Insights on my PhD life

As I was approaching the completion of my master’s degree, I had much to think about what I wanted to do next. One of the things that came to my mind was to proceed to Ph.D. However, some scary things I heard/read about the degree had me thinking twice if I should get it. I got discouraged and thought that I wasn’t ready for it, so, instead, I worked in the manufacturing industry and stayed there for almost two years. Despite this decision to take on a completely different career path, I still couldn’t give up on getting a Ph.D., and so here I am today, already halfway through it. 😊 It took me about two years to finally muster the courage to take up the challenge. But what made me scared to proceed to Ph.D. before, you ask? Well, here is a list of my then personal misconceptions about taking a Ph.D. degree and what I think about them now:

  1. Ph.D students have to be intelligent/fast learners

While it is true that the expectation from a Ph.D. student is higher than that from an undergraduate, being Einstein-smart is not a requirement. Before, I was often intimidated by the idea of getting a Ph.D. because I used to imagine Ph.D. students as those who spend most of their time reading inches-thick books to expand their knowledge daily. If you ask them something, they will effortlessly give you an answer as if their brain houses thousands of information that are readily available at their disposal. I barely passed my high school Math class; how could I possibly survive in such an environment? Contrary to what I used to believe, taking a Ph.D. is a humbling experience. Most of the time, you’ll feel like you know nothing.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but slowly you’ll realize it’s okay not to know everything now. It’s okay not to be able to answer a technical question your supervisor asks. It’s okay not to know the answer when a master’s student asks you about a topic. The reason why we’re all here, anyway, is to learn. Also, don’t get stressed that you’re not learning at the same pace as others. Each one of us has a unique learning curve.

It is essential to realize that knowing so little is the first step to becoming someone who knows stuff, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Here’s a rendition of the Dunning-Kruger effect I saw online that maybe, if not all, Ph.D. students can relate.

  • Ph.D. students work alone on a single topic for the whole duration of their study

I always thought Ph.D. students would spend most of their time working alone and focusing only on their research projects. Also, one is expected to learn about stuff on their own most of the time. While this may be true for others, doing a Ph.D. allowed me to work with colleagues from different fields. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to contribute to various projects, and I was able to learn more about other biomedical applications of functional surfaces aside from my own project. I also got to help master’s students with their research studies. My experience so far as a Ph.D. student has not only helped me grow intellectually but has also improved my collaboration and communication skills.

  • Ph.D. students have no breaks

In a way, this is true because your research work will always be at the back of your head wherever you go or whatever you do. Despite the high pressure and multiple tasks received by Ph.D. students, it is equally important to take a break occasionally. In my undergraduate and master’s studies, I used to work in laboratories wherein we could enter anytime and stay overnight to do our work. As a master of procrastination and poor time management, I worked late nights or weekends in the lab, so I didn’t have much time to do my hobbies or meet my friends. Fortunately, I was able to change this toxic work practice when I started my Ph.D. degree. My current laboratory closes at precisely 7 o’clock in the evening, and the Wi-Fi is cut off at the same time, so I’m forced to leave the lab by then. With this arrangement, I learned to be more efficient in doing my work within work hours, and by the time I go home at night, I don’t bring my work with me. I even have the time to go to the gym and cook dinner. One of the greatest lessons I have learned so far is time management. I cannot say I have mastered it already, but I’m trying to practice it to have a healthy work-life balance.

  • All Ph.D. graduates will end up in the academe

“You’re going to teach in a university?” or “You’re going to be a professor after?” are the questions I used to hear when I told people around me that I was planning to get a Ph.D. To most, the career after Ph.D. is limited to only the academe. I was also guilty of this notion before. In my country, Ph.D. graduates, sometimes even those with master’s degrees, are often considered overqualified for jobs outside academia. After I graduated with my master’s degree, I applied for an engineering job in a manufacturing company in my home country. They rejected me, saying I was overqualified for the job but didn’t offer a position where I was qualified. It left me confused and doubtful. Was getting a higher degree a mistake if I wanted to work in the industry? Academia became a connotation of higher degrees. However, doing my Ph.D. and being part of a European project with beneficiaries from different industries has opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a career out there for Ph.D. graduates. Through the project, I met Ph.D. degree holders currently working in the industry. There are many opportunities, and Ph.D. graduates can freely choose the career path of their choice. In some countries, Ph.D. graduates are encouraged in the industry. Taking a higher education leads you to countless opportunities.

Now that I am doing my Ph.D., things and uncertainties still scare me, but I have learned to accept every challenge I may have to face. But the best thing I learned while doing this, that I haven’t read or heard anywhere else, is that it teaches you that anything is possible with perseverance, that doing a Ph.D. will transform you personally and professionally, and will help you get to know yourself better, your strengths and weaknesses, your fears, and your priorities.

By Kristal Aubrey Bornillo

Kristal Aubrey Bornillo is ESR 11. Kristal’s project title is “Development of silicone-free pre-filled plastic syringes by compression moulding of nano-structured surfaces”.