One of the big secrets about doing a PhD is that it’s not a solitary task. While it’s up to you to take control of the project and move the research forward, there’s no way you can know all the answers (after all, if you did, why bother keeping up with the literature?). You’ve got a lot of assistance at your disposal – your first, most obvious port of call is your supervisor. They’re tasked with keeping you on track, and making sure you don’t get stuck. That might seem all well and good, but it’s true that supervisors can’t always be around – they go to conferences, they teach, sometimes they even get sick. When you’ve got a problem, it’s not guaranteed that they’ll be there to fix it.
What do you do? If you work in a research group, there’ll always be somebody else to ask. They might even be a better first choice than your supervisor, depending on their talents and specialities. Incidentally, this is another thing to be looking for at the earliest stage of applying for a PhD: is there a good pool of friendly lecturers/postdocs who you can tap for assistance? This is where good social skills really come in handy – if you’re not good at approaching people and asking for help, then you might find times where you struggle.
We’ve not even considered a really useful resource yet: your fellow PhD students. This is particularly good if you think you’re stuck on an idiotic problem. A common example in my department is programming languages. There are a variety of languages used at the ROE, and no-one is an expert in all of them. If some vital software package demands you learn Python or C++, or you’re not sure how to write a certain command, chances are they’re someone else’s bread and butter. Knock on their door and ask nicely (emails are acceptable too). Just remember that you have to pay it forward – someone will no doubt ask you for help one day!
Colleagues aren’t just useful for technical details. PhDs can be quite tough on your social life, especially as you move towards the end, and are writing up your thesis. It’s very easy to retreat into an isolated environment, where there’s nobody else there but you and your project. While this might work well for you, it really doesn’t work well for me (my colleagues will quickly recount my avid observance of coffee breaks!). Remember that the PhD students are all in the same boat as you, and will probably be happy to share the experience with you – a little venting can be a great relief (just be prepared to be a good listener to your colleagues as well, because they will no doubt need to vent as much as you). It’s amazing what a little trench humour over lunch can do for your spirits.
The bottom line: don’t go through it alone, whether it’s solving a research problem or just some basic social interaction. Ask for help!