Different routes to destination PhD

After rushing between the vet, the dentist and meetings with students, I was delighted to spend yesterday afternoon at an induction for brand spanking new higher degree research students at my university. Such an exciting time!

I was there to talk a little about my route from new PhD student to early career researcher. I also enjoyed hearing the other panel members talk about their perspectives on what makes a successful PhD student. I heard lots about the services available for new students through the statistical consulting and academic skills units, the library and student support networks. Lots of their advice about looking after yourself and seeking help early paralleled my experiences of PhD-ing.

Then it was time for me to have a chat with the Thesiswhisperer about our very different journeys – her PhD transport was a bullet train leading a successful career in architecture to a snappy PhD and a meteoric rise to Associate Professor in just a few years. She learned Swiss-level organisational and time management skills and came out firing in an academic sense.

My career transport was more Melbourne Metro; it was a little longer, led a little lower and involved a lot more directionless bumbling around. I did my PhD in an earth sciences department. My scholarship allowed me 4 years of paid study, so I took 2 days less than 4 years and I squeezed a lot in. I spent 6 months in New York, two conferences in Canada, a trip to Japan and six weeks in Indonesia doing fieldwork.

The best aspect of my PhD was definitely my cohort of fellow PhD students. 

I had a challenging PhD. My supervisor and I had irreconcilable differences and I was working in a toxic lab culture. This led to a particularly challenging year that involved a lot of eating ice cream and stress leave and trips to the counsellors and the doctors. But my young PhD colleagues were always there for me to pry the ice cream out of my hand and put it back in the fridge. My PhD officemate is my best friend. She still lives around the corner and my girlfriend describes us as sisters.

Other PhD students and postdocs teach you skills, and provide support and encouragement. I always invested a lot of time and energy in other ‘young’ academics during my PhD, at my university and while away at conferences. These are your future colleagues and movers and shakers. Be kind to each other and make your field awesome together.

The biggest challenge to my PhD was my lack of confidence.

I had so many challenges, it’s remarkable I ever graduated. A PhD is always accompanied by life, whether that’s ill health or babies or new partners or family dramas, so I had a bunch of that stuff. I also had a fair share of the challenges of research. I’d get bored with something the moment I started it. As I had also run into some early supervisory problems and couldn’t continue working in the lab I started out in, my PhD was hard and intellectually lonely.

But my biggest challenge was a gripping lack of confidence in myself. I spent the first months of my PhD hiding out in my office scared I’d be found out as a fraud and asked to leave. I lacked the confidence to navigate the break down in relationship with my supervisor. I lacked the confidence to push for this to be resolved. I got there in the end but it took me four years to learn that sometimes you just have to think about what you’d do if you weren’t scared, and then do that anyway.

The most important skill I learned during my PhD was navigating complex relationships.

Academics talk a lot in about hard skills – about honing academic writing, about publishing articles, about conference presentation skills, about an ability to teach. These are hard skills. But the one skill that I use every single day is working with other people. These will be people in other institutions or people in your corridor who you sit on a committee with. They might not like you or you might not like them, or you might just not see things the same way.

You will always have to work with people you don’t mesh with. Being able to tackle these complex relationships is a core academic skill, but the only training you will get for this will be on the job training. Knowing when to push back or when to sit back, when to take offence and when to put your ego away is part of being an academic and I use this everyday.

If there’s one thing I wish I’d done differently it would be to take ownership of my PhD. 

I started my PhD as a very young 24 year old. I was as green as can be, with no project or supervisor in mind nor a clear idea of why I was PhD-ing. I bumbled around like a Melbourne train trying to get out of the loop in peak hour. I am proud of the research I did, but I felt like I was bouncing around. A PhD is an incredible investment in yourself and your own development, but you have to own it to get the most out of it. In academia, no one manages your career for you. This is for you to do  – it’s part of being active and interested in your professional self.

You don’t have to do a postdoc or be an academic to make the investment in a PhD pay off. There’s many ways to use your PhD skills. It’s ok to make decisions on a whim, it’s ok to have a long term career plans with goals. It’s ok to pick a career in academia and it’s certainly ok to decide that an academic career isn’t right for you. You might have other interest or skills, you might prefer more rapid-fire work, you might like security or living in the one place or you might want 15 kids. My only advice is that you have to carve out your own career and make your own decisions if you want them to be good ones.

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