When my PhD officially started, in March 2019, it felt like the beginning of a long journey. Four years (at least) lay ahead of me. Plenty of time to fully dive into the project, to master key techniques and to get on top of the literature in the field. Those were my thoughts back then. Now it is the beginning of June 2020. I barely realized that I am a second year PhD student, already! So maybe it is a good time to draw up an interim check-in on how far I have come with my previously set goals.
The main part of the PhD is of course my thesis project. But there are a lot of other things along the road that can easily act as distractions. From administrative tasks to everyday maintenance work in the lab to mandatory PhD courses up to meetings and seminars, there are plenty of things to do outside of the actual project. Prioritizing your time to the most important tasks is a skill, one I still need to improve on. It is so easy to get carried away with small things that seem urgent or important, but really are not. And the worst thing about these time-eaters? At the end of the day you still get a false sense of accomplishment, when in reality that time could have been spent in a better way.
In terms of technical skills, I have gained confidence in important methods in the lab during the first year and a half in the lab. However, my project is changing and developing all the time. I think besides becoming confident in some main methods, it is even more important to constantly adapt your toolbox and stay open minded towards learning new techniques. At the end of the day science is all about finding out new things, so naturally one has to keep track with new technologies as well.
How is it going with getting on top of the literature after more than a year in the PhD program then? Did I read articles relevant for my project? Yes, definitely! Could I have read more? Yes, probably. As mentioned above, you could fill your work day with plenty of things to do. Unfortunately, it is so easy to postpone reading papers. But unless you actively make time for reading it is not going to happen. The further I get into my PhD the more I realize the importance of good literature knowledge. Not only to understand mechanisms and concepts, but also to put your own work into context – what am I actually doing and why? I am still in the process of turning paper reading into a regular habit, but distractions are everywhere! So, more than one quarter of my official PhD program is already over. No reason to panic, yet. But the four years don’t seem as long now as they did at first.