PhD tips – Asking for help with your project

PhD tips – Asking for help with your project

“PhD tips” is an ongoing series of blog posts written by postdocs and aimed at graduate students at the University of Oxford (Department of Biology). I wrote this in December 2020.

Hi everyone!

I hope you are all doing well. This week, I want to talk about asking for help, specifically in the context of your project or academic work in general. If I had to pick one thing that’s helped me the most in my career, it would be “getting better at asking for help”. It sounds simple, but it can be a real game-changer, and a lot of people don’t ask for help soon enough or often enough. There is obviously a lot of value in trying to figure out something yourself, but an essential part of your PhD is also about learning new things from other people, so why not do that when you’re really stuck with a problem? Examples of what you might need help with: How do I analyse this dataset? How do I troubleshoot this experiment? What kind of technique could I use to answer this research question?

Why to ask for (work-related) help:

Aside from the obvious benefit of potentially boosting your progress in your project, reaching out and getting help also develops your own skills as a researcher, since you will likely learn a lot from the other person. You will also forge new connections and expand your network, maybe even start a new collaboration. If you are worried about being a burden by asking for help – remember that people generally enjoy feeling needed and useful, and by extension they usually enjoy helping people with something they are good at, as long as the “helpee” is respectful of their time (see below).

Who to ask for (work-related) help:

– Members of your research group

– Members of your Department/Graduate School/College (e.g. other students, postdocs, researchers)

– Identify people with the relevant skills e.g. via intranet and send them a friendly e-mail. You will probably be surprised about how many people are willing to help.

– If it’s an option for you: Twitter or other social media platforms. “Who knows about how to isolate X and Y from sample Z?” will often get you some good answers.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of the secondary network: “Does anyone know someone who could help me with this?” can be a great way of finding the right people.

How to ask for (work-related) help:

– A simple (short & sweet) e-mail is usually sufficient.

– Be specific: what exactly do you want to accomplish? Which steps are you struggling with? What have you tried already?

– Try to target the right people: think about what skillset is needed to tackle the problem, and then ask people with the highest likelihood of being able to help. For example, check if they’ve done something similar in a recent publication.

– Be respectful and mindful of other people’s time: don’t expect too much from them (e.g. don’t expect that they do the whole analysis for you). A more realistic expectation is that they give you a few really useful hints on what approach to take with your analysis, what to consider in your experiments, how to do a certain technique, or maybe they will send you a link to a highly relevant paper.

Finally – don’t forget to give back! Try to help other people as much as you can. Everyone knows something that others don’t, and the more we interact with each other the better (usually) the science!