10 pieces of advice for doing a PhD


Last week I was in Wageningen and my colleagues at Biometris organised a PhD workshop. Biometris is the mathematics and statistics research group at the Wageningen University.

It was to update each other on our projects and to be inspiring to each other. The theme of the day was “Life after your PhD”. In the afternoon 3 people who did their PhD at Biometris gave a talk about their experiences in finding a job and have a life after your PhD. One of them came with 10 pieces of advice, which I will share with you today!

Most of what I’m writing will be from his talk, I will colour them with my own experiences so far.


be owner

#1: Be the owner of your project

This was the first one, and since it is the first one, I assume the most important one. Doing a PhD has as final goal that you can perform research independently. Being the owner of your project is that you take the lead, that you take responsibility for it.

When things don’t go as they should, you can blame it outside of yourself to your supervisor, the third party who has to deliver data or…!

But when you start with yourself and see where you can make a step to solve these things, you will become the owner of your project.


I also think this means that you have to fully feel your project and know what you are doing it for, if I do things because I think my professor is expecting them from me, I don’t follow through. And following through is kind of what you need, if you are going to work on one topic for 4 years!



#2: Read

It sounds so very simple! Looking back, the speaker thinks reading a lot is much easier when you’re doing a PhD. After his PhD he became postdoc and now he is assistant professor.


I am not sure, if I am reading enough. I do read semi-scientific literature, like: ‘The History of Nearly Everything’, or the ‘History of Plant Breeding’. Yeah, I like history too…

I am subscribed to the NCBI scientific publication updates, so I browse daily through articles that might be of interest to me. Some are, most are not. I am not reading every day and also not every week… I’m curious how often do you read?


Here is how you can set up your own publication alerts:

For example if you want to know what is published about MAGIC  and click on ‘create alert’. Then you have to log in and fill in the form.

I have a very extensive alert; I get all papers that are published in the genetics journals. This is about 15 – up to 40 – per day. I browse the titles and look into the abstract if I think it might be useful.


coming from3

#3: Never forget where you are coming from

The speaker studied economics and then he did a PhD in the Mathematics and Statistics group in Wageningen. He said that he will not say that he is a statistician or an economist that switched into statistics, but he will always say that he is an economist. I don’t know why he wouldn’t do that.

This morning I said I am a statistician, just to keep it simple.

I also could’ve said:

I am an animal geneticist,

Or an animal scientist,

Or farm raised.

It’s all true, but complicated to explain. Mostly I say: ‘I am doing a PhD in wheat genetics.’

Still, I will not forget where I am coming from. I am farm raised and will always be. 🌞



#4: Make sure to get most out of your supervisors

Because when you have graduated, you don’t have them anymore…!

This is also because all of your supervisors have their likes and dislikes, they are human too. Yes, I know it is unbelievable.

So, in practice: if one supervisor is very hands on, ask him/her to help you write your code or have a look with you in the lab to see your raw results.

Don’t bother your supervisor with this if s/he doesn’t like to sit down with you and work on something with this, maybe s/he is much better in knowing what content is publishable and what not.

This also means: know your supervisors. Know their strengths and their weaknesses to optimize the way you manage them.


I also think this means: know yourself. Know where you need help and know what you can do yourself. And if there is a field in which all of you, your supervisors and you, do not excel in, consider asking someone extra on your team.


trust 2

#5: Trust (especially your supervisors)

This also means, don’t be too stubborn. Listen to advice you don‘t want to hear. Supervisors have the same goal as you – get you graduated!

The Frisians are known for being stubborn, so this one is a good one for me. 😉 No further comments.



#6: Cooperate (outside your group)

Getting a PhD is a personal achievement; you should be able to prove that you did it yourself. This doesn’t mean that you cannot cooperate. Personally, I love cooperation. This morning – after I said that I was statistician – I was in the field supervising the harvest of a potato experiment.

I helped my colleague and he will help me when I need someone to proofread, or to help me untangle my R-code. I did some fieldwork before.

Doing a PhD can be very lonely experience, because you are the only one working on that very specific topic. So cooperation can get you out of your isolation. If you are not the only one working on that very specific topic, then the competition must be killing!

Also, cooperation is very important for the career after the PhD, so why not start and practise with it now?



#7: Develop your own niche.

This advice… I am not sure…

This could work if you want to specialize yourself. I would like ‘to keep my options open’. Also, I don’t believe we need a research society with only people working in their small niche. I believe we also need people who build bridges and are interdisciplinary – yes, there, I said it: interdisciplinary.


I think this advice could be better if it was rephrased to:

Develop your own brand.


I also followed a course on professional branding, one of the experts said:

“It is your attitude and your ambition that will get you there”.

Think about it.., even though it sounds simplified, I agree that these two things are the most important.


get to know peers

#8: Get to know your peers (and discuss science with them)

I think this one is to practice with scientific discussions and to catalyse new ideas. Often, the best ideas come with a joke over coffee (or a beer).

I know someone whose PhD project was written up at the back side of a coaster in a pub..!

This advice also prevents the loneliness-risk of PhD candidates.

Besides that, it is incredibly fun to hang out with peers and they know what you are going through.

I am quite lucky having a colleague who is very active in getting her colleagues involved in social outings. Often we go for a drink, or party, or walk… or as we did last May, we walked to the island of Ameland, luckily it was low tide. Click here to find out more about ‘wadlopen’.


think ahead3

#9: Think ahead

Have an escape plan! – No, that was not the advice.

Think about what to do after the PhD. Be a little bit strategic, invest in your network and use it when you need it.

It is the same as ‘Foresight is the essence of government’ (in Dutch: Vooruitzien is regeren), if you want to keep control, you need to think ahead.

He also said: See chances, create chances.


Thinking ahead is not always easy, especially when thinking ahead about what you still have to do to get your PhD finished is overwhelming. Our graduate school is offering a career assessment course, 2 out of 3 speakers mentioned this course and recommended it. Except the one who had this advice, in his third year he started to write a grant proposal for a postdoc.

I will try and go for the balance between thinking ahead and not getting overwhelmed too much.



#10: Have fun

Don’t forget this one!

PhD can look very serious, and it is by default not easy. In the end it is the highest level of education possible.

This does not mean you cannot have free time, socialize with friends, do sports, join a club, play music, go out, travel and HAVE FUN!

Personally, I also write this blog to have fun. I like to run and I travel quite a bit. Also, I like to read some PhD comics…

It is always fun when the sun shines! 🌞


I hope these pieces of advice where somewhat helpful to you, I like to hear your opinion on them and please respond with your additional advice!

All pictures are from PhDcomics.com – The way to procrastinate you through the day.



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