On why I do what I do.

At the end of a recent meeting, my supervisor and I started nerding out about research and what it really means to be a PhD student. And naturally, given the general theme of this blog, I want to talk about some of the nerdy things that came out of that conversation. If only for the purpose of a future opportunity to look back on such a post in times of frustration and sheer despair when things aren’t going so well! All too often, I find myself wishing to leave my office and curl up in bed because I can’t find the bug in my code, or my data is doing something funny, or I really just can’t write another paragraph for that literature review…. Therefore what follows are some points I (and many others) need to repeat to myself every now and again to get me out of bed on a cold, dull Thursday morning. At your own risk, read on if you wish to experience a stupidly cheesy, positive but honest reflection on life in the midst of a PhD journey.

1. I effectively get paid to do something really cool. I.e. researching a question that no one else has looked at before, perhaps with a pang of thrill as a reward upon resolving the problem! A studentship doesn’t give me bucketloads, but it is enough to get by and, in terms of satisfying my general sense of scientific curiosity, the payoff is worth it. A good degree in mathematics and physics from a good university could have given me  a much higher earning “real” job in industry by now, but truth is that unless it was something I had a passion for, I doubt that it would give me the satisfaction that completing an arduous PhD project will (or at least I hope!).

2. Living in the UK as a young woman in the 21st century gives me the privilege of being able to be a research student and learn for the sheer fun of it, and we should never forget to acknowledge the fact that even today, this is not possible everywhere in the world. I count myself lucky in that respect and I want to exercise this right to its full potential, wishing that quality education was as freely available as it was to me to women of all ages globally. Perhaps there is more charitable and/or campaigning work that I could do on that front, so if you have any ideas how I could get involved with this sort of thing then please hit the comments!

3. I don’t have to write any grant proposals – at least not yet. Of course, there is a myriad of methods of funding a project, but being part of a Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) makes the finance very easy. And the open training opportunities (e.g. for writing code or running a specific climate forecast model) come flying left right and centre. If you are considering starting your PhD journey and are offered an already-existing, possibly funded and interesting project: just go for it! I am also realising that this point is similar to 1) but hey ho, times are hard.

4. You get to meet some really cool people who know a lot about… things. It is easy to forget that while I am cooped up in my little corner of my claustrophobia-inducing office (with a stunning view of the front car park), I am also sharing this building with academic experts who are willing to share their time and expertise with early career researchers like me. It really is a privilege to be taught and mentored by those kinds of special people, because there really are very of them in the world. A teacher can make or break your passion for a given subject area, and I am incredibly lucky to have landed myself with mentors that inspire my research in the most positive way. #CheesyParagraphOver

5.  The path of a PhD project meanders more than the Thames through London. It’s great because I have the freedom to make the project really my own. At this stage of the academic career, you have the freedom to be as creative as you wish, exploring all the potential avenues of research which will eventually make up the thesis. As long as it is reasonable and within the realms of the initial proposal, you can take your project anywhere. And you can only do it once.

6. Yup, you can only do this once. Many post-doctoral projects can happen, but a PhD is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Of course you can defer it, break it up, whatever but you can only become a Dr. once! So you may as well enjoy the journey and try to make the most of it.

7.  If you don’t enjoy it, why do it? If getting out of bed every morning is a chore, then perhaps there is something very wrong and implies that perhaps you are not where you need to be. And that’s ok. Why do something your mind and body just can’t stand? 

Perhaps this all comes across as a very naive view on the perpetually grey monotonicity of life. I don’t know. But solidifying these points is kinda cathartic, because it reassures me that I really am in the right place and doing what I was destined to do. Because bleary Thursday mornings aren’t particularly inspiring. So hopefully at least this post might be 🙂

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