Sara Freitas just returned from her “PhD trip”, which started back in December 2013. We asked her to build a PhD survival guide, which can help others who wish to embark on the same journey.

When to go?
I was in the middle of my master – and didn’t even know what a PhD was – when I said yes to the research ideas my supervisor presented me with. My parents also convinced me that the employment panorama would get better in 4 years’ time, so… I thought that it would be a good idea not to lose momentum from my MSc thesis! I found myself applying to the MIT Portugal Program in Sustainable Energy Systems a couple of months later.

Don’t forget:
Above all, an open mind. The rest will come to you when needed… That’s the beauty of the process.

Not to miss:
Talking to your colleagues (not just about your work!): we’re all on the same boat, although in different rooms.

Top 3 experiences:
When the code I worked on for days and days finally produced results (that got published after a few months);
When someone recognized the relevance of my work and wanted to discuss it further;
Travelling to other countries for conferences and short-stays in foreign institutions – in my case South Korea, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and USA.

To avoid:
Giving up on eating properly, sleeping well, seeing your friends and family, pursuing other projects you have and/or activities that are part of who you are. Although there will be times when you exhaust yourself and push your time management skills to the edge, you should not forget life outside academia is important to your well-being and personal development. In the end… What’s life?!

Ignoring award competitions in your field of work. You never know when you can win some k€ for yourself and for your host institution to help your research! It’s also a good opportunity to test your persuasive writing skills.

Not to embrace the challenge to share your research in plain language and with creativity at science communication events. It will make you aware of your communication skills and will prepare you to defend your thesis, whether you’re given 20, 10, or 3 minutes!

Off the beaten track:
I studied the potential of solar systems in building façades, which is something we don’t commonly find in urban areas. My PhD gave me a special pair of “sunglasses” that, in my mind, can turn every city into a solar one!

What to bring home?
A personal toolkit of skills and knowledge that enables you to open many doors – the question is what door to open after the PhD!

Fun fact
Research was only one part of who I am: during my PhD I kept singing at the choir, kept writing lyrics and creating vocals for my band, and met my Ashtanga Yoga mat 4 to 5 times a week. Among other extras…

What’s new?
Solar makes the people come together.
I confirmed that façades can help broadening the period of electricity production in a neighbourhood and double buildings’ solar potential. Although the installation costs of photovoltaic panels are slightly higher for façades than for rooftops, the investment will be smoother if done collectively and more profitable if the systems are deployed in optimized ways.

Next Stop:
A place closer to the industry is probably my next stop. My wish is to see what I studied in these 4 years becoming a reality. Thus, I believe I need to get more down-to-earth and face the challenges of the real world outside the computational simulations and rough estimations.