How to finish a PhD – part two: talk to people!

When I began my PhD, I seemed to quickly develop a compulsion to keep what I was working on close to my chest. Looking back, I think I’ve shaken off at least the fear that I don’t know enough to be able to justify why I’m doing things, but there is still a whisper of unease that I have to suppress when someone says “Hey, what are you working on these days?” Maybe it’s a result of working in Cambridge where, if you feel like everyone else is better than you, chances are they actually are, because this is where people come when they’re top of their game. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome. Regardless, something I have to keep reminding myself is that the excellent scientists I’m surrounded by aren’t competitors – they’re potential collaborators!

Now, I should define what I mean when I say “collaborate”. Your PhD should be your own work, and you can’t parcel bits off for other people to do. But your PhD is also about learning new skills, new ways of analysing data, new ways of looking at a question. Your supervisor, who is after all basically a long-term collaborator, will cover a lot of that. But there are many ways of doing science, and the best way to learn them is – to talk!

The department of Zoology in Cambridge has many things that make it great, but in my books one of the greatest is morning tea. At tea I have resolved crises. I have stumbled into collaborations with people who had great ideas. I have come across new ways of doing analyses that led to working with people who taught me new statistical methods. I’ve given, and received advice – both of which are great ways to feel better about your work and capabilities – as well as hobnobbed with visiting speakers and the great people we have here. And these great, thesis-defining moments have come when people have said “So Kirsty, what are you working on?”, I’ve taken a deep breath – and talked.


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