We’re in this together!

During undergrad, let’s be honest, although it’s important to pass your assignments and attend afternoon lectures, we want to have the FULL university experience. “Hey, are you going for Dr X’s lecture?” “Yeah, neither am I, we’ll get the notes from…”. And that’s how it begins. It’s all too easy to fall into a routine of not attending practicals and lectures, and leaning on hard-working students to provide you with the material (which is of course unfair), BUT who do you blame when you’ve failed the semester? Your friend who lead you astray, or yourself?

Throughout my years at university, I’ve had my share of fun, but when it came to crunch time, I sat down and did the time, irrespective of whether or not my friends were doing the same. And thankfully, I managed to scrape through my first and second years. At the end of the day, I believe that success during your undergrad degree simply depends on you, and your ability to weigh up your priorities. Making memories with friends during these times is what university is for, BUT it’s also a test of decision-making and responsibility.

Post-graduate studies, on the other hand, are a different story. Entering a new lab with a new team is not the same as completing an undergraduate degree with a circle of friends who you sat next to in class, went out partying with, or shared your notes with. It’s actually quite the opposite. Unlike undergrad, it’s not just about “passing” instead, these are our “growing” years, the years when reality catches up to you and you start thinking of life beyond your student number. Your “company” during these years really does affect your success during your postgraduate degrees, and that’s because your “company” includes your lecturers, your supervisors, your seniors, your peers, and your support system, whether you know it or not, the people around you, always have an influence in your life, be it positive or negative.

I’ve had the privileged of being part of 2 different labs at my university, each specialising in a different field (within the same department). Believe me when I say that the type of people in your lab is vital in determining how smooth sailing your academic journey will be. Fortunately for me, this far, I’ve had wonderful experiences in both labs.

It gets tough. When you are stuck doing an experiment that never seems to work, your supervisor is continuously breathing down your neck, or the most important machine in your lab is backing up, you need those friends around you. And yes, you can come home and rant to your family about your day/life, like I’ve done countless times, but the fact is, that they just won’t understand why you’re frustrated about your bad RNA integrity, or that your cells that are choosing to not grow well, or perhaps even the frustration you’re having time and time again with the key that you’ve got to struggle with to open your lab door. But there are people who can understand your pain: your lab peers, the ones who help you kick the door open.

Of course, I hear horror stories from my friends who don’t share the same sentiments as me. Their stories always end with, “I can’t wait to get out of here, so I don’t have to see him/her/them.” These stories have helped me to realise the power that your academic company has on your degree. Excluding the role that a supervisor adds to this, your academic peer group should be your source of comfort, laughter, and support, especially after a rough day.

Don’t get me wrong, my academic circle isn’t all birds and butterflies, but it’s definitely a circle that I appreciate and look forward to seeing every day. However, it did require some effort on my part as well. Being new in a lab comes with its challenges, which I have discussed in a previous blog, but it’s always up to YOU to decide how you approach the challenge. You can be the quiet, reserved kid forever (totally fine), or you could put yourself out there, your original, authentic, beautiful self. Ask the “silly” questions, annoy the senior PhD students, and build those connections, because it can completely change your experience in academia.

To all my friends that are struggling with peers in academia, take a breath and always remember, ONLY YOU can change your path. Put yourself out there, be friendly, be unapologetically you, and you might just build amazing friendships that will remain with you and make your academic journey fun and memorable. And if you’re on the other side, be kind. Be kind to the new kids, to the new supervisor, the kid who broke the machine, or the one who ruined your experiment. It only takes a few moments of kindness to build a connection.

Life as an academic can be brutal, but with peers by your side, we can all cry together 😊

P.S. Shoutout to GH519, truly smart, kind (for the most part!) and patient people.

Society VS PhD

Got your undergrad degree? “Congratulations!” Got your honours degree? “Wow, keep it up!” Got your Master’s degree? “Amazing! You’re going to THRIVE” Getting your PhD? “…Oh, still studying huh?”.

Can all my fellow PhD buddies raise their hands? This one is for you guys.

I can’t speak for all PhD students, but from what I’ve seen and heard, society doesn’t really understand what doing a PhD means. I’m not even sure they know what it stands for, PhD = Doctor of Philosophy. As a woman in STEM, I feel incredibly proud of how far I’ve come in science, and of the opportunity that I received to do my PhD. However, I don’t always feel this way when I enter a conversation about career trajectories, family goals or financial freedom.

PhD programmes differ in each country and field, some offer coursework in the early years while others (like mine) are conducted by research and I’m only marked on my final thesis so when a person asks me if I’m still “studying”, I always feel conflicted as to how to answer, because the version of “studying” that society knows, i.e. sitting in a library memorizing a pile of books for a series of tests or exams, is not the same as me “studying” pancreatic cancer through working in the lab, analysing my results, and writing up that thesis.

I often blame society. It has not painted us PhD students or even those who have obtained their PhDs in a great light. It often makes us look like boring, introverted, unskilled people. If I had to be vocal about my thoughts towards society, it might go something like this…

Dear Society,

A PhD is a JOB. The only difference is that sometimes the pay isn’t that great but show me a person who doesn’t complain about their pay-check every month. I get up every morning, and often work overtime during the weekend too, I respond to emails, write research papers, spend time in a lab coat and gloves, and go home feeling exhausted, just like you.

When asked what I was studying during my first year at university, I remember someone replying, “Science? Okay, well unless you go all the way to a PhD, you won’t end up making money”. Well, I’m here now, doing the PhD, and guess what? Those same people are now telling me to find a job because having a PhD makes me overqualified and nobody will want to hire me. Out of the very few that have made comments like this, ZERO have a PhD. And that’s just the point. How can I, a scientist, tell a painter to stop painting because they won’t find a job? I have no information about painters, the careers they can have, or the places they could go.

Please stop asking me, “When will you finish studying?” because, like you, I have no idea! I take it day-by-day, one experiment at a time. And I love it, one of the best parts of my PhD is the flexibility. But along with that, comes self-discipline.

So, you might be wondering after all has been said, why do I want to do this PhD, what’s so special about it? Well, a PhD is the most personal choice one can make. NOBODY can force you into it, or out of it (although some circumstances can get the better of us). Believe it or not, I am not doing a PhD to stay in academia or research. Instead, I have plans to graduate and move into a scientific corporate or industry setting as quickly as possible. So why am I doing a PhD if I have no intention of continuing with lab research? Again, that’s the point.

Society believes that if you’re doing a PhD that means 2 things: you’re becoming a lecturer OR you’re going to be in a lab for the rest of your life. Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with those 2 options but doing a PhD means you have the ability to LEARN, be flexible, manage multiple projects and handle large sets of data while designing and implementing changes to the project over time.

There are so many skills and techniques that you end up leaving with once you’re done with your PhD, that you can work at the highest possible position because of your capabilities and that’s something that I hope to achieve.

A PhD is not just a degree, it’s a life skill that only a handful of people are privileged to have (Okay, I’ll stop the glorifying here, we all know that there are some toxic parts of a PhD too!).

Regards,

The PhD student

P.S. Shoutout to my family who have always and continue to support me 😊

So, I hope these words coming straight from a PhD student help you to understand the value of doing a PhD and why unsolicited advice from those without PhDs should be taken with a pinch of salt. Throughout the few conversations I have had with professionals that have a PhD, they have only ever given me a “thumbs up”.

I remain positive that in a couple of years, if not soon, my PhD will push me up as high as I can possibly go, not because of the “Dr” title, but because of the skills and tenacity that my PhD has and continues to give me.