A day in the life of a PhD student

'Professor Stew' - image by @VectorThatFox

‘Professor Stew’ – image by @VectorThatFox

This article gives a PhD student’s perspective on his day-to-day life.

Hi! I’m Stewart, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, where I’ve just started my second year. When I’m not wrangling with E. coli to get them to express proteins, I run my own blog, and I also love gaming and photography. I’m looking at cell surface proteins in Gram-positive bacteria to learn a bit more about how they work. I’ve been troubleshooting for the last year, so not moving towards any huge publication at this stage!

I arrive in the lab at 9.30am: not bad some of you might say, pretty flexible! But flexible work times are not necessarily good for someone like me. I rely on structure and am a bit of a night owl, so having the ability to start work later in the day gives me an opportunity to stay up later and wake up later. But as nice as this freedom is, it’s a slippery slope – both a blessing and a curse. Anyway, 9.30am is a pretty good start time for me so I crack on with my day’s work – protein purification.

I work in a friendly lab with some great guys, so it can be quite easy to get distracted and mess around with them – I’m still a bit of a kid at heart! Thankfully today everybody is in a working mood, so I settle at my bench and get started by 9.45am. On today’s menu is a nice spot of protein recovery. This is my bread and butter: a relatively simple set of techniques, not requiring a massive amount of mental capacity, but some care and technical ability to achieve the best outcome. It’s also very methodical, which, with the way my mind works, is appreciated!

The day’s work involves harvesting E. coli cells that have been cultured overnight. The cells are centrifuged and re-suspended in a far smaller volume. Then I use a sonic probe to break open the cells with sonic waves (I am essentially making an E. coli smoothie*!). At the end of the day I centrifuge the E. coli smoothie, separating the insoluble and soluble components. I retain the soluble components as this is where the proteins I am studying should be.

This is a methodical day and I have followed these steps many times before, so I know exactly how long everything is going to take. I know that I can take a full hour’s lunch break, and can roughly plan when. I crave this kind of structure; it vaguely tricks me into thinking I work a ‘normal’ 9-5 job. When I am following some other, more unpredictable, protocol and trying to multi-task, my day is far less organised and can end up becoming one huge nine-hour mess with no lunch break, which sucks. I should also mention that when I do take lunch, I refuse to do any university work, as I want a proper break.

I get part-way through my tasks for the day to a natural stopping point. I go for a short walk outside and grab something to eat. I think it is so important and undervalued to get some time in the fresh air and to give your brain a rest! But of course only when I am not under pressure to get 1 ½ days work done in a single day, and can therefore afford the luxury.

I get back after my lunch and pick up straight where I left ff. I benefit from the repetition and have a little time free between different steps, so I take the opportunity to check my social media, and tell everybody a little bit about protein purification. Even though I love talking about science on social media, it is ridiculed by some supervisors…

After my late start I aim to be away from work at 5.30, to achieve an eight-hour day, but I actually manage to leave 15 minutes early. However this isn’t always the case, and especially when I am doing more unfamiliar, difficult and less methodical tasks, I can struggle, meaning I can end up working until 7-8pm. At least I am able, for the most part, to forget about my work when I get home. From talking to other people (and from personal experience), science can be a job that follows you home with a vengeance. It can be a real challenge to just relax! For some people their love for science is so strong that they don’t care: making progress and possibly producing research that can help the general public is worth the sacrifices. I feel like I am coping and putting up with this for now, but who knows how I will feel when I finally graduate?


Stewart Barker.

* Do not eat this smoothie.

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