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How did I become #PhDLife? (part 2)

Part 2 covers the first half of my undergrad days. How did I end up a Ph. D student? Short answer is that it was mostly due to chance encounters and luck, with a good amount of motivation (maximum effort).

Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology student residing in Australia

Got into university! Hooray! The hard part was done, or so I thought. Current me scoffs at naive, 18 year old me, but at the same time appreciates how far I’ve come.

As I mentioned in part 1, the transition from high school to university was rather brutal. I went from a very close-knit class in a small regional high school to a very large metropolitan university. I had no friends, contacts or family in the city, so it was very overwhelming. I hadn’t had to make new friends from scratch in a very long time!

In hindsight, I probably should have tried to make more friends during undergrad, but I think I’ve made up for it in Honours and Ph. D.

But the thing that kept me going was the motivation and thirst for more knowledge. I really wanted to learn more about STUFF.

When I started first year, I had the intention of studying either Pathology or Microbiology and Immunology. The degree I enrolled in let you pick and choose the subjects that suited your end goal, so I didn’t really need to think about Majors in first year. First year was just survival and adjustment.

I did, however, have a superstar of a guest speaker in first year Biology, that made me lean more toward Microbiology and Immunology as a potential Major.

It was just a small introduction to “Micro and Immuno” (which is how I affectionately refer to the field, now), but it was given by Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty. It’s quite a few years ago now, but at the time he mentioned that plans were in place to build a large research institute in the near future. The institute will be named after him, and it will house the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

I’m sure he was saying way more interesting things, but I remember that a single thought popped into my head as he was talking about this new research institute:

“I’m gonna work there one day…”

It was just a random thought. I do remember mentioning it to mum and telling her I’d like to work there one day, if possible (99% sure she won’t remember that)… but it sounded like a far away dream. It was a world class institute. I was a first year student, sort of treading water by this stage with the sudden overwhelming workload. But it was a good little motivator.

Things didn’t really kick in until the end of second year. I decided to major in Micro and Immuno. I applied unsuccessfully for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), which a kind friend had told me about.
I wasn’t sure what to do next, but suddenly the Department was advertising a new award for over the summer. It was for anyone getting mediocre to above average grades (*tick*), the award involved going to a three day conference (costs covered, international guest speakers), and you got paid to work in a research laboratory for four weeks (HELLOOOOO MONEY). All you had to do to apply was to write what was essentially a single page cover letter, detailing why you wanted to receive the award. You also had to pick a preferred lab from a list (I think there were four to choose from).

If you ever get this type of opportunity- take it. There is nothing to lose. If you don’t get it, you don’t get it. If you do, it could change your life.

Obviously I applied. With absolutely no expectation of getting the award. I actually completely forgot about it over the rest of the semester. It wasn’t until semester was over, and I was enjoying a lazy summer day, when I saw an email pop up in my inbox with the award name as subject title.

I was seriously expecting the usual rejection email, so I opened it and casually skimmed without reading it properly.


Wait- WHAT? *Re-reads email* … *moment of stunned silence* … *audible shriek*

Thankfully no one was around to watch me dance around the house (still in my PJs).

That award, by far, was probably the single most important thing that really altered the trajectory of my study/career choices. To this day I am so glad I gave it a go and applied. Also glad that I had no life and could spare a month in the lab.

So that takes us to the end of second year undergrad. Next time, I’ll write about the award and where it took me next…

P.S If you’re wondering what I wrote in my application letter, I found it a few years ago. It was essentially emotional verbal vomit where I just banged on about how much I love Micro and Immuno and that I would love this opportunity. It was not at all eloquent in any way… but I guess it was emotive? That seemed to have helped.

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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