Thursday, July 1, 2010

Three months down (and how many to go?)

I started a PhD in March of this year, and I would like to share the experience of my first three months.

People react to my new ‘profession’ in academia in difference ways. Some are impressed (“Wow, you’re doing a PhD?!”), some are disdainful (“You’re still at uni?”), some are horrified (“Academia? But they make no money!”), and others, my favourite, are interested (they let me harp on about my research). It appears that people have different ideas about what a PhD involves, and it turns out I didn’t really know either.

I had vague notions of conferences in exotic locations, flexible work days, doing exciting research, and other glamorous activities. Those first three months certainly brought me back to earth.

My 1st week was full of excitement. I was ready to get to that ground breaking research with my new office, new computer, two knowledgeable supervisors and that mysterious flexible timetable. My war hardened friends told me I’d get over it soon enough and they were only too right.

By the 2nd week I was considerably subdued, having difficulty coming up with that perfect topic, and wondering what I was supposed to do with all this free time. The 3rd and 4th weeks are hardly worth mentioning, other than to say I was beginning to wonder what I had got myself into. All that friendly advice that finding a topic takes time wasn’t helping to fill my empty days.

Finally, week 5, and I thought I had found a topic I could get excited about! Unfortunately, through a complicated process involving excessive reading and supervisor meetings, I was shot down. This left me feeling very lost and confused, and over the next few weeks, I seriously began to consider if I should be doing a PhD. Was I really cut out for a life of research, with a constant uphill battle for ideas, grants, positions, time, and failed experiments? All around me were people at various stages of their research careers, excited to be coming in on weekends and so passionate about the research they were doing. What was I doing wrong?

My turning point was when I sat my supervisor (Phil Grove) down and told him all my worries. For any prospective PhD enthusiasts – listen when people say your supervisor is there to help!! He dismissed my feelings of unworthiness and told me that it takes time.

This wasn’t a revelation, but for some reason, this time it sank in. I realised a PhD isn’t supposed to be easy! It may seem silly, but it took me three months to realise that academia is just like any other job, with its good and bad days. You need to be passionate about research, but ultimately the key factor is persistence. It isn’t something to be impressed or horrified by, but if you must – be both! Academia is just a bunch of crazies who are really passionate about research, working really hard and having a lot of fun.

In case you’re wondering, I’m now happily ensconced in my lab, working on an experiment for my very own topic, very happy that I persisted.


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  1. Nice story (and good on Phil too). For what it's worth, I think it is patently absurd that students have to figure out a PhD topic within weeks of starting a PhD in Oz. You have to explore the world of ideas, see what's been done, the debates/differences in opinion,what people AREN'T talking about or thinking about (and why not?), etc. But all of this does take time, like any real exploration. Now be prepared for some of the stuff not to work! Stay curious. This is what makes it fun to do science.

  2. Can you fill us in on your topic, then?

  3. Wise words there, Bart. Thanks. What do you think about the mentality of "publish as much work as you can, then at the end of the PhD pick out the studies that can most easily be linked and write your thesis around those"?