Reflections on Doctor Me

No-one should be pressured into having a child, and no-one should be pressured into doing a PhD.

There are limits to the comparison, of course; I have it on good authority that one never stops being a parent, whereas in the majority of cases, one does stop being a PhD student (or grad student, or candidate, whatever the term is in your particular region). In both cases, however, it’s a huge decision.

When someone says, “You should do a PhD!”, it behooves you to translate the recommendation. This can be done in a couple of ways.

Firstly, and this point can’t be overstated, it means: “You should work really, really hard – 60 hours a week, often go in on weekends, get enormously stressed, experience a vastly increased risk ratio for mental illness – for at least three years (more likely five or six), for almost no money, and with no guarantee of secure employment at the end of it. It may negatively affect your friendships, your relationships and your self-esteem. In fact, there’s a good possibility you will be burnt out on research forever, and end up skipping career paths entirely.”

But secondly, it also means: “You should ask the big questions that you are passionate about, and contribute to human knowledge, further your experience in research and do what you love – and you’ll be paid a (basic) living stipend to be able to do this. At no point during an academic career will you have even close to the freedom you have now regarding your project.”

I feel both ways about my PhD. I would never recommend that someone do a PhD, but I would also never try to talk them out of it – much in the same way I would approach someone wondering whether or not to have a kid.

On the negative side, yes, I became phenomenally unhealthy in a few ways while doing a PhD. I did have negative experiences, systematic contamination issues in my lab, bullying, crying, frustration, exhaustion, sense of failure and worthlessness, and an overwhelming realisation towards the end that in terms of earning potential my future was decidedly iffy (particularly after the results of the most recent Australian federal election). I felt that it would never end – that after handing in a draft in a reasonable period the examination and editing process just went on. And on. And on. My thirtieth birthday came and went, and I was still at university (although it’s best to regard a PhD as a job. It pays less and the hours suck, but thinking of it as “school” just does not work).

On the positive side…

I had a wonderful time. I asked big questions. When I dared to ask slightly more enormous questions than expected, I had the backing of my supervisors. When I said to Tim, “If we’re going to work this out, we need to go to western Australia,” he just nodded calmly and signed up for a field trip that took over two weeks and crossed the Nullarbor – the first of five field trips of varying scope around the coastlines of the continent.

I got to see parts of the country I would never have visited otherwise. I’ve been diving in Bremer Bay, Western Australia; in Recherche Bay, at the southernmost point of Tasmania; in Venus Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. I’ve seen the dramatic environmental shift from the damp scrub of the Yorke Peninsula to the red sand, dry scrub and mangroves of the Eyre. I’ve watched the marine ecosystem turn over as I travelled west, watching the dominant fauna of one region slowly give way to another, and the same phenomenon as I travelled north.

I got to be inspired by the world I had chosen to study, being up close and personal with my study animals.

(I also learned the fine art of washing and drying dive gear at a caravan park.)

Due to some kindly folk handing out travel awards, I got to go to overseas conferences and meet colleagues in my field from all over the world, sharing in some inspiring research and discussions of same.

When it came to lab work, I had the benefit of a supportive bunch of colleagues (except for that bullying one) who became good friends. I had the support of my other supervisor, Belinda, who had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade or, more importantly, calling a steaming pile of bullshit exactly that, which got me through some terribly depressing periods. It helps to have a supervisor that you can cry in front of without getting embarrassed (it was generally understood that Belinda’s office was a safe place to have PhD tears).

When I told Belinda that there was a contamination problem in the lab, she didn’t reject my complaint; she asked me for solutions. I provided the solutions, and the next day she’d ordered a freezer for the new PCR area I had proposed. She had my back, and she trusted me.

I had the advantage that many PhD candidates don’t: I had two very supportive supervisors. They were always communicative, always available (except when overseas), and always willing to back me when I went out on a limb. When doubt was cast upon my ability to complete the project (that eighteen months of lab troubleshooting…), they both went to the wall and stated that they had the utmost faith in me to get the job done. I hope that I have rewarded that faith. They always read drafts in good time and always pulled me away from the ledge of fanciful distraction to keep me focused on my main question (it’s easy to get distracted by side projects).

I had a network of supportive friends, and I had (still have) a stable relationship (transitioned to marriage about halfway through the PhD) with someone who supported me in my efforts, including my total inability to bring in any money, my occasionally very late lab hours, weeks of absence on fieldwork, extraordinary stress-headedness, and my occasional need for high-level technical support (I married a software developer, there are bonuses). Being in a long-term relationship with a PhD student is not easy.

And with all these marvellous people and an excellent project, I still had a rough time. I think perhaps everyone does. I don’t regret it, and I’m still passionate about research, but I have watched colleagues burn out or simply get discouraged by the whole situation.

After six years (some of it part-time, while working), I have this to say:

If you want to do this – be sure. Be very, very sure (also, when approaching a supervisor to work with, ask their students what they are like to work with – they will give you the straight line. Avoid any supervisor who invokes the response, “Well, I never see him/her” or “Oh, sure, we have a meeting every day, just to make sure everything is going okay”. Absence and micro-managing: these are bad things. Also check that their projects actually have a tendency to get completed – lab heads hung up on questions that go nowhere are also to be avoided, because if their past five students hit the wall on this question, there’s likely to be a deeply systematic problem. You do not want that pain).

About my own project, I have this to say:

It’s over.

I had wonderful adventures.

I learned a great deal.

But it’s over.

And you can call me Doctor now.*

 ——

*technically I think you’re supposed to wait until after my graduation ceremony, but what are they going to do? Arrest you? Are there Academic Police waiting in the wings, demanding me to wear the Funny Hat of Enforced Humility?**

**Actually, let me know if that happens.

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