It’s been almost a year since my ‘How did I become #PhDLife? (part 3)‘ post, and given that I am now at that point where I’m just waiting around until my Thesis is accepted, I thought I’ll add a follow up post of what the latter part of my Ph. D was like.
If you would like a more specific overview of what 2019 (i.e. fourth year of my Ph. D) looked like, I have another post from late December detailing all the major events.
Looking back, I can tell that I was much more excited and motivated by lab work at the beginning. I think it was a relatively gradual process, but over time I begun to resent the fact that you could put in so much time and effort into an experiment and not get anything useful back.
I’ve detailed this before, and anyone in science knows that sometimes, things just don’t work.
It could be user error- I’ve had my fair share of experiments that I could have done better if I’d just tweaked some things or asked the right questions earlier- but this is what experience and hindsight can bring you.
I know I had a lot of nudges from supervisor/s and committee to guide me in the right direction, but I found that sometimes, even when I thought I’d understood something, in reality I hadn’t grasped the whole concept. Eventually things clicked, but that took time and contemplation on my part. I wish I could make that process go faster, but sometimes I just couldn’t ‘get it’. If you don’t realise you haven’t understood something, you can’t even ask questions to clarify things, but sometimes that light bulb moment just couldn’t be rushed.
Issues with experiments could also just be the experimental procedure, or a combination of both user and procedure… sometimes you have no idea what went wrong, because so many things could go wrong at every step. Too many variables.
Some people are fine with this, because they can continue to persevere and stay motivated. Generally it’s fairly up and down, where you go from being motivated to mentally drained, sometimes within a couple of hours! But as I got over the half way point of my Ph. D, I realised that I was feeling more drained than motivated, and I started to tease apart what was still enjoyable and what wasn’t.
For me personally, I found that experiments themselves were still enjoyable. The mechanical action of pipetting something, or holding tubes in your non-dominant hand and opening the lids aseptically (i.e. without contaminating the contents)- that aspect of lab was still fun. I’ve always been dexterous, and I hope I always will be (well- until old age, I guess).
But… again, it was always when things went wrong that I’d feel really exhausted and sick of everything. E.g. something went wrong with the protocol so I have to start again (usually user error after an exhaustive day)… the experiment didn’t work (results aren’t coming up/are inconclusive) so I have to try again, while figuring out what went wrong so I can tweak the parameters appropriately… I don’t know about other lab people, but I always felt my gut clench and squirm uncomfortably as I waited for the results for an experiment, hoping that it’ll show something promising. Sometimes it would work, and things were good (stomach would relax), but most of the time it didn’t look good and you were left with this really sickened feeling. Given we do multiple experiments in one day, it would mean I would feel tense and uncomfortable all throughout the day- hell, the worst one is when you find out your experiments failed on a Friday evening. We’re also on a time crunch, with many deadlines coming up all the time. Maybe it’s for a publication, a review meeting, or just your weekly catch up with the supervisor. Either way, I begun to hate the feeling of disappointment in myself.
Don’t get me wrong- when experiments did work, I still got very excited about it. I would imagine it’s very similar to the rush of endorphins people experience when they’re playing slot machines and they win money (any money). For a brief moment, you feel elated, and can’t wait to tell your supervisor about the result. In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what the result meant (i.e. how does it tie into the overall Biology of your organism?), but over time I got better at making good suggestions for discussion points. I felt like I understood the overall picture (albeit a fuzzy picture), and it was exciting to try to piece the puzzle together.
… and then something would happen that contradicts the hypothesis, and you had to change the narrative a little to suit this new finding…
… or you can’t repeat the original finding.
And that just meant more experiments- sometimes the same ones over and over again, until the results were relatively consistent, or they weren’t. If they were too inconsistent, the approach would have to be abandoned. URGH.
So over time, I realised that this wasn’t going to be for me anymore. The normal career trajectory for a Ph. D graduate is to find work as a Post-Doctoral researcher (Post-Doc). When I thought about doing this for the next five years… well- I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to grind through it for another few years and regret it, especially if I could have transitioned out of it earlier. I think there’s a weird mentality that you should suffer and toil as a researcher, and that you’re weak for seeking something easier (come on, fellow students, you’ve seen and heard this before). Well, f*** ’em. If they want to live like that, that’s their choice, but they don’t make that choice for your life. I decided that this wasn’t for me, because I realised it would be too much misery- you can, and should, prioritise your well-being.
