Doing a PhD has been a series of challenges which I could rant about indefinitely. That’s the reason I started writing this blog! But 4 posts in and it’s already in danger of turning into free therapy – something nobody wants to read. So, I thought I would change the tone, to discuss reasons why I’m glad I did a PhD. Through my PhD I’ve developed new skills and perspectives, and been offered numerous opportunities which I may not otherwise have had the chance to experience. I believe that this has changed the path of my life for the better and here is why.
- It’s allowed me to experience science on the ground:
My undergraduate degree left me equipped with a detailed knowledge and understanding of Biochemistry, but a somewhat lacking understanding of the academic system. Don’t get me wrong, they taught us laboratory techniques. But I didn’t know how to get a paper published, the stages of the academic career ladder or how funding works. Or how long research really takes! And I think to really understand how research is done, you have to be immersed in it.
If I hadn’t given research a go, I would always have thought ‘what if…’. Being a scientist is the goal when you’re a kid who loves science! I’ve earned my scientist stripes, and my ‘Dr’ can’t be taken away from me, nor can my pride in it. When I work with researchers in my career going forward, I will be able to relate in a way I don’t think I would have done otherwise. I hope that through this experience I can do justice to their research in my writing; to paint a picture of what the research shows, but also to expand public consciousness of how research is done.
- It’s given me time to get to know my skills:
I can say with confidence that 4 years ago I did not know myself. It’s a cliché that students enter postgraduate education because they don’t know what else to do. I didn’t think that this was the case when I applied for and started my PhD, but given 4 years to reflect, I think that it was. I thought I wanted to be a researcher because I didn’t know about the huge range of jobs in science outside of the lab and, most importantly, I didn’t know what I was good at.
You would think that by 22, having excelled in my education thus far, what I was good at would have been obvious. However, formal education can be an assault course of hoops that students have to contort themselves to jump through. This forced homogenisation can be all-encompassing – students spend their school and university years working to understand the syllabus rather than to understand themselves. Furthermore, the skillset required to pass exams, and to actually do the jobs at the end of those exams, can be very different, leading students to make wrong choices. I certainly think this was the case for me.
This is very much not the case in a PhD. As an academic, you are a jack of all trades, requiring a range of skills to plan, experiment, analyse, write, teach, present and many other tasks. This provides an excellent means to figure out what you find difficult, boring, exciting, and fulfilling. I have confidence that the jobs I’m applying for now are more right for me than jobs I might have ignorantly fallen into 4 years ago.
- It’s provided opportunities outside of the lab
As I just alluded to, researchers partake in many different activities that are slightly aside from ‘researching’. These time-sucking, often obligatory activities can be far from positive, as they exclude time-poor researchers with caring responsibilities. However, for someone like me who is looking to experience as much as possible, these tasks have been brilliant. I would highly encourage PhD students – even ones who are certain that research is the path for them – to say yes to as much as they have the bandwidth and time to do. Competitions, public engagement activities, teaching, courses and conferences – all of these helped me to realise what I wanted to do. And I’m hoping they’ll help to get me there too!
- It has developed my problem-solving and resilience… and showed me what I was capable of
PhDs provide immense independence. You have a problem? Solve it yourself. If YouTube videos or equipment manuals can’t help you, find the right person to ask. I spent a bit too long at the start of my PhD wallowing in self-pity that I wasn’t cut out to do a PhD. I cringe to think of it now. But eventually, I learned to stay calm in the face of adversity. I learned the value of stepping back and taking a bit longer to do something in order to do it the right way. Most importantly, I learned how to ask for help when I needed it.
Self-development without struggle is impossible. I went through a period of anxiety like I hadn’t felt before. I still get quite overwhelmed sometimes. But to know that I came out of such a hole of worry not by quitting, but by persevering, is quite something. It’s given me confidence I never had before. I did it, so what else could I do?