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How did I become #PhDLife? (part 3)

This post talks about my journey through from third year undergrad to now. I’d gotten into a brand new award offered by the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. I was just about to start working in a real research lab alongside actual scientists.

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

Finally, the day arrived when I was to meet the person who had so generously donated the funds for the award, and the then Head of Department (whose lab I was going to be based in).

What I didn’t really realise until then was that the new research institute that Peter Doherty had spoken about (a couple years prior, at that point) was nearly complete. So, part of my first day involved getting a private tour of the brand new institute. So much for simply wanting to work there- I got a private tour!! On top of that, all the labs were going to move in within that month, so part of my award period would involve helping my assigned lab move buildings!

The four weeks went by in a bit of a blur. I did help the lab move (heads up- 80% ethanol makes you real woozy if you spend all day inhaling it as you decontaminate the lab space), and I did get assigned a mini-project (an offshoot/re-iteration of work that had just been published in Nature), meaning I got to improve my lab skills and get a crash course in the molecular mechanisms behind Escherichia coli infections.

But I think the most important thing I took away from that was the opportunity to network. I met so. many. people. I had befriended or acquainted myself with so many members of the department- not even for networking purposes, but because I enjoyed chatting to them in general.

I think I realised then that scientists were just ordinary people, who, generally speaking, were comprised of individuals with a rather unhealthy addiction to chocolate, loved pub nights, and were very passionate about the work they did. Not that I had this image of a crazy scientist, but it definitely made the world more approachable.

The three day conference at the end was intense (as all scientific conferences can be), but I also made two new friends, and got to enjoy the days without worrying about presenting anything (current me wishes I’d appreciated that feeling more). I also got given a raffle prize- I didn’t win it, but someone in the lab did, and they very kindly gave me the prize, which was a Giant Microbes plushie box. One of the Valentines ones they did with all the STIs and a penicillin. It still sits on my bookshelf. Thanks, Jac. 🙂

I loved my time in the lab so much that I applied to do a subject in the latter half of that year, that involved conducting a mini-project in any of the labs that offered one. I applied for a project in the same lab, of course. The interview process as I recall was 30 minutes of talking nonsense and 5 minutes of “well, you know what we do, so if you put us down as first preference, I’ll make sure you get in”.

All because I had taken up that networking opportunity while working in the lab, which I wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t sent that award application letter. Seriously, take that chance. You never know where it’ll take you.

Overall the project was good (lots of learning experiences!), so when it came to the end of semester, I was quite sure I wanted to apply for Honours. I had two labs I was interested in. One was the lab I’d been in up to that point in time, and the other was essentially an offshoot of that lab. I got along with both Lab Heads (plus the other Lab Head bought me cake and coffee!), so I applied for both projects on offer.

I ended up getting an offer from the other Lab, which, at the time I was a little miffed about, but it actually (in my opinion) ended up working out really well. Also, you never know if my supervisor will view this, so… YOUR LAB IS AMAZING. IT’S THE BEST.

I’d known the other Lab Head since the award as well, and they had also lectured in my Bacteriology subject. The pathogen they worked on was really cool and funky, and after a few years working on said pathogen, I reckon it was the better option. There may be a little bias there (now), but- trust me, it’s cooler.

I managed to adjust to daily life in the lab (being left alone to do lab experiments for the first time gave me an existential crisis), met more awesome people, and ended up applying for a Ph. D scholarship. I would never have thought I would do postgraduate studies, let alone a Ph. D, but I was enjoying myself so much that I just kept going for the sheer fun of it.

I very luckily got a scholarship (barely scraped through- very stressful), and am now just in my fourth year of my Ph. D.

Do I still find it fun? I think the initial honeymoon period has subsided, and it’s definitely tough… but I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. I’ve met some amazing people, made so many good friends (one has become my housemate), learned so much under a good supervisor, and gained so many skills.

Obviously the journey is still ongoing, but a research lab and a Ph. D teaches you so much more than lab skills. I know I can work independently or as a team. That is literally every day for me. We are always under the pump to produce data within a deadline, and communicate our findings through text or presentations. I’ve had to learn how to collaborate across different departments and institutes and arrange discussions with people from all sorts of backgrounds. I even helped organise a student retreat once! Obviously there will always be those individuals that are far better than me, but I know I’ve improved a whole lot since I started, and will continue to do so. That’s the main thing, really.

I’m not sure what good my educational journey thus far is to people, but I hope someone reads it one day and it inspires them to just give it a shot. That award I got changed the entire trajectory of my degree(s).

Thank you, Susan, for donating the funds. It’s certainly helped me out a lot!

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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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