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The PhD experience so far…

June 14, 2012

I’m now nearly 2 years in to my PhD research. There are times when it feels like time has flown and I’ve achieved little and have a lot to do. And there are times when I look back at what I knew when I arrived in South Africa (sorry an inherent optical what?) and realise just how much I’ve learned!

I have a lot of friends at various stages of their academic careers – undergrad, MSc, PhD and beyond. How they feel about their careers is varied and changes on an almost daily basis. Whilst I may think that some of them worry needlessly, I find it comforting to know that we all worry, regardless of our ability and success. There are ups and downs, some warranted and some completely in our head, so what do you say to someone who asks: “should I do a PhD?”

About a week ago I took off from Cape Town for a 6 week trip to the UK and France – I’ll be attending a bio-optics workshop in Villefranche and am now setting up some collaborative work with a supervisor at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. Returning to my old institution (I studied for my MSc at NOCS) is a good reminder of both the progression I’ve made and the distance yet to cover. Before I left, I’d been in a bit of a slump, lost in a world of difficult coding and mathematical techniques – relevant but tiresome after a few weeks of limited success! Arriving at NOCS, I got to present my PhD work so far to a group including senior academics and was dreading the questions that would result. The dreadful questions never came and the feeling I left Cape Town with dissipated after the compliments, useful feedback and interested comments and suggestions from the sort of people whose careers I hope to emulate. After this encouragement, I was overjoyed to then receive an email saying my abstract has been accepted for presentation at Ocean Optics 2012 (probably the biggest conference in my field). This is definitely a peak in my PhD journey.

But these peaks never last and whilst here I’ve chatted to an MSc student considering a PhD and a first year PhD student about what to expect, our experiences so far and how to deal with the rollercoaster journey of open ended research.

PhD troubleshooting

Get people to talk to

Ideally you’d know your primary supervisor well when you start, but how often do we have that luxury? Find a co-supervisor, find collaborations, find good colleagues in your research group. Whether its a supervisor across the world who can just read your work every now and then, or a group of fellow students who will listen to your latest string of ideas for a paper/chapter plan, this sort of help is vital for getting good feedback and most importantly, for keeping perspective on what you’re achieving.

Get a life

Whilst picking a project you are really interested in is totally vital, again you probably won’t know until a little while in to it if it’s as interesting as you thought. Either way you won’t be working on it all the time. In fact if you are, you’re probably doing a terrible job of it! Go home, go for a run/beer/burger/sleep and come back to the office tomorrow, you’ll code ten times faster I promise 🙂 Again this is perspective. When you feel there’s more to life than your PhD, you’ll worry less about it, leaving your brain free to work on the stuff it needs to when it comes to it. Most of the awesome scientists I know never seem worried about their work and I wonder – are they awesome scientists because they don’t worry? Or don’t they worry because they’re awesome scientists? It’s probably a bit of both, in some kind of feedback loop but I think they’re the sort of people whose feedback you definitely want to take on board.

Accept that this is about learning

In amongst the pressure to produce results, I think we forget the main point of science – to question and advance knowledge. If your PhD was easy, someone would have already done it. And if you could already do your PhD you’d be a senior research scientist somewhere. It’s about learning and we should try and remember how much we learn and include that in our mental tally of “results”. When I first arrived in Cape Town, I went on a programming course and got very mad and felt very stupid when everyone around me was programming away and I still couldn’t figure out the file system of my computer. Another time I spent 3 hours trying to get a piece of code to run only to be told (in less than a minute) by another PhD student that I’d missed a “.” on a line…embarassing yes, but now I write functions and loops like I never could before, so I try and remember that now when I’m foiled by something I think I should be able to do – I’ve moved the goalposts. Take on any opportunity that’ll give you new skills and definitely teach – I’ve found it the best way to learn, it also reminds you of where you’ve come from.

The race is long…

Whilst Baz Luhrmann did say “and in the end it’s only with yourself”, I slightly disagree. You’ll always compare yourself to your colleagues and friends and they’ll always be telling you things about their and your work. Use this for perspective. If everyone is having ups and downs, it’s probably ok that you do too. If someone you think of as a genius seems to be doubting their ability unnecessarily, maybe they’re looking at you and wondering the exact same thing. There will be ups (you didn’t get that MSc for nothing), there will be downs (you’re only human) but as long as you can get up most days on average and still want to go to work on your research, you’ll be ok. So answer to the question “should I do a PhD?” is really a return question – “Do you want to do a PhD?”. I think if the answer is yes, anything beyond that can be dealt with. A little time away from the environment of learning and curiosity that is academia will tell you for sure.

Remember the ups

A lot of us seem naturally pessimistic and I’m as guilty as anyone for saying “knowing my luck “x” will happen”. My scientific mind totally forgetting that if this was my luck, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am now. As I mentioned before, the little achievements/things we learn should be definitely considered alongside our scientific results – if only to help keep us sane. I like writing my blog, I like talking to fellow PhD students about cool stuff I’ve found out through twitter. These are good ways to keep track of the things we do that are awesome and should be remembered on day where matlab has crashed for the 45th time.

I’m heading in to the most pressured part of my PhD now, where I have to try and finalise results for the world to see and then try and persuade the world that they do want to see them! I’m utterly terrified of course, there’ll be a lot of downs, but I’m really going to try and remember some of things I’m talking about here, luckily I have a blog and lots of friends and colleagues to help.

On that note, check out this latest post by my very dear friend Lauren – a great example of the epic “downs” faced by scientists in the pursuit of data.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 21, 2012 6:56 pm

    I really can’t believe it’s been 2 years – of course, you’ve been an inspiration to ME throughout and I hope you know how in awe we all are of your passion and brilliance. “Vasbyt” for the final slog, but here’s to all the epic conferences and stolen weekends of awesomeness in betweeeeen! See you tomorrow 🙂

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