We were pleasantly surprised about the response to our article discussing myths about PhDs. Studying for a PhD can be a life changing process; successfully completing one provides the opportunity to learn not just about your discipline but about yourself as a person. In this article, Amara reflects on some of the most valuable life lessons she learnt while studying for her PhD.
Perseverance can be more important than intelligence – We had a saying in my lab that became my PhD mantra – ‘Never give up!’ Everyone knows that doing a PhD comes with its own unique challenges but I severely underestimated how difficult it was going to be. Nothing I had experienced during my undergraduate degree prepared me for starting a PhD. Six months into my PhD, sadly, my Director of studies (Supervisor) passed away suddenly after a very brief illness. He was more than just a supervisor but a mentor and someone I respected and liked greatly. I seriously considered throwing in the towel but I remembered ‘Never give up.’ My supervisor had given me a golden opportunity and I was going to keep working until I got to the end. There were many more obstacles along the way but I kept building up my perseverance muscles. If you are doing a PhD now and feel like giving up at some point, don’t worry, it is perfectly normal. The myth is that PhDs are super smart geeks but the truth is they’re just a tenacious bunch. See your PhD as a marathon and not a sprint. Your intelligence may get you into a PhD but perseverance is a requirement for successful completion.
Success = 1% inspiration + 99% perspiration!
Learn to manage failure – Learning not to take failure personally but to use it as a growth tool. No one tells you that about 75% of your experiments will not work the first time. That you will spend an uncountable number of hours writing an article, finally getting all co-authors happy with it, send it off to a journal and get a rejection email three months later! I learnt to toughen up. Easy? No. Necessary? Yes. I taught myself to see criticism as encouragement. Up until starting a PhD, I had never really had to deal with failure. I thought I was a great student – I had finished with a 1st after all – I laugh now at how unprepared I was at the beginning. I learnt the hard way that failing is an event and the best way to deal with it was to get back in the ring and keep punching. I was only a failure if I allowed failing to stop me in my tracks. Towards the end of my PhD, I noticed that I had developed my problem solving skills and was better equipped to handle issues – even those unrelated to my PhD as well. For more information on dealing with rejection, see here.
Who you know is just as important as what you know – I am an introvert by nature. The nature of PhDs means that you work on your own for extended periods of time which suited my personality to a T. I soon realised how important it was to create and cultivate productive relationships. A PhD is an independent project, not a loner project. I was encouraged to start attending conferences from my first year. At first, I saw these meetings simply as opportunities to present my work but I have learnt to use them to expand my network. Networking is not just about about finding employment opportunities but can even help provide solutions to some PhD issues. I was able to solve a problem I had been struggling with for a few months in a thirty minute conversation I had with a Professor at a scientific meeting. Your PhD supervisors will have a significant influence on how your PhD progresses and is one of the most important relationships you will have during your PhD and even after you finish. The key word with regards to relationships is ‘productivity.’ Some of my relationships did not survive my PhD because I could not ‘turn up’ at every event. On a personal level, I would never have made it through without friends and family. There were some dark days but my cheerleaders always had my back and I am forever grateful.
Read More – The PhD Survival Guide
Master your subject AND develop your skills – A PhD is awarded for making an original and significant contribution to knowledge in a specific discipline. This takes a considerable amount of work and effort but I found out that it was important for me to develop my skills profile as well. Having all that knowledge was great but as I got to the end of my PhD and started looking at job advertisements, I realised that transferable skills were just as important. Even though my PhD was lab-based, I realised that there were many opportunities to develop my leadership, creative thinking, problem solving, communication, organisational, management, teamwork and even enterprise skills. I started my teacher training during my PhD as I wanted to have something extra to offer potential employers in addition to my qualification. During my PhD, I realised that I actually enjoyed managing projects almost as much as working in the lab!
