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I started my PhD three months ago in the UK. I am a biologist, but my project lies more in the synthetic chemistry field and all the experiments I have to do are completely new for me.

My problem is that at the moment, I am alone in my group because everyone else have finished their PhD/Masters/Postdoc and left, and I have no one to ask when I am stuck with something. My supervisor tells me to do experiments that I have never heard of, gives me a very general and brief description and that's it! No protocols, no one to show me at least for the first time. In the labs where I have worked in the past it was completely different - PhD students have someone to assist them (a Postdoc or a technician) and they don't feel lost searching on the internet for the right protocol or method to follow.

I want to ask you if this is normal for a PhD student? Or is it how PhDs are in the UK? I know that we have to work with minimal supervision, but is this normal? How am I supposed to start a new protocol involving sensitive instrument usage (like HPLC) with no one to show me?

Thank you in advance for your answers!

  • 4
    "How am I supposed to start a new protocol involving sensitive instrument usage (like HPLC) with noone to show me?" The sensitive instrument will probably not just lie around there. There will be someone responsible for it. Maybe you could ask that person. – Trilarion Dec 13 '17 at 12:47
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    @Trilarion really? – SSimon Dec 13 '17 at 13:04
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    @SSimon generally, yes, in UK universities I'd expect there to be technicians responsible for this stuff. – EnergyNumbers Dec 13 '17 at 14:32
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    I can say that this experience is very familiar to me throughout most of my UK PhD. You are expected to be more or less totally independent, and you'll spend a lot of time feeling both overwhelmed and/or lost. However, the red flag is that you're only 3 months in. Your advisor should be more involved in guidance at this early stage, holding your hand a little until you are developed enough. – Will Faithfull Dec 13 '17 at 15:18
  • @EnergyNumbers we dont have technician for HPLC, I think it is waste of money. dont you think? I mean every student in field of chemistry, NEED to learn to utilise those intrument by themselve. – SSimon Dec 14 '17 at 7:21
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It is not normal in UK biology PhDs for a student to be completely abandoned with no help; particularly not at the beginning. As you become more confident you will be able to take on new areas and new techniques with minimal advice, but I would never expect a student to dive into complicated, expensive and potentially dangerous experiments without so much as a protocol.

I would do the following:

  • Ask your supervisor straight up if he knows where a protocol might be found for the experiment, or whether he sees designing the protocol as part of the thesis.

  • Find others in your institution, but outside your lab that might be able to help.

  • Find an online protocol or protcol in a text book and specifically ask your supervisor if he thinks it is a good protocol and if he knows of anyone who can go through it with you.

  • If all else fails, a UK institution will almost always assign you a second supervisor or advisor: go speak to them.

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    Leave and find another advisor! Although you are being trained to be an independent thinker, you cannot become that alone nor stay that alone. Find a lab that gives you a gut-feeling that you will have the support and challenge to better yourself. – Phil Dec 13 '17 at 0:05
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    Switching supervisor is a radical option. But sometimes it’s necessary. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 13 '17 at 9:38
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    I agree with @Phil ASAP switch advisor, evil root is better to cut on beginning – SSimon Dec 13 '17 at 11:42
  • @KonradRudolph Yeah, I wish I had switched. I had an advisor that would like you build skyscrapers on air if you wanted... He did not challenge your thinking or teach you how to think and break down problems like a researcher. If you are not at the stage to work highly alone or do not have a solid-researcher-mentality just yet or have not done guided research; and now you are confused... It is a mistake to try to fight your way through. You will suffer for nothing. – Phil Dec 13 '17 at 16:10
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    My guess is you have professors smart in terms of books knowledge and getting enough done to continuously get grants; but many not adept in th psychology of training people outside technical knowledge. Like, inspiring student, studying a student and helping him/her see and overcome weakness, inspiring confidence, motivating, adapting to the individual needs, growing student technically and non-technically... I see this in industry too. People with those skills are less promoted than people who can bring in money to institute/companies. – Phil Dec 14 '17 at 16:18
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A PhD degree is to say that you have earned the recognition of being an independent researcher in the field. From what I understand, the whole point of the PhD journey is to train to become a fully independent researcher. Edit: by “independent” I don’t means “alone” as one of the commenters have stated.

