Since starting my PhD two years ago, I’ve often had people ask me, “so are you in school or are you working?” and I often find it hard to answer.
So, today I hope to give you a glimpse into my experience as a PhD candidate so far. But first, a little background.
I graduated with a B.Sc in Pharmaceutical and Industrial Chemistry in 2016. To be honest, a PhD had never been the goal. I just wanted to graduate, get a masters and get a job afterwards. But life doesn’t always go as planned!
Fast-forward to the October after my graduation. I started my PhD at my host University. Like anyone starting anything new, I was excited! I thought I would be making a groundbreaking discovery in two years and graduating in three and a half. I had everything planned out. It’s funny looking back now because I am in the third year of my PhD and I haven’t made any groundbreaking discoveries, in fact, half the time I’m asking myself “What am I doing here??”.
The thing about a PhD is, there is no quick formula for getting things done. You go into it thinking “I’m smart, I’ll be fine”. But what you don’t realise is that being smart isn’t the most important quality required to get a PhD. I often say it’s not your smartness that gets you through a PhD. It’s your resilience. Your stubbornness and your ability to push yourself even when you can’t see a reason to do so.
A PhD is a full-time job. It’s no way similar to doing an undergraduate degree even though you’re still technically a student. You’re more or less allowed to do your own thing, however, 70% of the time, it won’t work. It’s also a job that doesn’t leave you. I often have dreams of my work at night or find myself awake at 01:00 a.m. thinking about my experiments. And if you’re not proactive about it, your PhD can take over your life. You can find yourself working and exhausted all the time with not that much to show for it.
There’s so much I could say about the internal struggles you face, disappointments, imposter syndrome, anxiety, insomnia, etc. but I will save those for another post. I will say though, that in my opinion, a PhD is more mentally and emotionally taxing than it is physically taxing. However, most don’t know this going into it, making it that much harder to cope.
Okay, so I feel like I have succeeded in painting a grim picture, but here is the thing. Even though it’s quite challenging, there’s much joy derived from doing it. The small things like having an experiment work, or the accomplishments like getting your paper accepted in a relevant journal. Or just the knowledge that you are making a difference in one way or another. You’re investigating a problem and potentially looking for a solution.
It’s the freedom in knowing you can have an idea and run with it. It’s the creative space you have to identify and solve problems.
I’ll say it takes a certain kind of person to do a PhD, but it’s always worth it one way or the other. It’s hard work but it’s also rewarding. If I could go back in time would I still do it? Yup, I would. The PhD life is one of intense emotions and ups and downs. It isn’t for everyone and that’s okay, but it is definitely an interesting path to walk.
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