By Emma Kampouraki
I have met hundreds of people since I started my PhD, who have always asked me what it is like to be a PhD student and how it is going so far. Few of them normally ask what it is that I work on and even fewer – maybe that one person that is really curious – will ask what I am working on right now. Thinking about how I have reacted in similar situations, when I have been unsure what to ask to get the real feel of a person’s situation, I’ve tried asking what the questions are that they’ve never answered about their work. My thinking at first causes surprise and maybe embarrassment, but soon they get it. Now, putting myself in their shoes, I reveal what questions you could ask when you meet a PhD student. And if you are reading this, try those questions next time you wonder how to start a conversation with any hard-working employee.
- How do you balance social life and research?
This is the key to a successful career; having time to spend with family and friends. Doing a PhD is really hard work, sometimes with similar emotional steps as going through the loss of a loved one. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are all parts of your psychological canvas throughout this stressful, but potentially the most satisfactory, period of your life. Balancing your life is therefore very crucial to survive and to make steps ahead. Always ask people for their tips and little secrets that save them time at work and offer more time for enjoyment. Especially when you have things in common with them, e.g. marital status, age group, etc.
- How do you maintain such a smooth relationship with your supervisor?
Especially if you are considering going for further studies, this is a question you should always ask. This person (or any other line manager) is your most important collaborator, who will decide on a variety of things about you in the future. You must find ways (plural, not just one!) to communicate effectively, avoid conflict, co-operate and work together. If you are not considering a PhD, then it is always nice of people to care how you are getting on with your boss, recognising the importance of such relationship for your work and life.
- What can be challenging when working in more than one lab?
This is something only people close to you would know in the first instance. However, it can be a piece of information a PhD student needs to share when asked about their work. Having to move between different labs has many challenges, which can really make a difference in the experience of a PhD student, both positive and negative. This is especially true when labs are far from each other and so you also have to commute.
- What’s your real daily routine?
I guess the picture above says it all. Think about asking about the things that actually mean something, such as the quality of life and the intensity of the daily routine. This really can show the diversity of interests, the requirements of one’s work environment and the person’s development throughout their PhD. Ultimately, it proves how much you care and want to know about how this person’s work environment may impact on their lives in several ways.
Have you thought of any other important and relevant questions about PhD life? Let us know in the comments and we’ll write about it as soon as we can!