Soft Robotics Engineer Charbel Dalely Tawk shares his top tips to survive a PhD

I graduated yesterday with a PhD in Soft Robotics.

During my PhD I developed novel 3D printable soft and smart actuators, and sensors that can be used in diverse soft robotic applications, including soft prosthetic hands, locomotion robots, artificial muscles, soft adaptive grippers, parallel manipulators, haptic devices, virtual reality gloves, and human-machine soft interfaces.

PhD graduate Charbel Dalely Tawk

 A PhD journey is tough. However, this journey can be amazing if you develop some good habits

 Here are my top 16 tips to help you succeed:

1. Choose a Good Supervisor

Your supervisor has a great influence on your overall performance and Ph.D. journey. When it comes to choosing a research topic, make sure to choose a supervisor who will help and support you during your studies. Also, make sure that the supervisor you choose is knowledgeable about the research topic and equally excited about it.

2. Do Not Compare Yourself to Others

One of the worst things to do during your PhD is to focus on what others are doing. Focus all your mental energy on your research work only. Nothing beats a focused mindHowever, that does not mean that you do not keep yourself updated about what is published and relevant to your research topic in the literature.

3. Optimize for the Day

Every single day, you have a limited amount of mental and physical energy. Use these energy reserves to optimize for the day. At the end of each day, before you leave your desk, write down on a piece of paper three main achievable and realistic goals for the next day. This will help your mind to get ready and visualize these goals for the next day. At the end of the next day when you accomplish these goals, you will feel a sense of achievement which will motivate you to keep moving forward.

4. Do Not Skip Meetings

Regular weekly or fortnightly meetings with your supervisor are a must to keep you on track and to know where you are heading. Make sure that you and your supervisor are both on the same page. You don’t want to work for months and then find out that what you did is not relevant to your thesis.

5. Write as You Go

From the very first day of your PhD start writing. Make sure you summarize every relevant paper you read in a couple of paragraphs. You can later use these small summaries to write your literature review. These summaries will save you insane amounts of time when it comes to writing your literature review and your thesis. Also, they will help you to develop a habit of writing. The more you write the more you become good at it.

6. Conduct a Comprehensive Literature Review

Dedicate the first few months to conduct a comprehensive literature review. Be patient. Do not start your experiments as soon as you start your PhD Take the right amount of time to understand the field you are getting into and to find what has been done in the literature.

7. It is Totally Fine to Feel Stupid and Lost

One of the great things you will learn in a PhD is that it is totally fine to feel stupid and lost on your way. In fact, this one of the most common feelings experienced by researchers and PhD students. As Albert Einstein says:

“If we knew what it was, we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”

As a PhD student, you are in the middle of an unknown process. The most important thing is to keep showing up every day and keep moving forward. The results will show up at the end and everything will make sense.

8. Do Not Focus on Publications

When I started my PhD journey, I had no idea what a journal article is and how to write a good one. I finished my PhD with seven peer-reviewed journal articles and five conference papers. The only thing I focused on was the actual research work. Work on the project constantly to come up with a solution to the problem. You want to add value and knowledge to the field. The publications are only the result of the research work and not the end goal.

9. Healthy Diet and Exercising

Eat healthy food and exercise on a daily basis. Develop good fitness habits. This will keep your body in good shape which in turn will boost your self-confidence and keep your mind and spirit refreshed.

10. Ask for Help

Every time you need help do not hesitate to reach out and ask for it. It could be asking your peers and colleagues about how to use a piece of equipment, where to find credible references, how to write a paper or anything related to your PhD. Always ask others for help when you need it and do not forget to thank them for their time and support.

11. Show up no Matter how Slow you are Progressing

It is totally fine to slow down and rest in the process. However, giving up should never be one of your options. Even, if you spend the whole day on your desk without any significant progress, show up and be present. Never stay in bed or at home.

12. Help Others

Help your colleagues along the way. Helping others will refresh your spirit. Also, when you involve yourself in different projects you widen your perspective and most probably solve one of your research questions.

13. Prioritize, Do Not Multitask and Minimize Distractions

Your PhD is your priority. Don’t waste your time multitasking. Focus your mind on a single task until you finish it. Turn off your phone, close all your emails and do not browse the internet while writing or performing experiments.

14. When you are Tired Take a Rest, Do Not Quit 

Never ever give up. If you are tired it is necessary to rest and recharge. Take at least one day per week to pause, reflect and recharge.

15. Be Patient. Results Take Time to Show Up

I spend the first year and half of my three-year PhD trying to figure out what I am doing, learning more about the field of soft robotics and getting used to all the experimental setups. I spend all this time learning, testing and developing countless ideas that did not work. From every failure on the way, you learn something until you get a working prototype or idea. The most important thing is to show up every day and keep trying.

16. Enjoy Your Ph.D. Journey 

Yes, doing a PhD is not easy. It is a tough journey. However, it is a very rewarding one. One of the worst things you might experience during a PhD is loneliness. Therefore, make sure you are doing your best to keep yourself engaged and connected. This could be a conversation with a friend, a meeting with your supervisor, a phone call with your family or friends, an event, a workshop or anything else. The most important thing is to know that you are not alone.

I wish you all the best with your PhD journey.

Follow Charbel on LinkedIn. If you are interested in post-graduate study find out more here.