It's a dangerous thing, asking a third-year Ph.D. student about their research experiences. Pressurised, disillusioned, and bitter, don't expect an enthusiastic response! Still, who better to give an honest, warts 'n' all account? And if you are thinking about doing a Ph.D., or you're going round the country looking for the right project, the best thing you can do is to talk to the students in the lab: They will be more than willing to share their thoughts and experiences. After all, in this age of confessional TV and newspaper articles, a problem shared is a problem halved! It's only a matter of time before Ricki Lake does a programme called "My project's going nowhere and no one cares", and the first supervisor-student fights on Late Night Springer.
Having said that, I have been incredibly lucky with my own Ph.D. I graduated from Cambridge with an MSci in natural sciences, having specialised in physics. I began to wonder about doing a Ph.D. during my final year project. This had shown me that I could probably cope with research, its routine and frustrations as well as the occasional result, but that I was pretty sure I didn't want to do physics or stay in Cambridge. However, I had really enjoyed the molecular biology I had done in a course in my first year, and I realised I could get a project in structural biology, investigating the way biological macromolecules interact with each other in order to carry out their functional roles. So without really knowing what to look for at the time, I am now approaching the end of a Ph.D. in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds. I think part of my motivation was just wondering whether or not I could do a Ph.D. and respond to the challenge. It couldn't have worked out better. I like Leeds, have a great, supportive supervisor who is in the lab most days, and have been invigorated by a change of subject. I also have a project that I (mostly!) enjoy and it has been productive enough to keep me from worrying too much about results.
So what do I really wish I had known then, that I know now? How long do you have? For a start, it hadn't occurred to me that I would be a fresher once again. Being in a new city and having fake conversations with people who's names you've forgotten while wearing a constant smile is fine when you're 18, but I could have done without going through it a second time. However, starting any new job is going to be hard for a while, I suppose. Even people who have stayed in the same place to do their Ph.D. have had a lot to contend with, and in the end I've relished moving somewhere new.
The Ph.D. Bermuda Triangle, where projects have been known to vanish without trace.
More seriously, I wish I had known that working toward a Ph.D. is often a thankless occupation. It is possible to be working away without any knowledge of how well you are doing--there are no marked essays showing where you need to improve. It came as a surprise too that there is so little thinking or learning involved. Rather, most of my time is spent carrying out routine experiments. And I hadn't realised just how important are project and supervisor. It seems to me that a Ph.D. consists of the relationships between yourself, your project, and your supervisor, and that each of these has to be satisfactory for a good Ph.D. experience. If any side of this triangle breaks down, then things can become difficult. If I had my time over again, I would take far more care over choosing both project and lab, although I really have landed on my feet where I am.
But I would stop short of saying, "Don't even go there!" I was told by a careers advisor that you really must know that you want to do a Ph.D. before starting. I'm not sure that's entirely right, and I think the overwhelming majority of people wonder if they've made the right choice at different times. However, passion for your subject is a must and is going to carry you over most hurdles (and then drive and bloody-mindedness will work for the others!). In choosing projects, once again I would say just keep asking questions, especially at any interview you may have. I would suggest that you make sure you know your supervisor, how much time he or she will have for you, the standing of the department, and if there are other similar experiments you can do if the first ones don't work. A Ph.D. is a challenge, but there are rewards: Getting results is exciting, and it will be wholly your own project. You get control, can design your own experiments, and work how you choose. In the end it's down to you to get what you want from it.