PhD Prospects – To Undertake PhD or Not?

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Jennie French

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Although I have no intention of doing a lab based PhD, experience has told me to never say never. There are a few things that have made the possibility become less and less likely over the years though. When I was a fresh faced first year and even before I had begun university I had the idea that at some point in my life I was going to have Dr at the beginning of my name. Now though that dream seems like it was a bit whimsical and not based on much thought other than it would be quite snazzy to be called Dr French.

What’s changed though? Surely if I wanted it that badly then I should just go for it and dedicate my life to something involving my passion of antimicrobial resistance? But no, even before my lab project the experience of others was starting to put me off. The fact that it’s four years of your life and becomes more of a lifestyle choice rather than a bit of further education was a bit of a shocker. A lot of the PhD students that I know live and breathe their chosen subject, they know so much about various mechanisms and genes than I could ever hope to learn. I know that it all comes with time but I’m not sure that I want to learn a lot of intricate processes that I’ll surely forget on completing the thing. Also, I’ve realised that I’m simply not a lab orientated person, I enjoyed my lab project but 8 months was enough for me let alone four years and I realise that although a lab based PhD is hands on, it’s not the right type of hands on for me.

Now I’d like to list a few key things that I’ve observed about the PhD students that I know:

  1. They seem vastly more inquisitive than I am, I’ll look at something and just accept it for what it is but they will analyse everything to try and find out why. Personally I’d rather read what they found out instead of doing it for myself which probably makes me very lazy and not suited to further education full stop!
  2. They are vastly more intelligent than I am and that’s not me being humble or attention seeking, it’s just a fact.
  3. The problems that they have to solve would knock me out of the game before I’d even started and has obviously given rise to their out of this world problem solving abilities!
  4. Perseverance is also a key skill that they have over me, when something doesn’t work they try to fix it instead of moving onto to something else.
  5. They have a determination to make everything perfect which is rubbing off on me as I realise that my blasé attitude in first year is not applicable to problems I face in third year.
  6. They are genuinely excited about what they’re doing, one of my friends couldn’t wait to work on a brightly coloured colony on the Chromagar and she was even considering taking time off work that weekend so that she could ‘play with it’.

I met a lovely PhD student at my first conference and she recommended that I do one simply for the science communication opportunities. In my mind though, why would I subject myself to something that I’m not suited to just so I can go and talk about it. Actually, that doesn’t seem so bad now I’ve said it out loud; I often crave to have enough knowledge about something so that I can talk about it endlessly. My project has given me a solid foundation about AMR but writing my degree dissertation was still a struggle and that was only a tenth of the length of a standard PhD thesis! I’m simply not dedicated or interested enough in anything that I would want to spend four years on it and be able to write 50, 000 words on it. My mind wanders too much and I find myself watching TED talks about space instead of revising the immune responses to parasites. I also complain enough about my degree and I know that my masters won’t be a walk in the park either. Maybe I should spare my long suffering parents the ear ache and give into that voice in me that says I’ve had enough of mainstream education. After getting that final qualification next year I’ll most definitely be ready to start at the bottom of the sci comm career ladder and learn a whole host of new things to set me up. I never want to stop learning but now I crave a different type of education that can’t be fulfilled by lectures on Schistosomiasis.

People say that a PhD is most often just a delaying tactic so that you don’t have to start real life but I think it’s so much more than that. A PhD is a badge of honour, a medal that says you’ve slaved away to discover everything you can about something, sacrificing your sanity along the way and still managing to give a coherent oral presentation at the end of the ordeal. It means that you’re one dedicated cookie and that you’re prepared to put yourself through hell just to change your title. Who wouldn’t want all that? Even though I want it too, there is no way that I could subject myself to the sort of stress that so many of my friends have tried to make light of.

I just want to say though that I’m not writing a PhD off altogether. At the end of my second year I saw an advert for a science communication PhD at the Eden project and after reading the description I immediately thought that this sounded like the best opportunity ever! Unfortunately, it was advertised one year too early for me but I hope that I’ll be able to find similar opportunities after I’ve finished my masters.

In conclusion then PhD students, although lovely and approachable people, are a world apart from undergrads, their brain is so much more mature and their knowledge far more advanced than doesn’t even compare to my third- year undergrad self. I might grow in the same way that they have if I gave myself a chance and if I find a PhD in something that floats my boat then I’ll be over the moon! I’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds and say yes in the right places.

This article was originally posted on my blog; muddledstudent.wordpress.com

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