Challenge yourself!

Doing a PhD is demanding – there is little free time, you don’t get paid particularly well and the high expectations placed on you will cause you a lot of stress (unless you’re very stress-resilient, which I am probably not). It is not surprising that so many students experience a decrease in motivation at some point throughout their studies, and a likely time for this to happen is the second year.

The whole year, actually.

Don’t let this sad Michael Scott moment become the second year of your PhD.

When I started my PhD, I thought the “second year slump” was a myth, and I would be immune to it since I was so excited about my project. Sadly, this did not render me immune to the slump. However, I learned that these feelings are common for PhD students and even the most promising students I know are not immune to it. The question is how to escape the slump, ditch the imposter feelings and the feeling of dread on a sunday before a stressful week in the lab begins. And fear not, it can be done!

I was fairly lucky with my project. I was able to collect data from pretty much 2 months into my PhD and things were going very well in my first year. But of course, at some point in science, there will be road blocks – may they be technical or simply that your hypothesis isn’t true and you need to find a new one – and your whole scientific world feels like it’s upside down. After a relatively successful year with lots of new data and my first successful fellowship application, I felt stuck and like I was doing the same stuff over and over again (- while PhDs will teach you many new things, often you will have to repeat the same experiments which is obviously not as fun as doing new stuff).

So how did I pull myself out of the slump?

What did the trick for me is really thinking about the big picture of your project, and where you want to see yourself in science/research/life. It is easy get lost in day-to-day laboratory routine which can admittedly sometimes be boring and tedious, but I have learned now more than ever it is important to not lose the big picture.
In my case, I decided to do a PhD because I love being creative, thinking up new experiments, and being in charge of my own research. While I am sometimes unsure whether I will be able to lead a life in academic research, I still love research and could probably not picture myself doing anything else. My particular interest lies in molecular mechanisms (which roots from my undergraduate degree) – and particularly of neural repair. I am also interested in intercellular signalling and microglial biology, and neural proliferation as part of a regenerative response. My project combines many of these aspects that I am very interested in, so I realised how lucky I was to be able to study all these things.

In practice, I decided to read a more papers on different aspects of my projects that I may not have thought of before and designed some new experiments that I found very useful and interesting (obviously with underlying evidence).

I also put my newly-found motivation to use by picking up some things that we had left aside in the lab for the past few months: one example is the optokinetic response equipment. It is a behavioural assay for zebrafish assessing the function of the optic tectum, the brain part I am studying repair in. There is no commercially available equipment for this assay, so we had to contact another lab abroad how they did it – we eventually got the parts to build it (a microprocessor, a continuous servo motor and an LED ring). After that, the whole thing stalled since we needed the technical skills to connect everything to the microprocessor and draw up a code for the stuff we need. One day, I was unfortunately put out of work since the microscope I intended to use broke and decided to try my luck with the optokinetic response set up. The last time I did anything circuitry- and engineering-related was in high school for my physics A-levels, and it is safe to say I did not feel confident about this DIY lab equipment project, but there was nothing better to do.

As it turns out, I managed to connect everything with a bit of trial and error and pre-reading in less than a day. I was pretty surprised, but also proud of myself – and it made me realise that we are often capable of things we didn’t initially think we were. I believe that this is one of the most important lessons during your PhD. Of course a lot of your PhD is collecting data and applying skills you already have, but it is also a time to challenge yourself (daily?). It is a time you grow both personally and as a scientist, and it is time to adjust the confidence you have in yourself (I’m usually pretty bad at believing in myself, so this advice applies to me in particular).

In summary, my three top tips for keeping motivated are:

  • keep the big picture in mind – every day!
  • be your own boss – your supervisors are there to help you but ultimately you are responsible for the contents of your thesis, and you will have to defend the choices you make throughout your projects
  • challenge yourself regularly – try out new things and use this to grow
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