I posted some time ago about my typical day as a PhD student but what does it really mean to be a PhD student?
The project starts with a plan, in my case the plan was formed by my supervisor, myself and my PhD sponsors. The plan was two pages long and so far I have completed about 3 points on that plan (I am half way through my PhD at the moment). That immediately tells you something. A PhD is an exploration of a subject/topic and as such you are venturing into the unknown. Ultimately that means things will not work and your plans will change. What generally happens is that part of the original idea lives on but the plan takes a different route, so be prepared to adapt and change course. Learning when to move on to something else is an important lesson.
I spend a lot of my time troubleshooting and trawling through masses of published literature trying to figure out what others have done and critiquing their experiments and conclusions. This is time consuming, but necessary, finding out in your final year that someone published research exactly the same as your PhD 3 years previously is a situation you do not want to have. I was faced at the end of my first year with a piece of research that disproved our theory and the basis of my PhD topic. We had to rethink the whole plan.
Prioritising is also a vital skill and a task I have to do a lot of. I have lots of ideas I want to investigate, my supervisor has lots of ideas that she wants me to look at and my PhD sponsors also have lots of ideas. Doing everything and doing everything well is impossible (even if I was in the lab 24 hours a day) so I have to think about what I can do, what is most important to do and what I am unable to do. My supervisor is very understanding regarding workload so I am fortunate, I do know some others are less understanding of how work is carried out. There is a massive pressure to do as much as possible and spend every moment you can in the lab. I think about my PhD when I try and relax at night. Some of my better plans are formed when I am in the shower or at 3.30 in the morning.
Day to day, by far the majority of my time is spent in the lab, mostly on my own, carrying out research. It can get tedious and frustrating. I can spend days on an experiment and it just does not work. I have spent weeks optomising some experiments to make them work. I work long hours, weekends and at other random times. But when an experiment works and I make an interesting finding that bored, frustrated, annoyed feeling immediately vanishes, my brain starts wizzing with ideas and all the re planning, thinking, reading, doing all seems worth it.