I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while. In fact I think I have probably wrote it in a my head several times already but as I’m almost ready to submit, now seemed like as good a time as any to properly sit down and come to terms with the whirlwind that has been the last 3 1/2 years.
Looking back at the person who started this adventure I can see how much this journey has changed me. Yes I know this is a real cliche of a statement to make but I am not the same person that I was 3 1/2 years ago and that is mostly for the better. I have learnt so much about myself as well about my field of science and sitting here right now I feel more equipped and ready to throw myself wholeheartedly at the biggest adventure that is life. Here are a few things that I have learnt along the way;
Things I learned on my PhD Journey
PhD’s are HARD WORK.
Yes this seems obvious and I didn’t start this thinking it would be a breeze but I did underestimate it. While I had done some research during my undergraduate degree, including on my year in industry, as an undergrad you are so heavily supervised (because you have to be) and you are only in the lab doing a very small project (although it seems huge at the time) that you only really get a small snapshot of the real academic life.
Science takes time
Remember those little experiments you used to in your science lessons at school, or even your 3 hour science labs at uni? Yes well aren’t they cute. Real life research science does not work like that. It took me 18 months to build, learn and master one of the main experiments that I used during my PhD. Ok so that’s an extreme example but seriously you can easily go months working on getting one experiment working, an experiment that may only take half a day to actually do all to give you one measly graph!
Science is NEVER finished
When you do an experiment you are trying to answer a question and while you may answer this question if your results then don’t throw up at least 3 new questions are you even sciencing right? I learnt early on in my journey that there is always something else that I could just do before I go home or even once I got home but I made a conscious decision that I did not want to take my PhD home with me so I made sure I left the lab at a sensible time every day, very rarely went in on weekends and had evenings for non-science things. Guess what, I still managed to so enough work for my thesis as those that worked all hours of the day and week!
It’s OK to ask for help
I’ve always found it hard to ask for help, to hold my hand up and say I don’t understand, I can’t figure it out, I can’t do this on my own and this was no different at the start of my PhD. There is this almost stigma that right from the off you should know everything and anything about your project but you don’t and so insets the famous imposter syndrome. where you kind of flounder around pretending you are on top of everything. Yes you are reading 4 papers a day, plus spending your whole day in the lab doing experiments, writing them up in your oh so neat and tidy lab book and you know exactly what these results mean and why that experiment didn’t work and how to fix it. HAHAHAHA No-one does and if they do they are lying.
I didn’t ask for help because I thought it would make me look like I was incompetent and was not good enough to be doing this. I was also struggling with not living 10mins away from my family. According to a recent study at least half of PhD students suffer some sort of mental health issues (usually depression and/or anxiety) during their studies. I fall into this category and although i overcame the depression fairly quickly, I have only recently really felt like I have tamed the anxiety beast and I am surprised that this number is not higher. This experience was probably one of the main reasons for me deciding I had to leave academia. I can not stay in an environment that makes me a negative person as that is not me. I think this was reinforced when I finally plucked up the courage to tell one of my supervisors what was going on and they just turned round to me and told me this was normal in academia and that they had been on anti-depressant several times. They almost sounded proud about it.
For anyone thinking about pursuing a PhD, mental health issues are not essential to completing a PhD and please do not be put off because there is plenty of help and Universities do seem to putting things in place but be aware they do happen. I would hate for anyone to start their journey as naive as I was about the mental strain.
A PhD is as isolating as you make it
Kind of following on from the point above in the first year or so I probably did isolate myself more than I should. It is really easy though. You have this huge project that you are working on and only you. In my case literally only my supervisors had any idea what my project was about so until I could understand it a bit I couldn’t really explain it to the rest of the group.
It wasn’t until late on in my second year when my lab started getting more social- which really helped. We already had a kind of lunch group where at 12 noon we all stopped working and had lunch. This eventually spread to pub after work and the occasional meal out. Looking back throughout most of my PhD journey there were not many people my age. However this slowly changed and all of a sudden I had a group of friends, my age, that got what I was going through. I did not realise how much I needed this until it happened. If I had maybe I would have sought it out sooner and my journey would have been a more positive one. Ah hindsight!
I can cope with anything
I have never been a pushover but I have had some of the worst times of my life during my PhD and I have survived. I would even go so far as I am better for them because I know whatever life can throw my way both in terms of job and personal life challenges I have the strength, resilience and support network to get through it.
I want adventure
My PhD was an adventure into science and one that I am very grateful for however as I have been writing up I have become aware that I want adventure in my life in sense of the word. at the beginning of my second year I got to go to the USA for 2 weeks to visit 2 labs, one in Davis, California and one in West Virginia. I also got to spend a weekend in San Francisco. I travelled alone. This was something I had never done before and to be honest I never thought that I could do. Yes it was a little weird sitting at a restaurant table on my own and I felt a little unsafe in parts of San Francisco but I did it and I really enjoyed it. I now know that I don’t need to drag someone along on my travels, I can do it on my own and have just as good an experience!
Ok so I’m aware that I may have rambled on a little bit and if you have stayed with me this far then thanks. My PhD journey has not been smooth and I have had some real lows and there have been times where I have really regretted pursuing one. Right now however, I feel like it has shaped the person that I have become in the most part for the better.
Until next time…