Reflecting on my PhD

Most of the posts I have shared thus far are about an active lifestyle and traveling, but there are more things that I want to share.  One thing I have often thought about sharing has been my PhD experience. It’s a tough one to describe but after meeting people who have gone through similar situations it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone, perhaps it’s heartening to you to know you’re not alone. Instead of sharing specific incidents, I want to offer up the things I have learnt from my experience.

I remember moving to Canberra to start my PhD in a respectable lab at a great university, and baby sitting for a family friend the first words from her mouth when I mentioned starting a PhD were “don’t do it.”

Don’t do it.

I didn’t understand why someone would be so negative about undertaking further education. It took less than a year to understand where she was coming from.

Now, my experience is not at all indicative of your potential experience, or your current or past experience, and I wish to share it for those who may be, or who have experienced something similar to me. Don’t let this put you off a PhD, instead use it as a resource to prepare you for the long and sometimes very lonely road ahead.

First step – prepare to be lonely. You become an expert in your research, which means you are the go to guy for all things related to your very specific topic. Sometimes that means that you feel a little lost and out of your depth when things don’t quite work the way you had hoped. My best advice here is networking. Get to know researchers at conferences, within your building, from other institutions, even if it has nothing to do with your specific work. Why? Because sometimes fantastic ideas come most organically when you’re having a casual discussion with the gal from engineering trying to explain your current obstacle and she suggests a simple solution. Sometimes you aren’t that lucky of course, but integrative approaches to your work are the most rewarding. Personally, I learnt this way too late. Partially due to the nature of isolation my lab seemed to foster (all the neighbouring labs moved out into another building but our top dog wasn’t ready to go, leaving us to wander the halls alone), partially due to my stubborn nature of believing I have to prove myself, so I struggled on alone instead of asking for help. Sadly, when I did ask for help in a time of great need, I was shunned by my supervisors. All together, I wish I had of made use of the support that was available to me, if I had of known it was there.

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I am an expert in this species of ant, I know a bit about others, but I know crap loads about just this one.

Second, give up on socialising. Not completely, but you will become withdrawn, you will become unreliable and forgetful. Those closest to you will forgive you, even if they don’t understand, but especially in write up phase, you’ll be falling down a rabbit hole and maintaining relationships becomes hard. Realise that you will get stressed, depressed, you will take it out on those who love you, and though that is something you should be aware of (and they should too), it doesn’t make it ok. I can not apologise enough for the suffering I caused to those closest to me when I was struggling. They, thankfully, have been nothing but patient, understanding, and forgiving. It’s hard to understand what it’s like for a PhD student, unless you’ve been there, but I was lucky enough to have some incredible people who were supportive none the less, who dealt with my tantrums, with my fatigued demands, my unwavering stress and roller coaster emotions. A PhD can make you feel crazy.

Third, choose your supervisors well. And I mean really well. Get to know them, get to know their students especially, get to know people who know them, hear all the gossip, ask lots of questions, and above all else, know that it is ok for you to change supervisor! I didn’t know this! I thought I was stuck when it would have been much better for both my supervisors and I if we have of gone our separate ways before the stress, pressure, conflicting personalities caused irreparable damage.

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I also think other ants are cool too!

Lastly, after reading through all of this, ask yourself, do I need this? Do I want this?

If you want to get into academia, then yes, you need it. If not, well, do you want it? What will a PhD add to your life? What reward does the investment give you? If you have any niggling doubts, if your answer isn’t a strong and definite “yes”, then give it more time! Reassess your plans, try some other options, and if you are still feeling drawn to the PhD, come back.

That’s what I did. I worked as a scientist, but for some reason it was drilled into my head that I wanted that PhD, I needed it, possibly to prove that I was as smart as others thought I was? Possibly because I had always felt the pressure to succeed and this was the expected way to do it? I thought I wanted to get into academia, I thought that I wanted to run my own lab, have my own lectures and classes, my own research and funding. I thought that was what I wanted and to get that it meant I needed the PhD.

In retrospect, no, it’s not quite what I wanted. In my work as a researcher before the PhD I was too sheltered from the academic life. I came to work, I had a stable job (be it for short yearly contracts), I made good money, and I longed for more involvement in academia. I didn’t see the number of grant applications that were put in, I wasn’t privy to the conversations with higher ups placing the pressure on for the number of publications your lab was turning out, I wasn’t aware of the level of competition across research for academic positions, for post doctoral positions, for access to funding, for grants. I had no idea, really, how difficult it is and how unstable it can be, and in reality, I wanted something very different to that. I wanted science, I wanted knowledge, but it wasn’t until I was half way through my PhD that I realised that I didn’t want academia, not this kind of academia, and thus I didn’t need a PhD. I didn’t learn until too late that there were other ways that I could still be in science, still achieve high and challenging goals, and I didn’t need a PhD to get there.

With all this in mind, there are things that shouldn’t stop you.

