It was character building

I feel numb about the whole PhD experience still. Its easy to write about the things I found hard. The things I wish I did different. It was suggested to me that I should give some thought to how doing a PhD has changed me. An interesting thought.

I still feel displaced anxiety that I can't shake. When I finished I was still so tired and so sore. So completely over it in every conceivable way. Then I decided to put jet lag on top. It has not even been a week yet. I am still so tired that I have not ever properly begun to accept what I managed to get done.

I tried to get back to work this week. To continue writing papers and all the rest. I have since realised I need at least another week to recover. I fear that I will need months to really recover.

In writing this I am beginning to see things about myself I have not seen previously. I knew I was stubborn but I did not realise how much. I thought there was strength in hiding my weakness. I see now there is strength in sharing your pain and asking for support.

My confidence took a good bashing in the last six months of my PhD. I applied for a lot of post-docs. I only had two interviews of which I got neither position. I lost confidence in my abilities. I lost my strength.

Was it worth it?

In the week or two after I submitted my PhD I was not sure. When I think about how hard the last 6 months were then I would say no it was not worth it. I think I will look on the last part of it as the 'dark days'.

When I think about the 3 years before that I think it was definitely worth it. Almost like it is a silly question. Not only that. I had a great time for the majority of my PhD. So I think my answer has a clause. Is was absolutely worth it but there were a few things I could have done to make things easier on myself.

What is unfortunate is that while I can reflect on the things I wish I did different. Armed with the experience I now have I am not sure I would have chosen to do it differently. That’s the sick part. I did what I needed to in order to get the job done.

My 2 cents

People who have just finished their PhD are really annoying. Like REALLY annoying. They want to tell you all about it. Tell you they felt the same way. Tell you to hang in there. Sometimes when your not 'hanging in there' its not what you want to hear.

Here are a few things I hope don't make me sound like the annoying post PhD students.

Treat your PhD like a job. I did. For at least the first two years of my PhD I was at work 9-5. I did not work weekends. I had a life outside my PhD. I advocate this approach as it will keep you sane. My other advice would be that in the end, take a minimum of half a day off a week. A whole day is preferable.

Late in my PhD I realised that if I was working crazy hours for 3 days. That was my limit. Then on the fourth day I would crash and not get much done. So the reality is I should have worked more sustainable hours over 4 days and I would have been better off.

If your on your own. Recruit help. Tell your friends they need to cook you dinner one night a week. If your avoiding your friends. Let yourself do at least one fun social thing a week. Put someone else in charge of this if you have to.

Exercise is as essential as sleep. It is really the only way to keep your body and brain functional. It helped me to sleep. Plus it helped me to maintain my weight while I was attempting to eat my weight in chocolate and Tim Tams. And I will admit to drinking a glass of wine most nights. Though I probably should not advocate this approach.

Finally if your without a community, be it family and friends, you will sink like you have lead in your shoes. Find community from the start of our PhD and they will support you when you need. And you will really need it.

What was the point of it?

Doctorate aside there are a lot of things I have gotten out of my PhD experience. Things that I am starting to see are to point to why we do a PhD other than the obvious reasons.

When you start a PhD in a field you have no experience in but potential for there is a lot of foundation science to learn. In an Australian PhD this falls on the student to teach themselves. Its a daunting task.

I recall picking up a review paper of my supervisors in the first week of my PhD. I could not understand the title. I had to google so many of the words in the abstract that it took around a hour to get a handle on what the paper was even about. I have come a long way since then.

I have leant to think like a programmer. I started my PhD with a rusty knowledge of IDL. I now know FORTRAN, Python, NCL, cdo, Bash (in C also) and HTML. I think that’s an awesome achievement. I only need to work with R and I will have covered all of the most useful computer languages in my field.

Version control changed the way I do science. In additional to the new languages I have leant this is the most useful skill I have developed. It was also the easiest.

I use debuggers rather than print statements.

I now properly manage papers. Rather than saving them in folders and searching for them.

I was always good at Latex. Now I am an expert.

One of the greatest gifts my supervisor gave me was clear vision on how to write papers. It is one of the most important aspects of our profession and one of the hardest. He showed me how to break it down. How to find the point of a paper and communicate it. Of all the skills I have developed I am most thankful to have had good guidance early in my career.

My critical thinking skills are sharper. My presentation skills refined.

The strengths I brought to my PhD were extended. My weaknesses improved.

So I ask myself again a week later was it worth it?

Yes it was. I no longer need to put in the clause I did earlier. It was definitely worth it.

I wanted to do my PhD because I knew I would enjoy it and I wanted to be an academic. It was the next step in the ladder that I needed to climb. Now that I have finished my PhD (not technically yet but its close) I realise that its not so much about the final product. It is not about 'the thesis'.

It is about the confidence I have to do my own science. It is about the skills I have developed. It is about the experience I have gained. It is about succeeding when things are tough and rising to the challenge.

Taking on something big changes you. A PhD is a character building experience. The pride associated with success is almost limitless.

Why your PhD is bigger than you.

I have been writing this blog as the Australian government releases the budget. I have been writing about how hard doing your PhD is. Some of the challenges I have had to overcome. All the while the Australian government is taking for granted how much it takes to get your doctorate.

The government and the people who support them should be ashamed for their lack of respect given to the young academics of my generation who are striving to be the future professors. If you limit the potential for us to educated ourselves and limit the funding available for us to carry our research there will be no one to provide higher education to the next generation. Then where will we be?

Continue to the last part of this blog: Epilogue: What's in a name? »