The Stages Of A PhD

Been there, done that. But for those of you who haven’t, here’s a glimpse of the future…

Alice TSSS 5

AsianScientist (May 6, 2015) – I was visited by a friend over the Christmas break. And not just any old friend either–a friend I met while we both completed a year-long research project as the final stage of our undergraduate degrees. As we reminisced on the intervening years, it occurred to us that this was the first step on our way to careers as research scientists.

We reflected on how we evolved from shiny happy little students into grad students and then research scientists, held together by varying percentages of optimism, masochism, sleep deprivation, chocolate, coffee and alcohol. For every scientist, there are of course differences in the journey (and levels of optimism, masochism, sleep deprivation, etc.), but I think we can all agree on several universal stages. And the most universal time is of course that period we’ve all gone through–the PhD…

Stage 1–Look out World–here I come!

This stage could start from any age and be spurred by any number of events. For example, you may have been obsessed by computers as a child and loved museum displays, or maybe it was the first time you dissected an heart or worm in high school (hey, it happens!).

All we can really say is that upon finishing your Honors or Masters projects, it was strong enough to make you decide that you were definitely going to continue on to a PhD. It was strong enough for you to write the application to the professor to join their lab. And it was strong enough that you were definitely going to devote your life to living in a happy intellectual world, surrounded by people who cared about figuring things out.

Motivation level: Spending vacation time doing research projects? SIGN ME UP!!!

Stage 2–Look out Topic Bigwigs–here I come!

Lured by visions of greatness from your supervisor but tempered by a year spent trying to perfect a tricky technique or proving the first principles of your hypothesis, you’ve realized that maybe you can’t revolutionize the entire world, but you can sure as hell revolutionize your field.

You still have time to socialize with old friends, although these situations are now falling into two categories–science friends with whom you spend the entire night talking about work, or non-science types who can only look on with slight confusion as you try to explain the topic. In short, this is golden time.

Aims: To be in an elevator and chat with your Nobel Prize winning hero or heroine and dazzle them with your knowledge of the field.
Motivation level: Wow, I could spend all day and all night reading about this topic…and I have!

Stage 3–Look out Labmates–here I come!

Hmmm, things aren’t panning out the way you thought they would. Maybe the animals aren’t breeding or the machine is constantly being serviced, or you’re wondering why the results are simply proving the opposite of your hypothesis (WHY IS IT DOING THIS?!!?!!?).

Either way, you’ve absorbed the cynicism of your colleagues and are pondering where all the time went. Your professor has a few words of encouragement for you though–this is simply second year slump and compared to labmate X over there, you’re FAR ahead of them at the same stage.

Aims: Get the best publication of the year for the lab. Or just get a publication.
Motivation level: The machine is working? I’d better spend all weekend on it pumping out data before it crashes again.

Stage 4–Look out food buffet–here I come!

Having taken a battering by the realization that all that data you collected in the first year won’t be used in your final thesis, you’re wondering how you’re going to find the energy to repeat experiments. And you’re a bit worried about what you’re going to say to the Progress Committee to explain why you need another year when you’ve spent that last three years saying you were on track. But you know, the Department had a day explaining the research focus to prospective students so there’s free food in the kitchen!

Aims: To not spend Christmas analyzing data.
Motivation level: Fired up every time you see the luxury car of a friend who chose to not go to grad school, or whenever somebody makes the comment, “You’re doing a PhD? You must be pretty smart…”

Stage 5–Errrr… look out.

Oh God, when will it end?! All you wanted was to add a bit of knowledge in the world. But there is a bright point–your professor has said they can see light at the end of the tunnel if you can do just one more experiment…

Motivation level: Days? Nights? Weekends? Must work as much as I can to reach the end…

Stage 6–THE END!!!

Now welcome to a life of doing the same things but with grant writing and no more student discounts!!!

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: rhodesj/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

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