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A Week in the Life of: a PhD Student

by Jennifer Shelley

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24th December 2018

I am currently in my first year of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. My PhD is all about eczema and how a particular molecule produced by our bodies (called hBD2) interacts with the disease. I spend most of my time in the lab, doing experiments, but I also have an office desk where I’ll read various articles about my topic and try to expand my knowledge as much as possible. Additionally, I have to send emails and have meetings about science. Every week is quite different with ever-changing experiments and things to do or focus on. To give you some insight into what it’s like to be a first-year PhD student, join me as I go about my normal week (or as normal as a career in science can be).

After a fun weekend, I’m back into the lab.


I work with lots of cells in “tissue culture”. This means that I have lots of cells in a flask that grow in special liquid until I have to “split” them. It’s essentially like having a pot plant that grows until I need to prune it a bit and repot it, except that I can only see the cells down a microscope. This is always at the top of the list on a Monday as they’ve been growing all weekend. I can then leave them alone until Thursday or Friday.


As well as doing a normal split of my cells, I have put some aside for an experiment. I am going to let them grow a little bit overnight so they’re more awake tomorrow and ready to use.​

My experimental cells have grown nicely overnight and are now ready to use. For all of my experiments, I have a list of instructions, like a recipe. In science, we call these “protocols”. My protocol this week involves adding a special chemical called “IL-1β” to the cells and then analysing the liquid that they live in. I want to check how much of my molecule of interest, hBD2, is being made by my cells. So, I add IL-1β to my experimental cells and will leave them overnight to analyse tomorrow.


I also have a meeting with my supervisor today. I have these sessions every two weeks (roughly) and it gives me a chance to go over everything I’ve done since our last meeting and discuss what I plan to do next. They last for different amounts of time, depending on how much there is to talk about! We normally meet in the canteen with a cup of tea. I always write down tonnes of new ideas and things to think about so my notebook is a must-have.

I can collect the liquid from my experimental cells for analysis today. I am going to use the liquid for a technique called an “ELISA”. The ELISA will tell me how much hBD2 is being made by my cells. I have a separate protocol for my ELISA and it took me a while to get it right. A lot of time in research science is spent correcting or modifying protocols to make them the best they can be. We call this “optimising” and it can be a little frustrating sometimes but is very satisfying when it’s finally perfect! The results of my ELISA are lots of numbers that I’ll put into tables and graphs to explain how much hBD2 is being produced by my cells.


As well as my ELISA, I’m going to use these cells for an overnight video tonight. I’ll add a different chemical and see how much damage it causes to my cells. I have to set the microscope up carefully and programme it to automatically take pictures every 2 hours overnight so I can make a time-lapse video. I’m hoping for some cool images tomorrow…


I am meant to be meeting some friends for dinner this evening but didn’t start my ELISA quite early enough to finish on time. I’ll have to tell them that I’ll be a bit late – oops!

Unfortunately, my overnight video didn’t work. This happens quite a lot in science and I’ll have to decide whether I want to go back to the drawing board and redesign the experiment or just try it again with some small changes. It’s all a part of the process!


I also split my cells again today. It doesn’t take long and is a nice and easy process.


As a part of my degree, I have to hand in written reports and give presentations. These will go to my “thesis committee”, who are all my supervisors and the people who will give me assessments. I have a report deadline coming up in a few weeks, so I’ll take some time this afternoon to start writing. It can be a little nerve wracking but is really good for double checking you know enough about your topic and fill in any gaps. It can also show you how much you’ve done so far!

In my research institute, there are lots of meetings and lectures that happen on a Friday. In the morning I have a lab meeting with some other groups to discuss what we’re working on and swap ideas. I then have a big lecture with everybody on my floor where we hear about the work someone quite senior is doing at a different University. Finally, we have sessions where other PhD students on my floor will present their work to everyone. There are lots of people in the room, so it can be quite scary for whoever is presenting! Afterwards, there’s a very casual social opportunity for everyone to relax and chat after a week of work.


Thankfully, I don’t have to do any work this weekend so I can go home and relax. If a protocol takes more than 5 days or if I have a lot going on, I’ll come to the lab on a Saturday or Sunday and start or finish an experiment. This doesn’t happen too often but is sometimes very necessary!



Thank you for joining me during my week. I hope you’ve learnt a bit about what a week in the life of a PhD student is like! If you have any questions, please tweet me at @JnnfrShlly.

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