meeting very insightful and useful (much more than I expected!), taking away many pieces of advice and also having a good time meeting old friends and new people.

The day started with a panel by early career scientists and principal investigators on “making the most of your PhD”. I was happy to see that the five-person panel consisted of four women, including two female PIs. I have recently been lamenting seeing a dearth of young female PIs, so it was great to see successful young female lead scientists up on the panel. I found it also gave a more balanced perspective than an all-male panel would. Although there was little talk of any gendered topics besides a brief discussion about timing of starting families, the panelists’ personal experiences seemed to be perhaps more open and honest as a result. In any case, the panel yielded some great advice, of which some highlights are below.

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Choosing a Lab

Prof. Daan van Aalten from the University of Dundee described a three-part Venn diagram for choosing a lab based on considering your passion, your talents, and the available opportunities. That is, he emphasised the importance of picking a lab based on meeting your research interests, but also one that makes use of your skills, and that has the opportunities for you to make the most of your PhD. Dr. Sarah Mizielinska, a postdoc at UCL, also noted that it was important to surround yourself by people that inspire you.

During the PhD

Dr. Emmanuelle Vire from the MRC prion unit at UCL shared many great thoughts, and particularly imparted some advice that she said she realised too late - do it for yourself, not to please others. This was particularly directed with regard to your professional relationship with your supervisor. The rest of the panel echoed this sentiment, emphasising that it is important to focus on doing the best science you can do, and try not to worry about anything else. Dr. Charlotte Stagg from the University of Oxford pointed out that while it is easy to get caught up in the networking, publishing, and other things you ‘have’ to do, you sometimes need to pause and just focus on the science, and by doing good science the rest will follow.

Finally, the panel discussed how to deal with challenges in your PhD, especially when to let go of a project that isn’t bearing much fruit. The panelists had differing opinions on whether to push on or drop it. Initially, some discussed how many discoveries may lie in wait, if only one had the perseverance to keep looking; however, later discussions pointed out that particularly in ambitious students, people tend to let go of projects too late, perhaps wasting months in the process. In the case of a failing project, Dr. Vire suggested careful diplomatic discussion with the supervisor. First, outline plans for what last steps to try before letting go of the project and ensure both the supervisor and student agree on these points. Then, after trying those, return with the results and based on the evidence conclude whether it is worth continuing or not. All panelists agreed on the importance of confirming discussions in writing with the supervisor in general. On a different note, Dr. Mizielinska shared the best way to solve technical challenges - find labs who are doing it well, and watch them do it.

Networking

As always, the meeting was peppered with networking sessions, both ‘guided’ and informal coffee/tea/drink breaks. I had the lovely opportunity to meet other neuroscience phd students that I hadn’t met before from the Cardiff, Newcastle, Bristol and Oxford programmes. It was great to hear what everyone else was doing and there were some interests in common that fostered interesting discussions, which I felt really drove home the spirit of the meeting. Afterwards, I went out for dinner with the Oxford Wellcome Trust neuroscience PhD students.

In all, it was great fun to learn from successful scientists, from postdocs to PIs, and I feel like they did a good job of highlighting not only the joys of science but also talked frankly about the struggles. It was also great to meet the excited, driven fellow Wellcome Trust PhD students from across the UK - I also learned about a few programmes that I didn’t know existed until the day! The meeting was definitely helpful and inspiring; I’m glad the Wellcome Trust put it on for us.

Image: Three-part recipe for choosing a lab, words from Prof. Daan van Aalten, diagram by me.