February 11, 2018
Written by: Emmanuel G Escobar
I went into the PhD thinking it was going to an easy experience. Thinking back on it, I wouldn’t necessary say it was hard either. I think the hardest part of it was accepting that there is a learning curve and an aspect of personal development. I started a PhD directly after finishing my undergraduate degree, and having completed a successful final year project, I felt I was ready to continue academic research. I wouldn’t say that I was scared about starting a new degree. To me, it felt like the next logical step in my education. I briefly considered doing a Master’s degree, but the mere issue that it would have involved going to lectures and taking exams, deterred me from it.
I did an undergraduate degree that I wasn’t planning of doing, at a university I hadn’t considered and in a city I sure didn’t want to be in. Some modules I liked more than others, and by the end of my final year, I spent a lot of time on the modules I really liked and ignored the rest. Of the modules I really liked I was getting above 70% and those I didn’t, I was getting below 50%. I rate my success of my undergraduate solely on my performance on my final year project. I really enjoyed it, and I had a pretty cool PhD supervisor and a academic supervisor that I didn’t see much, which is quite typical. I spent the entire second and third year earning his trust by doing well in his taught modules, and so I let him know that I would be capable of working independently without much help. In fact, I didn’t see much of my project supervisor. Even my academic advisor commented that out of all his students, I was the type of student to seek the least help from him.
The level of maturity at the start the PhD was the same as it was at the end of my undergraduate. For me, there was no personal development between both degrees. My experience at the start of PhD was limited when compared to other PhD students, which had gone through the Master’s route. And so, I saw the PhD as a long undergraduate final year project, without truly grasping what doctoral development actually meant. Inadvertently, I had signed up to a big leap without consciously taking it seriously. In addition, the whole scene of research independence didn’t really hit me until later on. When I started the PhD, a Master’s student was starting her research project. Now that was an interesting situation, which I think made me lose sight of my role as a PhD candidate. She had just finished undergraduate courses, and would have been at similar stage in her education as I was when I started the PhD. Thus, I looked at her as a fellow project student, underestimating what was expected from me as a PhD candidate. Even more important, we learned basic protocols together and during these learning phases, I never felt alone or independent. Not to mention, I had an assumed level of seniority at the start of the PhD and had to teach the Master’s student, while still learning myself. The problem here again was that her project was completely different than my project, and when the end of the year came, I still hadn’t laid down the foundation to research goals.
At the end of year one, I had to write a confirmation report, which should have outlined the hypotheses and aims of the project, as well as include a literature review. I hadn’t written anything for about a year when this assignment came along, and I sure wasn’t prepared for it. I was confident that I could write well, but I hadn’t given my project much thought. I focused my aims on what the project supervisor had aimed to achieve from the project. It wasn’t hard for the examiners to see that I hadn’t properly read through research articles or had much idea of what my project would be like; they even questioned whether I would be capable of continuing on the PhD. My PhD supervisor said my writing was too ‘melancholic’, which I think had rubbed off from writing too many fictional stories in the summer before the PhD started. They also noted that I was trying too hard to explain concepts in my own words, rather than stating what is known in the literature. Perhaps I am fully to blame for that, since I was reading only the abstracts, because I couldn’t be bothered to read entire articles.
Fast forward to the examination at the end of year one, and to be fair, it didn’t go as bad as it could have gone. Although I had left out important concepts from the confirmation report, I was able to explain them on the spot and managed to pacify the examiners. I had to re-write the literature review, but even then, I wasn’t impressed with my performance. In fact, reading it again three years later, I am surprised they didn’t kick me off the course. I had the expectation that the PhD degree was going to be easy when I started. After about a year, I felt I had done a terrible decision, and that I couldn’t continue, because I didn’t know what my project was about and couldn’t write well to even impress my PhD supervisor. Around that same time, the post-doc in my research group left due to personal reasons and I was really left alone. I began to isolate myself and over time didn’t talk to many people in the lab. Some months later, I had five undergraduates to look after and five projects to plan. At that time, I felt I had a job to do and a purpose for being a PhD student. But then again, I didn’t see myself as a true PhD student. I was simply someone who worked in a lab and occasionally had to supervise junior researchers. I excelled at being independent, but maybe too much for my own good. From the early days, I had given my PhD supervisor the impression that I worked with minimal help or guidance, and I always felt it was too late to say otherwise. In my undergraduate I never took advantage of my advisor and his role in terms of personal development, and I had done the same through the PhD.
Up until the writing of the thesis, I couldn’t quite understand the significance and value of my PhD. I finally realised that the true importance of the PhD is not about getting the best data or publishing the most papers, it is about the steps taken during the doctoral development. It is about taking advantage of the best opportunities and earning a level of maturity that cannot be taught but must be learned through rough experiences. And I think it’s about understanding what others expect from you. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the PhD as being hard. It is not appropriate to give a PhD a level of difficulty, because no PhD is the same and it will never be a linear experience. I don’t regret doing the PhD that I did directly after competing an undergraduate degree. However, I wouldn’t have done any PhD solely because of wanting to do a PhD. I did a PhD because I felt that my maturity as a scientist was incomplete at the end of the undergraduate and not to mention, I had done an undergraduate in a subject I didn’t want to do in the first place. For this reason, I value my PhD degree as the path that I chose for myself, and I had redeemed myself from the failure to get accepted into the undergraduate course I really wanted to do.
So, do I think a PhD is needed? No. The experience learnt from it will not always be proportional to the rewards at the end. It might not help you get where you want to go quicker, but it might give you a tiny advantage over your competition. In the end, the PhD is not about the research or the experiments, it’s about the experiences, the people met and the ideas that come from it.