My colleague and I are determined to finish our PhDs. Hers, by August, mine, by March. We both have plans, and are working as hard as we can to stick to/exceed them. This means that we are on pretty hectic lab schedules (between teaching, supervising students, conferences, and admin, of course). Last night we took a break and were social for a few hours, where we met a soon-to-be Masters student. Slowly we got onto the topic of doing a PhD and without prompting summaries of the experience started to flow (with a common theme of “It’s not what you expect”!):
You end up doing a lot that isn’t your project
This is not to say that you don’t benefit from ‘non-research’ activities – I think it is the lack of control you feel when you are a PhD student, and end up doing things that mean you can’t devote 24/7 to your project. You can be at the mercy of your supervisor (and their own to-do list), your departmental administration and the bureaucratic hoops that particularly come with working in a laboratory with no manager or research assistant, to list a specific example!
You are no-one’s first priority
We all know that a PhD is all about self-directed and independent learning. Yep, we get it. It is daunting, exciting, and draining all at the same time. And a lot of the time it feels as though you are responsible for absolutely everything. And a lot of the time that is true. Yes you have a supervisor (advisor), yes you have a panel, but at the end of the day you are not their first priority (they are their first priority). Your output might be a priority at times, but generally, there are 23 things on their priority list before you.
There are few support mechanisms
Every PhD student has a rough period in their candidature. One of my supervisors actually described his PhD as “second year shit” (I limited him to three words). You will always read this in PhD-experience articles, but you really have to live it to believe it. The self-direction and independence that is key to a PhD can also make you feel isolated. And when that happens, it really is up to you to help yourself – at least in my department, there are few genuine mechanisms (that will also retain confidentiality) to address student wellbeing. This is why peer networks, partners, and family are important during a PhD.
It is an emotional rollercoaster
This one is from my partner, when asked what he had observed so far in my PhD experience. He said, “Sometimes you have a really good weeks, but it just goes up and down, up and down”. I really can’t deny that! Experiments, interpersonal relationships, office politics, and many more factors (including the daunting career planning) make for a super fun, 3+ year-long rollercoaster.
For those of us doing a PhD, in our last year, it is a hard thing to sell to a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed undergraduate. So I wondered, why on Earth are we doing it then? If we can’t seem to promote the PhD experience positively, has it really been worthwhile? Yes, the critical thinking, independence, creativity, problem solving, and innovation are all worthwhile skills you gain throughout a PhD.
However, more importantly, from my current stand point, is actually getting through it all. “The best thesis is a finished thesis” is often quoted (and in my final year I kind of like it!). Finishing a PhD to me seems just as valuable as the papers you write, the presentations you give, the classes you teach. The “Dr” should be “IMI” (I Made It). Completing a PhD also demonstrates a different set of skills that have been developed, questioned, challenged, and (hopefully) retained: perseverance, resilience, and self-belief.
It has been, and will continue to be, a huge learning experience for myself. I am not sure if I could promote the experience specifically, but the outcomes have so far made me better, faster, stronger (to quote Daft Punk). So if you like a challenge, then sure, I can promote doing a PhD!