Welcome to the Department!
This section was created by PhD students, and we hope it can be useful for students starting their studies. We’ve compiled a list of the most common problems faced by PhD students, and we’ve come up with advice and suggestions on how to cope with them.
- “I’m not good enough for Cambridge”
- “I don’t know how to meet new people”
- “I don’t know how much work is expected of me”
- “I’m not enjoying every aspect of my research”
- “I’m tired of doing the same thing over and over”
- “Everything is taking so much longer than I expected”
- “My experiment/field season is failing!”
- “I don’t know as much as I should”
- “I’m making lots of mistakes!”
- “I’m not getting the results that I expected”
- “I don’t know who to talk to when having problems”
These are just some of the most common problems and doubts experienced by PhD students. If you are experiencing any of these, or any that have not been mentioned here, the most important piece of advice is: talk to someone! It is normal to need help of some kind during your PhD and there is always a large network of people there to provide support, advice and help. No matter what the problem is, someone has been through it before and there is always someone you can go to, whether it is your supervisor, advisors, colleagues, any of the organised programs listed below, or your personal friends and family.
Every student that we talked to felt this way when starting their studies at Cambridge. Just talk to other students and see for yourself.
And the University of Cambridge has a very strict selection process, you couldn’t have fooled them. You got in for a reason: you are good enough for Cambridge.
Lots of students in our Department have long field seasons, and have difficulty meeting people, especially if they are away at the start of the academic year. Here are some tips from our own experience:
- When you are starting your PhD, try to talk to as many people as you can from the beginning. You’ll build strong bonds right away, and you’ll probably find other people who have long field seasons and only spend short periods of time in Cambridge.
- Get involved in societies, sports clubs, or any other activities offered by the University and the Department. It’s a great way to meet new people.
- Use your college. Colleges have many social events.
- Go to the Department’s social events like the happy hour, it’s full of other students.
As our PhD programme offers so much flexibility, students usually struggle with how much work to put in. First of all: Don’t over-work or put extra hours in when you don’t have that much to do: more work will come later. Remember it’s going to be a long process, you have to enjoy it.
Use the first term mainly to get to know people and understand how things work. If you’re really concerned about the amount of time that you should be putting in, then think of the PhD as a job. Many people prefer to work regular office hours such as from 9-5 or 6, taking several short breaks every day, and taking weekends and holidays off. Don’t try to work 15h days. The most successful scientists know how to balance their science against the rest of their lives.
However, part of the freedom of being a PhD student is that you can devise your own schedule to take advantage of the times of day or week when you are most productive.
You can also ask other PhD students and particularly students who share your supervisor to get an idea of how much work they are usually putting in, and what your supervisor may expect.
No matter what project you are developing, you will always find parts that you won’t enjoy. When this happens, try to think of the big picture; remember the central question you are addressing. This should be a subject you are interested in. The research that you’re pursuing must motivate you. If it doesn’t, talk to your supervisor straight away, and think of a new project.
Sometimes the question is motivating enough but you really dislike the work involved. If you can’t picture yourself doing this work for three years, you may also want to talk to your supervisor about it. But remember, things may get better as you go along.
After some time working on your project, you may start to feel bored. The big question may seem far away, and the workload may be heavy, repetitive and dull. A good way of spicing up your PhD is to change activities. Usually a PhD has several different components to it, so perhaps consider switching between them to avoid too much repetition.
There are a lot of things that you can get involved in in Cambridge. You may get paid for doing them, others can go on your CV, and in general, they’ll add diversity to your time in Cambridge. Take classes, go to talks, supervise students, sign up for courses, do sports, join societies, go to social events. By doing this you may find things you enjoy, you’ll learn new things, and you’ll meet new people. Not everything is about doing research, and inspiration for your research can come from very unexpected places.
Cambridge is full of activities, classes and conferences from every subject imaginable, and they are on your doorstep. Don’t miss out!
This seems to be the rule rather than the exception. You may arrive at Cambridge hoping to get cool results within months or weeks, and this may not always be the case. First of all, don’t compare your progress to anybody else’s. Every PhD project is different, and therefore they take different amounts of time to start producing results.
Although the idea of getting results and publications within months may seem tempting, remember you’re in a PhD for a long time. It’s better to spend the first months of your PhD reading about your system and properly planning the first couple of experiments. Start by helping out other people, or by doing pilot work. It will probably take longer to start with, but it’s better to spend some extra time planning and doing your experiments properly, rather than to start collecting data without having thought everything through and potentially having to start experiments again later.
Don’t lose motivation if things fail. Sometimes experiments go wrong, and field seasons as well. You’ll have a chance to address the problem and the final product will be better. It’s usually not your fault, sometimes things don’t work as expected. Problem-solving is one of the most important skills of a scientist. Try to figure out why something went wrong, and keep an open mind: it may be necessary to change your protocol or your original question. Perhaps the reason it didn’t work is that you have inadvertently come across something new (hooray!).
Nobody knows everything. If there wasn’t anything else for you to learn, there would be no point in you doing science. Corrections, suggestions and feedback are always useful; that’s one of the ways you’ll improve and develop as a researcher. Try to get as much feedback as you can, and from as many different people as possible, not just from your supervisor and advisors. Getting insight from people who work with different systems/methods may be extremely useful. You may find better protocols that other people are using or you may get involved in collaborations.
Again, everybody makes mistakes. Don’t hide them, talk to your supervisor and to other people about the mistakes that you’re making or about things going wrong in your research and maybe they know how to avoid them.
The best way to avoid making mistakes is to spend time on pilot work and getting to know your system properly, so that when you do an experiment or go into fieldwork you know what to expect.
There are mistakes you really want to avoid though. Back up your data constantly; write all your protocols with as much precision as you can as you go along; use schedules, alarms, calendars or whatever works for you so that you don’t forget what you have to do and what you have done. The University offers courses to help you manage and plan your research and your time effectively.
Sometimes students are disappointed when they don’t get the results that they were expecting. Sometimes the most interesting results are those that are unexpected, so you should feel lucky if your results don’t match your hypothesis! There is always a reason for this and it may open a new area of investigation for yourself or other researchers in your field.
First of all, don’t struggle alone. Talk to people. Other students may be a good place to start; maybe they’ve been through the same problems as you.
Talk to your supervisor, that’s what they’re there for. Or maybe go to your academic advisor if you’re having an academic problem. If you need help due to a more personal problem you could seek out the departmental auntie or uncle, or your college tutor/adviser. If you are having academic or personal problems and need somebody else to talk to, the Department and the University have many options.
The bottom-line is: there are lots of people who want to talk to you and help, use them. These are some useful links:
- Some key contacts in the Department of Zoology.
- Remember you can contact the Department’s Uncle and Auntie if you need to talk to somebody other than your supervisor.
- Talk to people in your college. Your graduate tutor is a good person to talk to, and some colleges have welfare offices.
- The student advice service.
- Peer2peer is a student-run programme offering confidential, informal support to students.
- Cambridge Counselling Service.
- The Cambridge University Student’s Union.