The art of learning

Let me stop you right there. I’m not going to give you tips on how to ace your next exam, or the best method for memorising chemical formulas. Instead, I’m going to share with you one of the now-best experiences of my life, and from that, I’m sure you’ll get the “lesson” (see what I did there?).

Can you imagine studying the sun for 4 years of your life, and then, suddenly changing course to study the planet Earth? Seriously, who would be silly enough to do that? Me. I am said person. Although in my case, I studied biochemistry for 4 years and then suddenly decided to switch to cancer biology in my PhD. Crazy right?

“Yes, you’re crazy, so why make this switch in the first place?” After completing my Masters, I desperately wanted a change in my life, and I knew that it had to start with my PhD. I was always two-minded between biochemistry and cell biology. Since I experienced biochem, I decided to give the other field a shot (also, cancer research is really cool!). After being lucky enough to land a cool cancer project along with an empowering supervisor, the hard part began. I mean, how do you get a TERMINAL degree in a field you have absolutely no experience in (excluding the one or two undergrad practical’s)? You LEARN.

“So, she’s changed from biochemistry to cancer biology…Is that a big deal?” YES, in biochemistry I only dealt with proteins and the only time I worked with cells was to get my protein. On the other hand, EVERYTHING in CELL biology revolves around cells. Besides reading papers, designing experiments and the occasional pity-party, that’s about the only similarities between these two fields in terms of techniques.

Of course, I knew this would be a challenge, but oh boy was it the biggest challenge I ever experienced. Let’s start off easy:

  1. The proposal: From the years of scientific research experience, writing up a project proposal wasn’t too difficult considering I knew the basics to get me started. However, entering the field of cancer research was TOUGH, to say the least! I had dozens of papers and no clue where to start. Between you and I…I still can’t believe I pulled off that research proposal.

“How would you rate your experience?”

2/5. Not happy.

  • New team: Leaving my old research team was another toughie. During my first year of research, we usually came in a group to meet our new lab mates, so I was always comfortable knowing I had my usual peers around me. This time, it was different, it was just me, and yes, I was quite nervous about meeting these new people. But this experience turned out better than I had expected. Without having anyone to lean on, I was forced to become more extroverted than normal and within my first week, I was already feeling both comfortable and welcomed in my new setting. I realised how capable I am of breaking into new environments and forming relationships with those around me.

“How would you rate your experience?”

3.5/5. Feeling great.

  • Lab work: I’m not going to sugar‑coat this part. I killed my cells, I contaminated my cells, I used a colleague’s WHOLE bottle of media (by mistake OF COURSE), I incorrectly made-up cell stocks for the entire first month, and the list goes on. I laugh about it now, but at some point, during those times, I really felt like giving up. There were days where I questioned whether switching my field at this point in my academic career was the right move.

“How would you rate your experience?”

1/5. I’m crying myself to sleep.

Present day: Fast forward a couple of months and I’m proud to say that I am still here, standing tall. So, let’s re-evaluate those experiences, shall we?

  1. The proposal:

Achievements unlocked: The ability to read, understand and communicate science in more than one field (which I am currently proud to be using as a freelance scientific/medical writer 😊)

  • New team:

Achievements unlocked: Self-reliance, the ability to network and form interpersonal relationships, strengthened team-player skills.

  • Lab work:

Achievements unlocked: Training on new lab techniques, alternative data analysis methods, exposure to multiple lab environments. P.S. My cells are now healthy and alive.

So, whether it’s a new job, field of research or complete diversion from your usual activities, there is always one constant challenge, that is, to LEARN. It’s always tough at first, but the lessons prepare you for an amazing future. Of course, I still have a lot of challenges on the way, but as long as I continue to learn, then I have nothing to lose, right?

Getting a postgraduate qualification is challenging, but the end results are exciting

“We” look like we have it all under control. But postgraduate studies are hard and at times frustrating. You would think we have it all planned-out. That is not true. The process of getting a postgraduate degree is tiring, circuitous, hard and at times a little depressing. Choosing topics, writing proposals, approaching prospective supervisors, choosing institutions and applying for funding… it is just a lot.  We are forever hopeful that it will get better after completing a certain degree, but it never does. It feels like the higher you go the ‘crazier’ it becomes.  When I completed my Honours, I though it will be easy to get into a Masters programme with funding but it was never like that, I struggled for a while without any funding. I only got funding towards the end of my first year of Masters.

I am saying all this in relation to my plans to enrol for a PhD. These are plans which have been in motion ever since I got my Masters. According to my timeline, by now I was supposed to have already been registered and progressing through my PhD, but it is only now that my registration processes are about to be concluded. There is still a question of funding, which is a headache. I realised during my Masters that pursing a post-graduate degree without stable funding can take its toll on a student. You worry simultaneously on your research and your finances – how to pay for accommodation, fees and your everyday upkeep. Its stressful and I hope to never go through that pain again.

I honestly think these factors and all the others we often also shy away from should be talked about more openly, not to scare prospective student away but to give them a heads-up. Often, post-graduate students struggle, especially financially, and this affects all the aspects of the student’s life.  We do say that completing a postgraduate qualification is difficult, but usually we only focus on the actual research, the dissertation that we must write, and not the financial implications of being a postgraduate level students. These two are inseparable. We must talk about them as one.

In all honesty, completing a post-graduate degrees takes a lot of courage, will, determination and passion for research. But of course, with all these ups and downs and all of that, there are those of us who never think about giving up. I guess this is the will and determination I am talking about. Getting the qualification, against all odds. I am the first in my family to get a Master’s degree and I have seen how it has brightened up those around me and have given them hope and a reason to go to university, and I am not going to stop until I get my PhD. Despite the many challenges that come with pursuing a postgraduate qualification, I want to be counted among the strong and brave, the go-getters and the intellectuals. I want a PhD and I am going to get it. Do not get me wrong, this is a two-sided coin. There are exciting and thrilling moments too.