A few days ago someone called me a “senior PhD student”. And I know it’s true. I’m just over two years, or halfway, through the official funding length of my PhD. “Official” because a lot of students in my lab end up staying for longer to publish a paper, or sometimes two. So I thought it would be a good time to take stock, take a moment to re-evaluate my life choices while trying not to fall into that abyss labelled “existential crisis”.
First, let me say this: doing a PhD is hard. Harder than you imagine it will be, even after countless people have told you that it will be challenging or difficult. It’s hard in ways I hadn’t foreseen. It tries my patience – with people, with inanimate objects, with biology itself – on a daily basis. It makes me do tasks I don’t particularly enjoy (e.g. repetitive pipetting) but that need to be done in order to accomplish those I do. (I realise that this applies to a lot of different jobs.) At the same time, especially on an intellectual level, I find it less challenging, less stimulating than I had expected or hoped for. A lot of time and energy are used to concentrate on practicalities, which leaves less of the brain’s random access memory for really thinking about science.
But it’s not only frustrating, not only bad. I have learnt a lot in the last two years. Practical skills in the lab, of course, including how to clean up centrifuges after almost breaking them, how to plan and execute experiments that take days if not weeks to complete, how to always set up experiments whose results can neatly be presented in figures, including using all the proper controls. Doing a PhD is also teaching me how to deal with the feeling of not having finished or completed something (the work never ends) as well as juggling the (natural?) highs and lows, the alternating sensations of shining confidence and utter dejection, that accompany work. [I’m pretty sure the levels of emotion elicited by work are more extreme than those caused by hormones.] Oh and then of course all the new theoretical knowledge in the forms of attending talks and conferences, as well as reading papers. Isn’t it pretty cool, for example, that using a modified version of CRISPR/Cas9 it’s now possible to precisely edit certain DNA base pairs (rather than making a cut in the DNA and hoping for the best; Gaudelli et al, 2017)? Or that reading about cancer stem cells during my degree has turned into me actually doing some of those types experiments?
Another thing that takes getting used to is that progress is slow. Improvement and success can’t simply be measured by essay feedback and exam results. It takes more effort to see and appreciate how far we, as PhD students, have come from our even humbler beginnings as school and university students. As proof of this let me show you the evolution of a scientist:
In addition to acquiring a better haircut I’ve also increased my skills when it comes to processing and taking immunofluorescence images on a fancy microscope. The Zeiss software installed on our microscopes is called Zen, which is ironic when I lose my cool after it crashes repeatedly. (The software we use to acquire data on our flow cytometers is called Diva, which is much more apt.)
The halfway mark also coincides with considerable change in our lab: several senior PhD students and post-docs are leaving for other positions (academic or as MBA students) and there are two new PhD students, one of whom is also a clinical fellow (who happens to read the London Review of Books!). This makes me one of the more seasoned members of the lab and I think it’s a good opportunity to make sure I take more responsibility, try to be more innovative, as well as being generous with my time to help others, as others were when I started.
There are several things I will focus on in the near future to make sure I don’t lose motivation: attending more conferences (such as the international PhD student cancer conference in Berlin earlier this year); focussing on one avenue of my research project more and more, really going to the depth of one small problem; going to more lectures; making more time to think; reminding myself regularly of the progress I’ve already made.
Gaudelli NM, Komor AC, Rees HA, Packer MS, Badran AH, Bryson DI, Liu DR (2017) Programmable base editing of A•T to G•C in genomic DNA without DNA cleavage. Nature advance online publication