10 tips for starting a PhD during a global pandemic

By Catriona Walker

2020 hasn’t gone to plan – and it’s clearly going to be a while before we get back to anything approaching normal. Starting a PhD at any time can be a daunting experience; starting during a global pandemic is going to be even more daunting. You, your supervisor, the rest of your lab and your university are going to be sussing out how the process is going to work as it happens. What follows is a list of suggestions to make starting your PhD in 2020 a little easier.

  1. Learn the current working protocols – and stay up to date

Protocols for your group/ lab/ university are likely to change often and potentially at short notice for at least the first few months of your PhD. Make sure you know where to find the latest updates and be aware that your supervisor won’t always have new information before you do.

  1. Get to know your new lab

Many universities are currently operating under flexible working hours and/or restricting access to buildings, meaning opportunities to meet your new peers will be limited. Try to meet them in small numbers outside the lab – invite a couple of members of your lab for a coffee so you can start integrating into your new group. If they have a lab group chat (e.g. WhatsApp, Slack), ask to be included so you can stay up to date with more casual conversations.

  1. Learn where things are

If possible, take the time to walk around the building or campus if it’s unfamiliar to you. Work out where things are in the lab – familiarise yourself with where the equipment is kept, where you will be working, what the waste disposal methods are in your lab etc.

  1. Make the most of opportunities

Social events might be reduced but check out what socially-distanced or virtual meetings your union or department are offering for new starters.

  1. Take the time for background reading

You should be doing this when you start your PhD anyway, but make the most of the time you get to read at home. Read the papers suggested to you, and ask existing PhD students in your lab if you can read their early reports, or if they could recommend any reviews they’ve found particularly helpful.

  1. Sign up to virtual seminars

Since the start of Covid-19, a number of virtual seminar series have been launched. Normally every one or two weeks, they’re a great way to get up to date on the latest research in the field. If you’re studying plant sciences, Plantae Presents (https://plantae.org/education/plantae_presents/#upcoming-talks-) and GARNet Presents (http://blog.garnetcommunity.org.uk/garnet-presents-webinars/) are particularly good – what’s more, they record all their talks and they’re free!

  1. Set up relevant social media accounts

You’ll find a huge amount of science discussion on various social media platforms. If you haven’t already, take the time to set up some accounts (e.g. Twitter). It’s generally easier to have separate work and personal social media accounts if you use them, and it avoids any awkward work/ life cross-overs.

  1. Try to have a dedicated working space

You might be doing much of your work from home for the first few months. If possible, dedicate a space to work, and set it up properly so you can be comfortable. If you don’t have the luxury of a separate space, try to ensure you put away your things when you’re finished with work for the day. It will help you to mentally switch off.

  1. Ask questions

Nobody knows what’s going on when they first start their PhD at the best of times, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. It doesn’t matter if they seem stupid to you – we all have to start somewhere, and everyone prefers answering a question to fixing something that’s been broken because you didn’t know how to work it!

  1. Go with the flow

Don’t forget, even though you’re new, the rest of your lab are likely working in a way they’ve never worked before so everyone is in a situation they’re not used to. Accept in advance that things might be more restricted than ideal and just do the best you can in the situation.


Finally, be sure to enjoy your PhD. Regardless of the circumstances in which you start, this is an amazing opportunity to have almost total control over your own work for a number of years. Make the most of it and enjoy it – it passes quicker than you think!

Like buses…5 More Publications…

Amid the continuing frustration at being unable to do any bench-work, there has at least been good news in the lab, with a spate of publications in May, June, July. Our publication record continues to be very lumpy!

First of all, Tom wrote a ‘preview article’ for Developmental Cell, looking at a forthcoming publication from Sabrina Sabatini’s lab, and trying to place it in context. “Root development: A go-faster stripe and spoilers

At more or less the same time, Darren was writing a similar ‘News & Views’ article for Nature Plants, looking at an article from Shelley Lumba’s lab on the role of SMAX1 in seed germination. “Two routes to germinate a seed“.

And in the very same issue of Nature Plants, Catriona’s paper on inflorescence arrest in Arabidopsis (previously pre-printed in February 2019) was published. “Auxin export from proximal fruits drives arrest in temporally competent inflorescences“. We got quite a lot of attention for this article, and were asked to write a blog for The Node about the story behind the publication: “Now we need arrest… A long journey into the end of flowering“. It’s a pretty honest view of all the wrong decisions and bad experiments we made along the way to publication! Together with her co-author Al Ware, Catriona was also interviewed by GARNet about the publication for a podcast.

Completing a successful few weeks, Cara’s review on the evolution of root-shoot and shoot-root signalling was published in Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology at the end of June: “There and Back Again: An Evolutionary Perspective on Long-Distance Coordination of Plant Growth and Development“. And shortly afterwards, Pablo and Catriona’s review of the end-of-flowering was published in Current Opinion in Plant Biology: “Bloom and Bust: Understanding the Nature and Regulation of the End of Flowering“.


4 publications…a good summer’s work

Very excitingly, the lab has published 4 papers over the last two months, displaying a good range of the research we are currently involved in.

Our work on strigolactone and KAI2-ligand signalling in root development was published in PLoS Genetics: SMAX1/SMXL2 regulate root and root hair development downstream of KAI2-mediated signalling in Arabidopsis

Meanwhile, we also published a Tolkein-centric review of strigolactone signalling in New Phytologist: Fellowship of the rings: a saga of strigolactones and other small signals

Completing the strigolactone theme, our work on the evolution of strigolactone synthesis and signalling was also (finally) published, in BMC Biology: Strigolactone synthesis is ancestral in land plants, but canonical strigolactone signalling is a flowering plant innovation

Finally, show-casing some of our new work on reproductive architecture in flowering plants, our work on the ‘50% rule’ was published in Nature Plants: A distributive ‘50% rule’ determines floral initiation rates in the Brassicaceae

All in all, a pretty good summer’s work!

Three pre-prints!

It’s been a really exciting time for the lab over the last few weeks, as we have pre-printed not one but three new manuscripts! This is is all work that has been started since I moved to Leeds, so it feels like the first true ‘crop’ of research from the Bennett Lab. It’s been a huge effort from everyone involved, so congratulations to all. I think the manuscripts really showcase what we are all about!

Auxin export from proximal fruits drives arrest in competent inflorescence meristems

Root density sensing allows pro-active modulation of shoot growth to avoid future resource limitation

KAI2 regulates root and root hair development by modulating auxin distribution

All of these manuscripts have also been submitted, so hopefully they’ll be appearing in press soon!

New Starters!

We are very happy to welcome two new students to the lab! Although, to be honest…they do look a little familiar…

Catriona Walker is starting her PhD on understanding the molecular basis of carpic dominance (and probably more besides) while Cara Wheeldon is starting an MSc-by-research looking at how crowding and plant-plant interactions in the rhizosphere modulate shoot growth.

We are very happy to welcome them back to the lab, even though they never actually left!