Five things successful PhD students refuse to do

Too many PhD students feel as if they can’t do anything but show up to the lab and look busy. Photograph: Alamy When my first year as a PhD student became a daily grind of going to several classes a day and learning endless new experiments and procedures in the lab, I looked around for inspiration from older and more successful students.

What were they doing differently? I eventually realised that the high-achieving postgrads all had one thing in common: refusal. Here are five things they simply refused to do:

1) Feel like a failure

Like most other students, I started my PhD as one of the smartest kids in college. But in graduate school, everyone was smart. I was no longer special – I was normal. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to just being a fish. I came to realise that a lot of students felt like failures. Some of them were able to shake this feeling. But others went on to develop mental illnesses. One student, whom I knew personally, ended up taking his own life after just one year.

Feeling like a failure as a PhD student is a serious issue. Studies and reports increasingly show that mental illness is on the rise in academia. One of the biggest reasons that it’s rising is because many academicsare perfectionists and are not willing to accept failure as part the process of learning. Many of them are also unwilling to reach out to other students or faculty for help. Instead, they isolate themselves and work harder and harder until something snaps.

Successful PhD students aren’t perfectionists and they refuse to isolate themselves. These students realise that failing is the fastest way to learn.

They’re not ashamed to say, “I don’t know.” They’re also not ashamed to ask for help, especially when they’re facing very real problems like depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Admitting that you don’t know something or asking for help is not defeat, it’s success.

The key is to allow for failure without feeling like a failure. If you do start feeling like a failure, don’t isolate yourself. Instead, reach out. Ask for help and allow others to support you.

2) Feel out of control

It’s easy to feel out of control as a postgraduate student. Our adviser controlled us in the lab, reviewers controlled which of our articles would get published, and our thesis committees controlled when we could graduate. The ball seemed to perpetually be in someone else’s court. But this was just a matter of our perspective.

The truth is, you always have control over your life. Take back control by making something happen for yourself. Start a blog or take up a new hobby. Too many postgrads feel as if they can’t do anything but show up to the lab and grind out experiments, or sit at their desk and look busy so their advisers don’t get angry. This is ridiculous.

It’s your life. Go live it. You’ll be more productive with a side project than if you just wait around waiting for permission to publish and graduate.

3) See themselves as employees

One of the biggest paradoxes in postgraduate study is that students are trained both to be highly innovative and to respect academic tradition. How can you push the cutting edge while being confined by a large and powerful system?

Likewise, how can you create or build anything at all on a zero-hours contract where you can be let go at anytime?

The hard truth is that the current academic environment is very unstable right now. It’s not longer a safe haven for people who just want pay rent, look after their families, and attend a few conferences every year.

However, while security and opportunity may be lacking in academia at the moment, it’s flourishing everywhere else. In the first six months of 2013, over 90,000 new ventures were created in the UK, a 3.4% increase on 2012. Many academics have formed their own companies or collaborated with successful startup businesses while continuing to work in academia. All it takes is an idea and a little networking to start opening up new streams of income for yourself.

Never forget that you’re an innovator – a creator. Refuse to become dependent on the system you’re in. Too many postgraduates are trained to think that there is only one way to secure a paycheck every month. So they settle for full-time research scientist positions or mid-level jobs in corporate R&D departments without ever taking on anything else.

Scientists make great entrepreneurs. Very few people get the chance to be trained specifically in innovation. But you do. Use this to your advantage.

4) Stress about getting published

Publications carry a lot of value in academia, but this is slowly changing. People are realising that it doesn’t make sense for a few gatekeepers to control which content has the biggest impact. Why should the owners of the one or two biggest journals get to decide the fate of your scientific career, or even the fate of science in general? It doesn’t make sense. Too many postgraduate students work themselves to exhaustion trying to add a couple of papers to their CV so they can one day get tenure.

Working hard for a crowning achievement like being published in a high-impact journal is fine. The key is to keep some perspective. Realise that publishing in a second-tier or open-source journal is something to be proud of and realise that you can always publish in the future, from industry or otherwise.

Your goal during postgrad study should be to build your knowledge base and your network, nothing else. The truth is you don’t need to publish a Nature paper during your postgrad to get your PhD. You don’t even have to publish a first-author paper to graduate if you don’t want to. Stop chasing this kind of approval and open yourself up to the many opportunities for learning and connecting that are happening all around you.

5) Turn their back on business opportunities

A university is a business and it needs to secure funding to survive. Successful PhD students know this and, as a result, value business training. They go to conferences and introduce themselves to business professionals at the vendors’ show. They take business classes, join business and entrepreneurship meetup groups, and work to establish an online presence.

Don’t wait until you’re about to defend your thesis to start developing your business skills. Do it now. Refuse to be left behind.

Successful students spend at least half of their time connecting with as many other people as possible, while also taking time to follow up with their network consistently.

Some simple but effective ways to do this include talking to presenters after seminars and reaching out online to other academic authors. Find their email addresses and tell them what you liked about their article or ask them an insightful question. Then follow up with them every couple of weeks until you establish a strong connection.

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