A letter to the postgraduate

A letter to the postgraduate

Dearest friend and colleague,

Congratulations on embarking on what will truly be one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of your life. But before you start, allow me to pass on some words of advice that may assist you on your journey.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, a famous line reads, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.’ Entering a PhD can seem like entering a war. A war in which you lead the way, and against all odds, rectify the world’s injustices. You will hear from others who’ve come before you, and eventually recognise yourself that this approach, although justifiably full of fervour, is naïve. It’s unlikely (not impossible, however) that you will make an earth-shattering discovery or land that coveted Nature or Science publication. But, what you may not hear or realise, even once you’re finished, is that the true success of a PhD cannot be measured in the number of your publications. It cannot be measured in the number of citations you receive. It is not even in winning grant after grant. Although what I’ve mentioned are amazing successes to be lauded in their own right, the real success, your true success is actually you.

PhDs are hard. Very hard. Experiments at first seem perfectly designed and fool-proof, only to fall apart once you’re halfway through them. There’s the repeated frustration of perfecting a sampling technique, incorrectly labelling items, and addressing repeated requests from reviewers to perfect your manuscript. Then there’s the visceral, gut-wrenching sensation when something goes horribly wrong, threatening to derail months if not years of your hard work – animals die, a laboratory mishap destroys your samples, or you’ve not properly backed up your data. The point is, despite having the best laid plans and contingencies, unforeseen events and accidents will occur. It’s not entirely your fault though; inexperience is largely to blame. You are not the first, nor will you be the last to observe such pains. Rest assured, you will find strength where you thought there was none, you will move on, and will eventually decide to chalk it all up to experience. You’re strong, brave and you won’t even know it at this point because there’s little time for reflection. Time is ticking and making things work is all that matters.

The best feeling is when you do overcome your barriers and the results of your experiments equate to something incredible. As I wrote earlier, results may not be earth-shattering but after all the hard work you will have invested, you will be vindicated and it is important to recognise that to you it is incredible. Frankly, that is all that matters – that you think it’s incredible. It is a feeling of elation, almost spiritual I’d say, that only comes from exceptionally hard work and realising that as you stand on the frontier of knowledge, you have shed that little bit more light into the darkness beyond. These victories are a much needed confidence boost and they will start to appear mid-way through your journey as you find your feet. Tempered by experience, your approach to the road ahead will be more settled, better measured and despite knowing full-well that there will still be unexpected surprises and set-backs, you will be emboldened with the belief you can weather it.

You may be thinking that what I’ve told you is fairly obvious. Research is difficult, things don’t always work out and this is just the inherent nature of exploring the unknown. You’re right and it’s a fair enough point. But now that you’re warmed up to the idea of challenges, here’s what you will never be prepared for – the fact that life does not and will not stop just because you are doing a PhD. I genuinely wish you smooth sailing on your journey; however, it is easy to become all-consumed by your research. Your world will soon become a bubble, within which all exists – that is, until someone or something pops it and you’re forced to deal with life. Perspective will set in and all of a sudden there are bigger issues to deal with, compared to falling behind a publication deadline or admitting to damaging the university vehicle in the field.

The average PhD student is in their mid to late 20s, the point in life where you are a fully mature adult and your personal and professional choices, intentional or not, will define your experiences and life’s path. Take note though, your PhD alone will not define your path. Another powerful force that will shape your life are the relationships with those around you. The way you handle your personal life must be met with the same diligence and passion with which you approach your PhD. Balance is key.

If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share with you the stories of two women who balanced life expertly and inspired me along my journey. These women, who I am proud to call my colleagues and friends, had two very different journeys in terms of their challenges, yet shared the same resilience and determination to succeed. They shall remain unnamed and these are their stories.

Friend One. She cared for her former partner who through misadventure, became a quadriplegic. At only one year into her PhD studies, she courageously and honourably put her research on hold for an entire year – possibly more – and became his full-time carer. Shortly after returning to study, her partner later committed suicide. I cannot imagine, nor would I dare to, the toll this particular life experience had on both parties. Despite the tragic event, she continued her studies and finished her PhD, all the while holding herself ever so graciously (as she still does) with a smile. You could always tell she was around just by hearing her infectious laughter swirl through the corridors at university.

Friend Two. She had her first year of her PhD essentially wiped out through no fault of her own. I’m not privy to the exact reason but suffice to say her project was no longer feasible. No extra time was granted and she had to start all over with a new supervisor. Her support base was unfortunately thin. Aside from professional support from her supervisor and colleagues, her family was based overseas and finances for day-to-day expenses, as they are for most PhD students, were a serious concern when her scholarship ceased. Mind you, the clock was still ticking fast and I could not for the life of me see how she was going to finish. Even at the sound of the death knell, she did not give up. She persevered beyond anything I could have imagined and not only did she successfully complete her PhD, she even secured a coveted graduate position in a renowned Australian corporation before she finished.

As I write this, I’m now remembering my own story. Two thirds of the way through my studies, my father experienced severe depression, a complete mental and neurological breakdown. After ignoring his first phone call (believing myself to be too busy), I discreetly answered his second call some ten minutes later. All I could hear was incoherent speech and slurred words. I just couldn’t make heads or tails of why he was calling me. Twenty minutes later, I found myself rushing to hospital. Dad was in emergency teetering on the edge of an uncertain future and possible death. At this point, my PhD faded long and hard into the background. Over the next six months, I kept thinking my future was ruined, as though all my hard work had been passed through a shredder, set alight and let fly in a gust of wind. How was I ever going to finish what I started a little over two years ago? For some time, I cannot explain how I wrangled with feelings of guilt, anger and the shame of being so self-centred. I had to find balance and perspective. Fortunately, Dad is now stronger than ever (I take so much inspiration from him) and as you can see, I too finished my PhD.

My journey is not unique; we all have our challenges and I’m sure others have had it much harder and still succeeded. My father has always reminded me, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ There would have to be thousands of untold stories of other PhD students who have dedicated and continue to dedicate years of their life to a project, all while life continues to trundle along, ignorant of their pursuits. No doubt you will shout and beg for life to just give you a break – you’re trying to save the world, after all. But remember, a PhD is not the hardest thing you will ever do; there are other pursuits, and others will experience infinitely harder trials and yet still manage to come out smiling. Any journey pursuing success is long and arduous. A PhD is but one of them and it will teach you strength, resilience, courage and humility.

Throughout the first few steps of your journey, or when you’re feeling lost in the midst of a dark, PhD fog, read this letter. Remind yourself that you will endure and that you will be all the stronger and wiser for it. And most importantly, talk to your friends and colleagues – they are your brothers- and sisters-in-arms. They will be some of the few who can relate to your seemingly lonely path.

You will overcome significant challenges professionally and personally, developing skills which are honed through the baptismal fires of postgraduate study and life. PhD students have made invaluable contributions to the bodies of knowledge that better humanity and the environment. They have grown into battle-hardened veterans, each with unique experiences and a capacity to change the world. You will be your greatest success.

I wish you all the very best on your journey.


A friend.

If this article has raised issues for you and you would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their website by clicking here.

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