Anyway, as I was beginning to hit this realisation that research might not really be for me, I was also doing a lot of work for my first manuscript. The first iteration of this manuscript (let’s go full Tony Stark and call it ‘Mark I’) was written during the latter half of 2018. The experiments were actually pretty good (they were working), and I found that writing the whole study up was really fun. I’ve said it before, but I’ve always loved story-telling. Usually it was fiction (Fantasy/Sci-Fi), but I would fill up notebooks with made up tales, usually based on dreams I would have. I’m not very cohesive when I talk (yeah, I know), but I always found that writing something down on paper let my ideas flow out in a much more ordered fashion. Turns out, this also worked with scientific writing. Not to say I was perfect at it (I had a lot of really good feedback), but I just enjoyed it a lot. It wasn’t tiring because I wanted to do it, and it didn’t leave me with stomach knots because I knew the feedback I would get would be constructive. Also- I knew the writing wasn’t shite! I was very lucky to have solid guidance from co-authors to help me improve my writing during this time.
We submitted Mark I for review at a relatively good journal (a pretty major Bacteriology journal) in late 2018. Unfortunately it was rejected, but they sent back the reviewer comments and we spent the first half of 2019 working to improve the manuscript for submission elsewhere. The experiments were annoying, but they worked in the end, and once again the write up was the best part.
This was around the time I started this Blog. I had been talking to some people who suggested that I start something like this, so while I kept working on my Ph. D, I also started writing about what it was like to do one.
I’d also well and truly started editing my Literature Review to form the Introduction to my Ph. D Thesis, and had begun compiling my Materials and Methods section. Part of it was due to anxiety (gotta start it now because I don’t want to leave it last minute and have all this anxiety and guilt looming over me), but I also just wanted to write. It gave me a sense of productivity that experiments just couldn’t.
By the time manuscript Mark II had been submitted to another journal for review, I could tell quite clearly that I needed to find a job that was writing heavy. I also got introduced to this site that helps people figure out careers after Ph. Ds, and I think my results were all science writing related. I spoke to quite a few people in different professions- two medical writers, a research scientist (but with computers), patent attorneys, pharmaceutical representatives, lecturers, biotech/start up entrepreneurs… With all of their advice in mind, I’d started applying for different positions that were writing or editing related. Updating my resume (not updated since early undergrad) was an interesting exercise- almost like an archaeological dig.
But that isn’t to say I really knew what I wanted. For so long, I had these obvious aspirations: you do your Bachelors, then Honours, then Ph. D… so what do you do after that, if you don’t want to progress to a Post-Doc? I still don’t really have career aspirations. I never did. So many times in the past year, I had conversations with various people telling me to do/don’t do this/that, because it would or wouldn’t benefit my career. I didn’t go into science because I wanted to get a successful career out of it. I went into it because I wanted to know stuff, and I found it fascinating. I still do, but I also can’t tie it to a particular career path.
Anyway, I had so many rejections, because there are many people out there who have Post-Doctoral experience (i.e. even more experience than me) who want to get out of academic research, or just have better qualifications more appropriate to the field. Thankfully I wasn’t desperate for a job in late 2019 (I still had a ways yet with my Ph. D), so it was just a good exercise in writing CVs and cover letters. I’d accumulated quite a few different versions of each for various different roles I was applying for.
Manuscript Mark II was accepted in September, then published in October, but I had already moved onto working on my second manuscript. September was just… insane. So many experiments, and I’d over-committed myself with other stuff… it was terrible, but we managed to piece together everything so that we were able to submit in early December for review (which, given I was on holiday in October, means I did relatively okay). I think the writing side of things had sped up significantly, given I’d spent the previous twelve months working on my first one. I really enjoyed putting it all together into a cohesive story.
But again, publishing is never super easy, and when we got a response from the reviewers on Christmas Eve last year, there were many comments to address, some with words, but others with experimental data. This was another telling moment for me, because the fact I still needed to do more experiments made me feel really frustrated. I desperately wanted to be done with them, so that I could just spend my days writing. I’d also spent the majority of December working on my first results chapter, and wanted to work on the subsequent chapters quickly, so it put a lot of pressure on my overall timeline.
