This is a collection of advice I was given and I have been giving to people when they are at the beginning of their PhD or when they are having issues. Most of them will sound familiar but like all good ideas, repeating them helps us remember in the time of need. This is not a comprehensive list for making your life easier for your PhD. I also don’t claim that they reflect 100% of the truth. But I’ve seen too many of them in action so I believe it’s worth sharing them.
dealing with failure
If you remember anything about this article this should be the one: you have to embrace the failure. Up until now, there was a clear path for success in education (do homework/projects -> get an A). If you are doing actual research, no one in the world (especially your adviser) should know the answers to the questions you are asking. The whole point of PhD is learning how to navigate in the sea of unknown and failure.
learn to learn
The whole experience of PhD is actually on meta-level. It’s not the actual work that you are getting out of your 4-8 years. It’s about learning to figure things out. It’s never taught in the school till now, that’s why it’s really hard to grasp this. Try to build mental images of the people you work with and try to mimic them. In time you’ll have your way of thinking about asking new questions and answering them.
you are not your work or ideas
This is the hardest one to apply and not specific to PhD life. It’s so easy or natural to measure the value of self-worth with our ideas. This is the worst thing you can do during your PhD because the most of your ideas will not work. Even good ideas are almost worthless. If any other person could come up with the same idea, does it really make sense to value the ownership of the idea? I believe true value is in the work or effort you put in to make that idea work. Your ideas are not part of who you are. Ideas are up in the air and every once in a while you pull one of them to reality to see what they are. Do not overthink this.
research is not linear
This is the most non-trivial one when you are a junior researcher. When you read a paper, especially good ones, they make you believe in a linear narrative. The reasoning behind ideas flows like a river. The truth is research is not linear at all. There are many many dead ends. Only few of these failures can make it into the paper if they help with the narrative. There will be tons of back and forth before you can publish a work. So, don’t expect to have the same linear storyline of the paper you read for your work.
relationship with advisers
I have two really great advisers. I am doing exactly the research I’ve wanted to do. I don’t have any external pressures like funding, requirements, or deliverables. Still we have issues because we are all human beings. Your relationship with your adviser is the single biggest factor on your happiness. Be as transparent as possible. Frequently remind your advisers that you and they are all human beings. I firmly believe this simple fact should make things easier assuming they are not bad actors which brings us to the next point.
do not idealize research community
I haven’t seen anyone who did not make this mistake. You would think that people of science are all smart, reasonable, honest, and genuienly nice people. You can’t be more wrong. Just like any other community, terrible stuff is happening all the time. Be ready to hear terrible stories about people who are super successful (somehow we think that success is equal to good personality) and of course try to be on the good side, do the right thing.
To do a PhD one needs to believe that this is the coolest and most exciting to do in life. When you combine this with spending most of your time with other PhDs thinking like that you have an echo chamber. You keep hearing the same stories about advisers, paper rejections, and other forms of failures. This gives you the idea that the only way to live life is by doing a PhD which is clearly wrong. Meet and spend your time with people doing things very different than PhD.
research is hard, you need support
Yes, we all know this. But let’s repeat: research is hard. The reward is so infrequent that you will keep questioning yourself. The opportunity cost of 4-8 years is really high, especially in Computer Science (especially in subfields of AI nowadays). Everything is uncertain. Do not deal with this alone. People close to you (parents, friends, partner) should be reminded this fact. If you don’t get 100% support from those people, there’s a high chance that you’ll drain yourself. Be that support for your fellow PhDs too. Be transparent with your frustration. It’s life, everyone is fighting their own battle. This does not have to be a secret.