Lab-based PhD not Lab-based Life – I learnt that I needed an ‘escape’ from the lab ever so often. I know many PhDs seem almost superhuman and are always the first to get into the lab and the last to leave EVERY DAY but that didn’t work for me. I spent long hours in the lab, weekends, overnight at some points…but I made sure I had some outside interests. I volunteered for a children’s charity at least twice a month. I registered to become a STEM Ambassador. I started a small business (thanks mum). Studying for a PhD does not mean you cannot be entrepreneurial. I do not know many well paid PhD candidates and financial security is important to me. I realised that there would be life after my PhD and there were no guarantees with regards to employment. It was a balancing act but what better way to learn management?
There is still some work to be done regarding diversity in the sciences and academia – particularly in senior positions. While things are getting better, I believe we still have our work cut out. There is still gender bias and an under representation of ethnic minority females. This ignited a desire and passion for engaging with young people to encourage them to think about careers in science (We will be writing more about this but we also welcome any thoughts on how this diversity gap can be closed).
Read more – 4 Strategies for an effective relationship with your supervisor
Enjoy it – I enjoyed doing my PhD, not everyday but as a whole. We hear a lot about the ‘burden’ of a PhD but there are great moments too. Some of my closest relationships today are people I met while doing my PhD. I have been mentored by two awesome scientists. I have had the opportunity to go around the world to present my research which I would not ordinarily do if not for doing a PhD. I am more confident speaking in public. I now question everything; there is just something about reading hundreds of papers to write your thesis that makes you begin to think critically about everything else. Don’t spend the few years of your PhD complaining (well not every day). It is a challenge but who doesn’t love a challenge?
I may come back to this topic because it is by no means exhausted. More importantly, I would like to know what lessons you learnt from graduate school or during your PhD.
About our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology and Food Science, Amara is developing her career in academia – providing teaching and learning solutions in UK FE and HE Institutions as well as conducting research in Food Microbiology. Amara believes in the combined power of education and productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers. ‘Ignorance can hurt more than sticks and stones.’
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One thing I learnt during my non-natural-science PhD is that natural scientists will speak about their experiences in a universal voice as if they were representative of all PhD experiences. Another thing I learnt during my non-natural-science PhD is that this is called ‘privilege’. People don’t necessarily mean any direct harm by their privileged behaviour, but it is nonetheless exclusionary and subordinates other groups to an inferior status.
Thank you for your comment Johannis. Every PhD experience is unique and relevant regardless of discipline.
I could relate to every point made in this very lovely article. I mean, God’s grace to persevere, suffer long (let me use this words of King James) helped me. I remember countless times, questioning why I decided to do a PhD. Thank God for my wonderful supervisors too and the awesome brethren in church that I had as support then. Oh… to everyone doing their PhDs, or about to start… Indeed, “Never give up”…
Thanks Dr : )
Excellent blog. Even though mine was a Mathematical as oppose to a Lab base PhD. I totally relate to what you are say! Well done.
I wish I could hear someone tell me ‘the finish line is in sight’ but I can only hear ‘on your marks, get set, ready, GO’. It sure entails several truck loads of perseverance and resilience. This article has done a great job in lightening my mood after spending my weekend and the past 9 hours in the lab only to discover I have to start this assay all over. Thank you Dr Amara, more of this.
Dear Gracie. Thank you for your lovely feedback. Sorry about your experiment, I hope it goes well second time round. ‘Truckloads of resilience…’I like that.
Thank you Dr. Amara for this clearly outlined article. yes, it is a true reflection of my life as a PhD student. At this moment, I have questioned my choice of going through a PhD program. Reading your article, plus the conversion I had with a wonderful colleague who had completed her PhD really confirms my present feelings as normal trend.
Yes, I do agree with you that PhD is not a matter of intelligence, but I must say that inspiration as well as perseverance, as you have pointed out, has played a great role in my pursuit of PhD and I think it’s in the ratio of 50:50. Ever since I was a little girl and read the facinating story of Alexander Bell and Maria Curie, I knew what I was going to do. These two inspired my young mind. Then many other people in my life, my family and friends (including you), some of my university teachers and my supervisors, scientists I have read about but have not had the privilege to meet, all inspire me to persevere to the finish line.
Thank you Obi for sharing. Hang in there, everyone has their PhD ‘valley’ moments. Maybe you could share a reflection of your PhD experience with us here soon. Hang in there…the finish line is in sight.