The next three months (Jan-Mar) were just horrendous- hopefully outlined in my blog posts during that time. I had experiments to do, a manuscript to edit, a thesis to write/edit, jobs to keep applying for, and teaching commitments. The crushing weight of all of these things made me very, very stressed and depressed very quickly. Eventually they started affecting my work output and my personal life, and I just felt like I was drowning. When I realised that this is what life in academia is like all the time (with a tonne more work), I knew I had to get out.
So, I did the only thing I could do at this point. I slowly crawled out of the hole and kept on crawling toward each milestone as best I could. I cut back on some planned revision experiments, which required negotiations with my supervisor and some eloquent rebuttals. I focused heavily on the writing (both manuscript and thesis), because that made me happier and gave me a sense of purpose. I revised my financial situation and paused job hunting momentarily so I could focus on my Ph. D. I also shared the workload for teaching so that I couldn’t over-commit, although it actually ended up working out okay.
Things started to slowly come together, and my work output picked up a little over time. I also got an interesting text from my supervisor mid-Feb about one of the divisions in our research institute- they were looking for someone to do some technical writing and data analysis part time. It seemed to be a steady job, and I was very keen. Thankfully my supervisor had already put my name forward, and I ended up having a few informal chats about the role in the coming weeks.
Speaking to all these people who were in various different roles within the scientific field, I found that it was very clear that there were opportunities out there outside of academic research. The only problem was they were very competitive.
But what I found most interesting was that almost all of the ones who had come from a similar background to myself would always reassure me that it was okay to leave academic research. It’s that stigma that I mentioned earlier. There’s a weird, underlying vibe that if you leave, you’re taking the easier/weaker path. The best part was when they would tell me how much happier they were for having left. Better pay, work-life balance, job security… These were ticking many boxes for me. On top of that, I found people who had the exact same feelings I did, in particular with their attitudes toward experiments. There were quite a few people who realised after their Ph. Ds that they didn’t really want to do anymore lab work, and had found success in other roles that were still within research. It seems silly, because it seems rather obvious now, but it was still really reassuring to hear it directly from those who once felt as I do now.
I pumped out what ended up being my last experiments all within the space of a week, and submitted my thesis the following Friday. I’d edited everything on the Tuesday, so I had plenty of time to sit and mull it over. I also submitted the rebuttals for this second manuscript the following Tuesday, and had it accepted two days later, so all of a sudden everything to do with my Ph. D just ended. Obviously the examination is still ongoing, but I literally couldn’t do anything else to make it progress faster. I had my job interview for the aforementioned technical writing role on the day my paper was accepted, so I felt really good for the first time in ages.
Then the following week, the lab shut down, meaning I’d just missed COVID-19 related chaos by a mere two weeks. Given my bug takes a week to grow up, I am so thankful I managed to get everything done before this all hit. I also managed to get the job (I found out late the following week), so that was also very fortuitous in the current climate.
So, basically in the space of a couple weeks, I’d submitted my Ph. D thesis, re-submitted my second manuscript and had it accepted, did a job interview and got accepted for the role, had my lab shutdown so I couldn’t see everyone anymore, and couldn’t visit friends and family due to restrictions…
To cut a very long story short-
If anyone else has hit that point in their candidature where they suddenly have a much bigger existential crisis where they don’t even know what to do with their life anymore, I hope this post helps. There was a lot of introspection and soul-searching involved, but I managed to figure out what I enjoyed the most and how I might be able to transfer those skills to a different role. Talking to people was really good, because they either confirmed your ideas or they don’t. Either way it’s still a learning opportunity. I think a lot of people saw the successes on the forefront, but hopefully you can appreciate that it came with a lot of internal struggle. Someone might look fine, but in private they might not be.
I have no idea what the next few years hold for me (especially given this current pandemic has cancelled my teaching commitments), but I will continue to post bits and pieces from my Ph. D life. Otherwise, stay safe, stay well, and 2 m please (yes I know Australia is 1.5 m- just watch the video, it’s hilarious).