Getting started in MVLS – Research

As I sat there on the first day of my PhD, a small metal probe in one hand and unfamiliar software on the screen in front of me, a thought crossed my mind that would soon be all too familiar: “I have no idea what I am doing”.

A well known meme we can all relate to.
A well known meme we can all relate to.

Last week, Jiska went through the admin side of starting a PhD in MVLS and directed you towards some valuable resources. But that is only one side of being a PGR. For most of us, this will be the first major research project we have led. It will be hard, you will make mistakes, but it will also excite and reward you in ways you have never experienced before. Welcome to the world of being a scientist!

The first thing you need to realise is that there is no set formula in research. It is natural for us to compare ourselves to our peers, but that simply won’t work here. The world of research is diverse and you will be working on a unique project. Some PGRs are continuing in a field they are already familiar with, while others are entering a completely new discipline. Some are here to analyse existing data sets, while others need to spend a few years collecting their own. Different experiments also generate data at different rates—exposing a cell line to a novel drug treatment is quicker than studies involving live animals or people, which may require ethics approval before you can even start. This makes the timeline of each project unique. Sit down with your advisors and come up with a development plan, identify training needs and courses early, and only compare yourself to where you were previously and how far you have come.

MVLS requires you to produce a literature review within your first three months. This is often viewed as a chore, but treat it right and it could be the most valuable thing you do. This is a time for you to become a master of your area, to learn not just about your specific topic but everything related to it. Being honest, most people are not fully prepared when they start—this is where that changes. Read journals, read blogs, read anecdotes and speak to people (just don’t confuse your sources, use a reference manager like Endnote or Mendeley to keep track). Use what you learn to refine your research questions and hone your methodologies. And, if there isn’t a published review paper on your topic yet, publish it!

After this you can get stuck into collecting data. Well, almost. Don’t neglect your pilot studies. These are important: optimise your methods, do trial runs, analyse the data and use that to improve your study. This will improve your technical skills, get you comfortable with your methods and help you better understand the system you are using. Not everything you try will work, and failure will become a regular part of your research. But you need to remember these are not setbacks or a waste of time and resources, they are important steps in improving your work.

You should also remember the most valuable resource you have around you—brains! Working in a research institute you will be surrounded by hundreds of years worth of experience in the form of your colleagues. If your institute hosts internal or guest seminars, special interest group meetings, journal clubs or social events, attend them! (And if they don’t, start them!) You may feel that you are too busy for such activities, that they eat up valuable research time, but they are an important part of your personal and professional development. They provide both formal and informal ways to learn about your field and discuss your work with everyone from undergraduates to heads of department, allowing you to hash out ideas, form collaborations and gain insight from others.

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The wider university also offers opportunities. MVLS runs skills training courses for PGRs to develop both specific skills (like microscopy) and more general (like research management). We will go in detail about MVLS training opportunities in future posts, but why not have a look a the course guide now! And if you see an interesting undergraduate or masters course, contact its coordinators. Most are happy for you to come sit in on the lectures.

Starting as a PGR can be both daunting and exhilarating in equal measure. While the above would be my advice upon starting as a PGR, everyone’s experience, like everyone’s research, is unique. If you have just started, what has it been like for you? If you have been around for a while, what advice would you give new PGRs? And if you have any images we can add to the slide show above, to either show your experiments or the more social side of your institutes research, send them over! Comment below or tweet us @UofG_PGRblog.

Feature image: Molecular DNA. SNRE Lab (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.

Post Author: James Burgon

James (@JamesBurgon) is a final year evolutionary biology PhD student in the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.

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