Part of that training should come from your supervisor. Of course he or she cannot teach you everything. But I would expect him/her to show you how to use specific equipment or what the best practices are when conducting experiments. Firstly this is to prevent accidents from happening which may damage expensive equipment (trust me, this is in the supervisor’s own interest) and more importantly to protect you from injury.

Secondly, a PhD student is expected to tackle a completely new problem. There may not even be any “standard experiments” that would help solve your problem. It is thus expected that new problems need innovative methods or experiments to solve.

At this point even your supervisor would not know exactly what to do because no one has even looked at the problem before. However, he or she has (hopefully) been in the field long enough to guide you if you get stuck attempting something that has never been done before.

  • Thank you all for your help. I will talk to my supervisor about my concerns. – Maria Dec 12 '17 at 22:19
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    I disagree: “independent” ≠ “alone”. Most (all?) of the successful PhDs that I know constantly got advice during their PhD, either from their supervisor or from peers. Not getting any of that is a huge problem. The same is true, incidentally, for postdocs (and, gasp, PIs), if to a lesser extent. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 13 '17 at 9:36
  • @KonradRudolph yes independent does not mean alone. I have edited my answer in the main text. Thanks for the clarification! – Harish Dec 13 '17 at 14:00
  • @HarishVallabhapurapu also it means that you will NOT be alone after you finish PhD. that is hard to grasp to a lot of students and researchers, they need strong network and support from the previous lab. – SSimon Dec 14 '17 at 7:24
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It sounds like you should go to your supervisor and ask for guidance. I experienced something similar during my dissertation work. Eventually, I got the guidance I needed. Near the end I felt like I had to take more of a leadership role. That was especially true during the planning stages of my final defense. At that point in time I was having to work more like a project manager, corralling my committee members and finalizing my work. Good luck!

3

In 25 years of being a post-doc' I can assure you that there is no 'normal'. The university, the department and the supervisors are all different and with them the level of useful support you will receive. It's not uncommon to find the supervisor has no hands-on experience with the techniques you need to learn, so your best resource is often technicians or fellow students. Sadly, you seem alone, and in this instance, as with the rest of your PhD, you need to dig deep and read the literature, search online, and even ask in other departments if they may have the expertise you need. It's normal to have 2 supervisors. what does the other have to say? Don't withdraw from the problem, as it will eat you up, instead, be vocal and plan a meeting with your supervisor. Send a list of issues you want to resolve at the meeting, but don't go expecting to be given the solutions on a plate. Do explain what you've done to try an progress and what is your current level of understanding so you can discuss the best way forward. Try this approach for a couple of months and see if you start to feel better.

Don't worry. A Phd will be the hardest thing you have ever done so far. No student knows what the heck is going on for the first year, but by the second year you will be bringing in useful data, and by the third you will know more about your subject than your supervisor, which in your case sounds like it won't be hard!

A Phd is meant to be extremely taxing otherwise everyone would have one. You will become exceptionally resourceful and self-teaching, two assets far more useful than the PhD itself in your later career, and indeed life in general.

It will get better, I promise, but it's up to you to make it happen, and to organise your supervisor so in the end you are controlling them.

I've known around 150 PhD students during my career, most get through, a few drop out, and a tiny minority fail. It's always the most independently minded that have the easier time as they make it work in spite of the supervisors.

Above all do not expect them to show you much, or help you directly; but they should point you in the right direction, and respond to requests for meetings.

It's a crazy time and a quantum leap up from your graduate level experience so to ease the stress make friends with other PhD's wherever they hang out and support each other as It'll make you feel less isolated. Dissing supervisors is very therapeutic!

Don't give up, it'll be OK, we all had a really hard time for the first 6 months or so.

My only caveat is if after 9 -12 months you are still lost, figure out of it's you, your supervisor, or both and look long and hard about if you can still make it work. Also, you must be interested in what you are studying to be happy. If it's a total chore, then you need to ask yourself a whole bunch of difficult questions. If you are absolutely convinced its not for you, then bail out rather than leaving it for another year, as by then you may be as much as 50% of the way to a PhD and jacking it in at that stage will be something you may regret many, many years later when you as old as me.

