Post-Phd reflections

As March approaches*, I realise that it’s been nearly three years since I submitted my PhD. Reflecting on the last few years, I’m beginning to think I can no longer pretend that I’m still a student or that I don’t know anything about anything.

I decided that I wanted to be a scientist when I was just 5 years old. I was thrilled to start my PhD, it was a wonderful day.  But sometime around 12 months into my candidature, my relationship with my PhD supervisor soured and eventually it was made clear that I was no longer welcome back in the laboratory or our research group.

And the rest is what I describe as “history” or euphemistically as “non-conventional supervisory arrangements” or more accurately “going solo”.   It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was lonely. I cried. I ate ice cream. I asked for help. I went to the counsellors (lots). I begged to quit. But I also did science – lovely, glorious science. I made excellent, unforgettable friends. I went to conferences. I collaborated. I wrote papers. I met my beautiful girlfriend. I eventually submitted a thesis.

After I finished my PhD, I agonised for months. Would there ever be a place for me in academia? Would it make me happy? It was already clear that I would not be receiving a reference from my home institution.  Would I even be able to get a postdoc?

Several postdoc positions were advertised and still I procrastinated. Eventually, an opportunity came up that grabbed me and I applied, thinking I would never stand out. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted the job. Surprisingly, I was offered the position and bursting with uncertainty and trepidation, I moved interstate.

I was determined to see my new position as merely a job and not the fulfilment of my long-held childhood dreams. But so far it hasn’t been that easy to compartmentalise.  I am excited to rush into work in the mornings and to be a scientist.

My current boss the best! Literally the best! He is encouraging and supportive of my ideas and has established a research group that values each other and recognises each others’ strengths and needs. He is also keen to teach me how to supervise. We now co-supervise a wonderfully capable PhD student and my supervisor is keen that I develop my own supervisor-student relationship.

  • So, three years after submitting my PhD, what’s changed? What do I have and what have I learned? Here are a few thoughts:
  • An enjoyable postdoc life, post-crappy PhD is possible.
  • My post-doc has provided me with opportunity to learn a new field, to start carving out a name for myself and to pursue interesting ideas on a whim.
  • I no longer panic when my supervisor asks to see me. This does not mean that I will be asked to clear out my desk and leave immediately.
  • There was a discernible difference in the way I was received in a new departments as a postdoc, rather than a student. In general, PhD students are under-appreciate and their ideas too readily dismissed.
  • Science should be fun! Even in the darkest of PhD days, I still loved science and I was still unbelievably lucky to be paid to do science. And I now have a proper, grown-up job where I am paid to do science!

I have also learned:

  • How to say “No, I still don’t understand. Can you please explain it again please?”
  • How to say “No, I don’t have the time/ expertise/ interest in sitting on that committee / organising that workshop / regular seminar series”. This remains a work in progress.
  • Students should not be bullied. No-one should be bullied. Of course the PhD process is inherently hard – grappling with exciting, frustrating new ideas, navigating professional relationships and working on the same damn project for years. But the process should not be hard because of the lack of support I encountered.
  • Seeking out help is always useful. During my PhD woes, I talked to the Dean of Students, Dean of Faculty, Graduate Convenor, Head of Department, Postgraduate Student Society and university counsellors. It didn’t provide me with the resolution I sought, but it was better than feeling hopeless and feeling helpless.
  • Enthusiasm is good. I loved my PhD topic and talked about it whenever I could. I went to workshops and conferences, I asked people if I could visit their institutions, I collaborated and wrote papers. And then I was excited to start a postdoc in a new field. I’ve done what I enjoy and what excites me, and it’s worked out well so far.
  • I hate to even hint that being bullied was worth it, but in my case I now feel that gained more than I endured. My own PhD was defined by many teary trips to the university counsellors, but in the end it forced me to be a more confident and capable scientist.

I had expected that submitting my thesis would be a great unburdening – a relief that gently subsided into the happiest, most carefree time of my life. But instead, it felt vaguely unsettling. In those awkward few months after submitting my thesis and waiting for examination results, I felt that I should be happy. Instead, I remember feeeling disappointed with myself that I was so uncertain about everything.

It turns out it just took a little longer to end up at those happy times that I had long anticipated. So once again, science is fun and so is being a postdoc! Tally ho!

(*This is a repost from February 2013).

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