I am sorry for not addressing you by name. I know that that’s not nice, and I know how it feels. Why do I know? Because you did not address me by name. You started your e-mail with some generic address, such as “Dear Professor” (which – by the way – is not my job title) or “Dear Sir” (which – by the way – is not my gender).
As many of my friends know (and some of them from awkward personal experience), I like walking around cemeteries. Cemeteries from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy are especially great, because you can learn a lot about the people buried there and the time they lived in. Not just names and dates and places of birth and death. Often, the headstone will also inform us about a person’s station in life, their job, their academic and professional titles. It will tell us, for instance, that the deceased was a Doctor of Philospohy. Or an officer for the royal-imperial postal service. Or a house owner’s widow. I love it.
I am spending a quarter of each year on the Haining International Campus of Zhejiang University, teaching in a joint Zhejiang/Edinburgh degree programme in Biomedical Sciences. A while ago, we were asked to provide suggestions for books to be added to the newly-to-be-established campus library. Of course, all the standard textbooks will be there, but it got me thinking about what other books I would consider valuable reads for budding biomedical scientists. And, more especially, what books I have enjoyed myself.
All happy PhDs are alike. Every unhappy PhD is unhappy in its own way.
There was a story in the Guardian not long ago about a young scientist who had supposedly found a dream PhD position, only to then find the lab ill-equipped, the supervisor under-prepared and the institution unsupportive.
Now, my own PhD was a happy experience (not just saying that because my supervisor is probably reading this. Hi Nicolas! But it really was.) But I have seen so many unhappy PhDs, and so many different ways in which a PhD can fail.
It’s the first week of semester 1 of our new Biomedical Sciences degree programme, and the first cohort of students have been through their first few lectures and tutorials. They are wonderful young people, bright, optimistic, maybe a bit anxious, but nonetheless ready to throw themselves into this new adventure. These days, I think a lot of what it was like for me when I was in my first year of undergraduate. And about what I was like.
Now that I have my own lab, the topic of students writing stuff comes up a lot. It seems like everybody writes to a universal time plan, which is the following: If you have n days to produce a report, or a thesis chapter, or an abstract, then do absolutely nothing for n-2 days, scramble to produce something on day n-1, send it to your supervisor and ask them to provide feedback within the next hour or so, because after all, the deadline is tomorrow! I know this time plan well, because I have followed it myself for years. But it’s not great. And while I’m at it, let me dispense some other sage writing advice …