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my transition from graduate to PhD student

A scientist in a laboratory performing polymerase chain reaction to amplify DNA using a thermocycler to create samples.

For a more rewarding experience in your PhD program, work on establishing research autonomy.Credit: Monty Rakusen / Getty

One of the most important lessons I learned from my seven years of master's studies is the difference between simply 'making' a research project and 'owning' one, and how to make the transition from a performer to a researcher.

I started as very much a doer. During my master's degree in studying proteins involved in Alzheimer's disease at Wuhan University, China, I trusted that my supervisor - biochemist Yi Liang - assigned me a research project, to propose ideas and sometimes plan sets of experiments for me. I simply had to follow protocols and produce data. I wanted to read papers but just the most relevant ones about the specific protein I was studying or the ones that involved the same methods that I used. When I read these papers, it was for the benefit of my own experiments: I was not looking for any deeper knowledge or understanding.

There are benefits to this approach: Once everything had been mapped out for me, I was well on my way to getting my name on paper, thanks to the data contributions I had made. But following instructions without developing a deep understanding is not how students become successful scientists, even if they get their name on a piece of paper.

To do versus to own a research project

My interest in protein structures continued during my PhD program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. In the beginning, I retained the mindset I had while pursuing my master: I devoted myself to laboratory work and data generation. However, my PhD supervisor, structural biologist Gary Shaw, did not give me the step-by-step instructions I was used to. This often confused me and made it difficult for me to find an obvious way forward. Our discussions about the project always remained ‘open’, leaving uncertainties for me to resolve and decisions for me to make.

So instead of being told what to do, I learned to think about what confused me. I myself tried to answer my questions and increasingly dictate the path of my own research. My PhD supervisor encouraged and gave me constant opportunity to come up with ideas, suggestions and experiments. He said to me, "You should own your research project instead of just doing it. Once you graduate, your goal is to be the most knowledgeable person about your research in the entire world."

The way to own your research

Owning my research project this way was initially daunting: I no longer had a decision maker with more experience to follow. But as I developed as a scientist by reading and thinking on a deeper level, and as my enthusiasm grew from following my own curiosity, I overcame this feeling. When I finished the second year of my PhD program, I felt much more confident in my abilities as a researcher - not just as a data collector.

Owning my project triggered some deep thinking, which further inspired me to establish hypotheses, methods, and collaborations with researchers around the world. In the final year of my PhD program, I sent an email to neuroscientist Sandra Cooper at the University of Sydney, Australia, to discuss a few technical issues about her 2017 publication in Journal of Biological Chemistry1. She kindly associated me with computational biologist Bradley Williams at the Jain Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

This was the start of a long-term collaboration between our laboratories, and I learned a lot about computational biology from them. The collaboration changed the direction of my project to some extent and brought a whole new perspective to my research and my laboratory.

Here are some tips I want to give to anyone who wants to learn how to own their research project.

1. Think beyond the daily bench work. Although most of your time is devoted to performing laboratory work, do not let it take over and become the core of your work. Instead, spend time thinking about why you are doing certain experiments. What are you trying to achieve? What can you learn? What information is missing? All laboratory work should be driven by a clear rationale based on the literature and motivated by a desire to answer scientific questions.

2. Make short- and long-term plans. Your supervisor may be planning for you sometimes, but it's important to be your own pilot. Make to-do lists for each day, week and month so you know what to expect and what to prioritize. By doing this you will learn how to make adjustments and manage your time better. Set goals along the way and enjoy every achievement - big and small.

Use all available resources. Science should not be a lonely struggle. Your supervisor, your lab peers, and people from other labs are all resources that can help you with your research. There is also a rich store of online counseling and tools you can use to support yourself. For example, I found great help from Q&A forums on ResearchGate, a social networking site for scientists. Do not shy away from initiating conversations with researchers outside your department or institution if you think they might be helpful.

4. Communicate your research. Discussing your research at seminars and conferences and with members of the public requires your full understanding of it: I found that speaking at conferences helped me discover what I did not understand in my field. Communication stimulates collaboration and allows you to look at your research in contexts you might not have considered, which in turn could inspire ideas.

Of course, self-directed research has drawbacks. It will not always give you the best results. You will probably also go through several trials and tribulations. Not all of the data you collect will be able to be published - and some of it may feel like it's downright useless. The road to getting my PhD work published was certainly a twisty, bumpy road. But nothing is more rewarding than facing your mistakes, pushing past every obstacle and finding a way to move forward.

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