1. Money – yes it’s expensive and it’s hard, and you’ll be living quite poor for quite a while (woohoo for free lunches at seminars, hit those up!), but money shouldn’t stop anyone from furthering their education. I know that’s easier said than done, but there are a lot of scholarship opportunities around so look, search, put in as many applications as possible for funding, because if you want that PhD, if you need it, money shouldn’t stop you. Your potential supervisor should help here too – if they don’t know of any scholarships, or are unwilling to help you out, look around for a new supervisor. I was earning $4000 a year less than others at my university because my supervisor was “morally” against an extra grant I was eligible for and thus didn’t tell me about it.

2. Impostor syndrome – you didn’t get to where  you are through luck. You are not fooling others into thinking you are smarter than you are and sliding through the cracks somehow. You are smart, you deserve the position (and future ones) just as much as anyone else. Impostor syndrome is especially prevalent amongst high-achieving women, and I am one of them. I know the feeling, I still fight it, but I deserve what I have achieved because I worked hard for it. I am smart, I am competent, and so are you, so don’t let something like that be a reason you stop achieving goals.

3. Feeling out of your depth – this is going to be a recurrent feeling in the PhD, and don’t be afraid of it. It’s a learning curve and some of that is going to be pretty darn steep – but don’t back away of the challenge, don’t think it’s too big, instead find a way to make it manageable! Ask for help or advice from others, seek out those who are willing to help, who are resources you can use, like the higher degree research staff, like the student union, like other researchers and counselors. You will become an expert, you will feel lonely, but that doesn’t for a minute mean you need to do it alone. I wish someone had of told me that.

In conclusion, what the heck do you get out of it?!?!

Strength. I am so much stronger for what I have gone through. To start with I did whatever I was told, I had no real voice and was incredibly submissive – probably why there was no real respect shown to me as a person by my supervisors. By the end of it, I was stronger, I was adamant, I knew what I was and wasn’t capable of, I knew what I would and wouldn’t do to finish my PhD, what I would compromise on and what I wouldn’t, and I had the strength to stand up to those who I had felt intimidated by. This was my PhD after all, it was my work and my decision. They were there to guide and offer advice, but not to control and dictate. It took me longer than I would have liked, but I got there.

Determination. I got it done, and I was determined to get it done and get out. I was close to quitting, so close to quitting, and had to get the head of the department to help me in negotiating terms of my submission as the relationship between my supervisors and I deteriorated. The head of the department didn’t want me to quit, my supervisors didn’t want to let me finish, but 3 and a half years of what felt like emotional hell, I had to get done. I had enough, I knew I had enough. I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, but I knew it didn’t have to be. So, I became determined to get it in, come hell or high water, and the head of the department helped me greatly there. I felt vindicated in this decision when I received minor correction comments for my thesis from 2 reviewers, and nothing but lovely supportive words praising the high quality of my work from my third. I knew I had done enough, and had done well enough to be awarded my PhD, and I had the strength and determination to say so.

A sense of achievement, although it doesn’t feel like an amazing piece of work. You don’t run across that finish line so much as crawl with fingers outstretched hoping that your index finger makes it across. Plus I make sure everything addresses me as Doctor now, I worked hard and deserve that title!

A belief in yourself. What you do for your PhD doesn’t matter. It’s not the be all and end all of your career, it’s the starting point. It’s the hardest part of getting into academia and no one is going to read or care in depth about your very specific topic. You’ll be fortunate to get publications and even more fortunate if anyone has read them apart from a couple of people who need to cite some random note that you found. Keep that in mind though, academia is all about the publication record. Is your work going to be publishable?

Perspective. That was hard. I realised that my mental health mattered a whole damn lot. I realised that my physical health mattered a whole damn lot. I realised that academia wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be. I realised that I’m strong, capable and intelligent, and I can still do whatever it is I want to do.

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Some of the incredible people who were with me until the end. I can’t thank them, and some others, enough.

So what now? I’m working as a Postdoctoral Researcher in a fantastic lab environment, my boss is incredibly supportive and it makes me love science and research, just as I had before. But, once this contract is up, who knows where I will be. I may look into more Postdoctoral positions, as this job has been so rewarding, or I may not. I may take time and change my focus for a while, though I’m pretty sure it’ll always be science. I don’t regret getting the PhD, I just wish I had of been smarter about it. Hindsight. But, I have learnt an incredible amount that I am paying forward into my career and life choices, and I can thank my PhD for that.

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting on my PhD

    • wallancee says:

      It took a lot for me not to leave, part of it was my stubborn nature, and in the end part of it was the school heads who were committed to helping me finish and get out of my situation to something better. I wish I was wise enough to have made better choices, either leaving in the beginning or changing supervisors. I really respect people who are smart enough and strong enough to leave – the attitudes of people when they find out you didn’t finish is really crap and not at all understanding of a situation they may never have found themselves in. Thank you for your comment.

  1. Paul Cannings says:

    Hey Dr Eliza,

    Great post. Very well written. It definitely did not sound like an easy time. A lot of what you experienced was the main reason i didn’t follow the academia path. Congratulations anyway on finishing your PHD. Let me know If you ever want to get out of the lab and discover some new corner of the biological world. I still spend a lot of my free time looking for ants but i don’t bother painting them anymore. Most of my free time is now spent looking for fish. If your ever keen on getting wet give us a call. My mobile is still 0424254264
    Peace
    Paul Cannings

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