Tips to Help You Succeed When You Have to Switch PhD Project

30 November, 2020
Tips to Help You Succeed When You Have to Switch PhD Project

When you start grad school you join a research group in an area that interests you and in which you hope to pursue your scientific career.  However, for many different reasons, graduate students can find themselves in a situation where they need to change the direction of their research, move research groups, or take time out from their research career. Starting your project again from scratch can be daunting, particularly if you have already committed a lot of time and effort to your previous project.

The global pandemic has affected many graduate students all over the world and we are aware this is a situation some students now find themselves in; unable to carry on with their research as before. In this guest blog, Zill-e-Anam, who found herself needing to change her research direction, shares her tips on how to stay on track when you have to switch PhD project, for reasons outside of your control.

Zill-e-Anam is a PhD graduate student at the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her doctoral work involves the discovery of peptide-based therapeutics for the treatment of malaria.

Graduate students embark on their research careers by choosing a lab followed by a research question (or vice versa), which leads to a very niche area of expertise. The journey begins with a thorough literature review in order to understand the progress in the field, followed by pointing out gaps and unknowns. Many a time, a researcher finding answers to ‘the unknown’ means much more than just testing the hypothesis. In the process, you are attached to the core theme and are fascinated to study various aspects of it as your career progresses. However, there are times, when you need to change the research questions. While this may seem a rare and unexpected event, if you have to do it, it can become a daunting task. To add to the challenge are degree or project deadlines that need to be followed.

A switch of a project may be a result of multiple reasons. Be it a stark shift in the original hypothesis, health conditions that may not allow a researcher to work in a particular area, or a change of supervisor or institute in the middle of a degree. Whatever the underlying cause may be, apart from having intellectual skills, others such as conversational, emotional, managerial, and transferable skills are truly beneficial for the transition.

Here are some starting points to navigate a project shift like a pro.

1. Seek Support From Mentors and Peers

When deciding to change the research question, your immediate professional network can be of valuable help and support. They not only understand the pros and cons well but are also often the best people to offer a different perspective. Talk to your close network in order to understand the positives and negatives of switching your project from new viewpoints. You may come across some unforeseen effects that will help you in making an informed decision. Secondly, do not shy away or hesitate to ask for help, if you feel you need more support. It may be from your mentor(s), lab mates, colleagues, or anyone around. Apart from practical and experiential knowledge, seeking support will also help you gain the headspace, confidence, and freedom to work on something new.

2. Learn from Others’ Experiences

Shifting to a new hypothesis can come with other challenges like learning new techniques, shifting model systems, or learning to culture new cell lines. Talk to people who have prior experience in the particular area to get tips to avoid common pitfalls and support in learning new skills.

3. Read up on Your Area

A shift in the project means that you may need to do extra reading to gain the knowledge that you need to help you progress. Begin by reading review articles and key papers in the field, to get a bird’s eye view, and at the same time, a clear understanding of the subject niche. If you can, talk to other researchers working in that area, as they can provide insight on current trends in the field and any contentious issues.

4. Build Collaborations

Forging new collaborations can go a long way in carrying out interdisciplinary research. It can help you save time when testing a hypothesis, which is hugely beneficial if you only have limited time to complete your degree. Working jointly also not only reduces the initial work pressure, but also ensures that things begin smoothly again after the transition.  

5. Be Open to Suggestions, Criticisms, Discussion, and Debate

Clear communication with your supervisor can help you reach mutual agreements about the best way forward. There is no harm in compressing a huge hypothesis to come up with something conclusive in a stipulated time. If there are time pressures, you can discuss the possibilities of an extension, if it is felt one is needed.

6. Work Smart by Planning Smart

Make the best possible use of your time with careful planning. It will help you to maximize your capacity and achieve more in reduced time frames. Plan your experiments in advance, consider running parallel experiments, and make the best use of in-between incubation times, like reading papers, tips and tricks, or listening to educational podcasts. Ensure you have everything you need for your assays in advance, including booking the instruments and preparing the reagents. These may seem trivial jobs but they will help a lot in making the best use of your time, energy, and effort.

7. Take a Break, Often

For me, this is the most important one. Often as a graduate student, it is easy to be drawn away and lose count of the number of hours of work and your work schedule. You can get so engrossed in your work that your physical and mental health comes at a price. Taking short breaks helps in maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and can replace any exhaustion and/or frustration with energy and enthusiasm. Having a healthy work-life balance will help you avoid a burnout and cope better with any challenges that you are faced with due to the project switch.

In conclusion, while switching projects can feel like a huge setback, it is important to understand that our research degrees and projects are a small part of us and do not completely define us. Leaving something does not mean failure and instead this is an opportunity to work on something even more exciting than before.

Make the Most of Your Experimental Breaks

Use the time between experiments wisely to listen to our short podcasts designed to help you get the most out of your experiments. Learn the essentials of flow cytometry, tips for studying cell cycle regulation, and more with our Spin Break podcasts.



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