What made me decide to do a Ph. D, and how did I even get here in the first place?
Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology Ph. D student residing in Australia.
Without trying to sound too “impostor syndrome”, I never thought I would do postgraduate studies straight after undergrad. I’m amazed at my luck on earning myself a scholarship. And while it’s been a rocky journey, I would definitely do it all over again.
Initially, back when I was about 16 or so, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I love fantasy (and some sci-fi), because they allow a level of escapism from real life. I used to write lots short stories, mostly for myself, but sometimes for keen friends, based on random dreams I would have.
Where I grew up, if people wanted to study at university, you either did nursing/paramedicine, sports science, or teaching. I figured I’d just end up a teacher and write on the side or something.
I still enjoy teaching, but at some point I decided that forensic science would be very fun. Not sure how I made the leap from writing/education to science, but I think watching Abby from NCIS helped (those were the days- can’t believe that show is still on!). The idea of using logic and reasoning to come up with a solution was really appealing.
Now I know the appeal was due to the fact I’m wired that way, but at the time I just thought it was fun.
Then I thought, animals are cute- I should do veterinary science instead. I knew I had very steady hands, and the idea of surgery was more exhilarating than icky. I even went to Open Days to learn more about becoming a vet surgeon (thanks, mum, for accompanying me to those events). Now I know that would have been a terrible idea, as I’m allergic to pretty much all animals (to varying degrees). Also, based on conversations I’ve had with those in the veterinary industry… no thank you. Too hard.
Anyway, a year or so later, our high school Biology teacher took us on an excursion to the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC) in Melbourne. I can’t remember all the details of that day, but I distinctly recall doing a PCR, or polymerase chain reaction (used to amplify specific DNA to large amounts), running a DNA gel, and then looking at the amplified DNA bands to determine whether there was GMO corn in the chips.
Either way it was the first time I held a micropipette.
As I mentioned, I’ve always had very steady hands.
Now I had a challenge. I had to load my PCR samples on to a DNA gel, which, for those of you that don’t know, is somewhat flimsy and easy to tear. It’s essentially hard jelly.
My brain: DO. NOT. TEAR. GEL.
(Also didn’t help that my classmate was trying to distract me. Thanks, “don’t tear the gel/no pressure” Sam)
Anyway, long story short- I didn’t tear the gel. I loaded my samples. I was quite proud of myself.
(Sam tore the gel, though. Karma… or possibly me returning the favour and muttering, “NO PRESSURE” into his ear, may have helped in his demise… #NoRegrets)
The demonstrator asked me whether I’d done this before. I replied that I have never done anything like this.
What she said next basically changed the entire trajectory of my career. It was literally just-
“Wow, you have really steady hands! You’re really good at this”
The right compliment at the right time. That’s all it took. Suddenly I wanted to do more things that let me play with micropipettes. Something finicky, with lots of detailed theory to memorise…
From then on I basically worked toward getting into a degree that would allow me to explore biomedical science (a.k.a more pipetting). I managed to get through all my exams, and somehow got into the degree I wanted to study, even after a relatively relaxed final year.
While the transition from a close-knit high school class to massive university was somewhat traumatising, it helped that I knew what I wanted out of uni. Basically, while it was terrifying, it was worth the early commutes and lonely lectures because I was studying something I chose/wanted to do.
Would I have made a good forensic scientist/vet surgeon…? Maybe? But I certainly wouldn’t have been as happy. Do what makes you happy… or, at least, do something that doesn’t make you miserable. Don’t sell drugs, though. Or steal, or murde- I’ve gone down a rabbit hole.
Anyway, off to university I went…