Finally, enjoy the environment, people and opportunities. Don't just treat it as a means to a few letters, but as a period in life that very, very few people are lucky enough to experience.

Good luck to you, dig deep and be magnificent. :-)

  • 25 year of postdoc? Really? What is your role title? – Dilworth Dec 14 '17 at 0:33
  • Retired! Ex Senior research fellow – OldDoc Dec 14 '17 at 9:04
  • Wow! I think only in the UK one can be a postdoc for so long. A postdoc is usually a temporary position, for 1/2 years before a permanent or tenure track position. – Dilworth Dec 14 '17 at 13:53
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    It's very unusual, and now nearly impossible in the current climate. I was lucky, well supported by a good research group. I enjoyed full time hands-on experimentation, something that's not possible in the normal career route into lectureship and with it, effective removal from the lab'. The downside is of course insecurity, since employment is a series of short-term contracts with absolutely no guarantee of continuity if proposals are unsuccessful. I do feel career paths for pure researchers in academia are important, since we amass valuable practical experience which is often ephemeral. – OldDoc Dec 14 '17 at 22:28
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I agree fully with all the answers pointing out that your supervisor ought to give you more guidance. A PhD studentship can only work if the supervisor is giving you the guidance you need.

We cannot fully judge your supervisor on the bits of information that you have given. I would only like to add that not taking students by the hand does not necessarily imply that he or she is not a good supervisor. It is up to you to demand the guidance you need and you certainly shouldn't feel bad about it! (Like I said above, providing guidance is probably the single most important part of a PhD studentship.) By asking for guidance, letting him or her know what you can do by yourself and independently and what not, you are making this professor–student relationship work.

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I want to ask you if this is normal for a PhD?

It's not too uncommon, but it's also not the norm.

Regardless, the real issue's whether or not it's right for you.

How am I supposed to start a new protocol involving sensitive instrument usage (like HPLC) with noone to show me?

This is one of those things that you should be able to do by yourself, but, yeah, it's often a lot more pleasant if someone gives you a walk-through first.

To answer this question as-asked:

  1. You probably know the basics already.

  2. Normally, you'd want to research how these devices work in greater detail before using them. This can provide important perspective when designing experiments and interpreting data.

  3. Once you're familiar with how a hypothetical HPLC device might operate, then it's time to figure out how the specific one on your lab bench works. These tend to be pretty expensive devices, so they should have thorough documentation to read through.

  4. If you know anyone else doing work with them, you can look over their shoulder or/and ask them questions.

Moving forward

I'd suggest thinking out your life goals and how you're planning on tackling them.

Getting a PhD is often described as learning to function independently. But there's a whole universe of variance in that vague point. At one extreme, many PhD's essentially serve as high-end lab techs in 9-to-5-type jobs. At the other extreme, some PhD's go on to make weird stuff no one's ever heard of. Exactly how independent you need to be really depends on the path that you plan to take.

Without looking up the figures (which I'd imagine would be hard to get), I'd speculate that most PhD's end up working in high-end-lab-tech jobs. They're nice, popular jobs because:

  1. They're predictably about what you've learned to do.

  2. They're typically 9-to-5 jobs, and frequently pretty stable.

  3. You don't have to stress so much about general concerns, but rather can focus specifically on some specific facet of research.

If that's the sort of position that you'd like to go into, then presumably you'd want a grad school experience that'd align with it. So, you might want to seek an appropriate supervisor.

Sounds like a mismatch, rather than right-vs.-wrong

This sort of supervision is right for some students. This is, your advisor's not necessarily wrong, nor are you necessarily wrong.

Rather, I'd suggest seeing this as a mismatch, for which you might have two general approaches to solving:

  1. You might talk it out with your advisor to let them know your needs. If this works, then awesome! Easy fix.

  2. If your advisor isn't a good match for your intended approach, then ideally they'll be mature enough to acknowledge the mismatch and help you find an advisor who'd be a better match for you.

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