Blast from the Past
Today, I received a notification email. The email was nothing special; it simply mentioned some edits in a document I co-created years ago. However, seeing that notification and following the edit link was a time machine. The memories of the joys, sadness, wins and losses of my PhD years came rushing back. I forgot many of these feelings and memories, maybe because I blocked them out (*shrugs* you will find out why soon enough), but that email opened the floodgates. When I looked at the linked page, I felt the highs and the lows of the PhD period once more. I mean, I still wonder how I survived. God helped me because I could not have managed it on my own. It was such an unstable period of my life. But I am grateful for that period because I learned a lot and made many mistakes. I met many great people, and some have stayed with me since then. I made a lot of solid connections that extended beyond academia. I travelled a lot, changed my mindset, and learned to adapt. In short, I stumbled, grew, then stumbled again, and then grew some more. Looking back, I am grateful for the experience. No pain, no growth, right?
As these feelings coursed through me, I decided to share the bitter-sweet experience, give some tips to aspiring PhDs and keep a personal record of the memories.
Starting my PhD was a dream; I dreamed I would be the next cool professor in Cybersecurity… yeah, right *eye-roll*. So I jumped right in. I didn’t realize that I was hired as a PhD to work on a project that had little to do with cutting-edge research. These projects are called innovation projects. Researchers often applied for these projects to make money from research agencies, often the EU, to fund the school and other cutting-edge research (I am joking… a bit). Innovation projects use existing research to create something. These projects often have little cutting-edge research value but high commercial value. So, there I was, hoping to do research and then ended up on an innovation project.
Tip 1: Always research the project you are hired to work on and ask about the research possibilities (if you are interested in a PhD). For others, do your due diligence before starting anything.
Anyway, I forged ahead because I was not going to give up. I began working on the project and, in a short time, became a pseudo-expert on DNS ahaha… Meanwhile, I now had to find research opportunities while working on the project the institute hired me to do. So essentially, I had two jobs. This situation is quite normal in academia, but the stress (often the mental stress of “what if I find nothing”) was high. My professor was kind; however, he was close to retirement and was not into active research anymore. So I had to look for opportunities to collaborate and intern with other teams. Now, I had a third job… applying and searching for collaborations. Sounds easy, but imagine how often professors receive emails asking about partnerships; then, you will understand why most of the applications end up in rejections or, worse, get no response.
Tip 2: Always check the professor’s research track record.
I found some great collaborations within my institute, which gave me my first major paper. Oh, I forgot, paper is king in academia. Publish or die is not a farce; it is real! No one is immune except those who silently transition into administration in academia. Now I needed to work on my second paper. I was not going to get this in my institute since most of the research did not interest me.
Tip 3: Be sure you are interested in the general research of your institute.
So off I went on the first internship. I felt I was making progress after writing another paper during the internship. So I continued on the internship route. Oh, before I forget, just before I went on internship, I needed to pass a mid-way PhD proposal defence. I thought I gave a good talk, but the profs decided to push the decision until I returned from my internship. So now, I was off to an internship with the possibility of being kicked out on return. Well, I forged ahead. I wrote two papers on the road. After the internship, I was invited to the mid-way exam again. However, due to a series of unclear expectations, the panel decided to fail me. This result was entirely my fault. I did not ask questions to figure out the expectations of my committee, and I was afraid to ask questions. I also made a lot of assumptions.
Tip 4: Communicate, do not assume, ask questions and set clear expectations.
I felt I had the necessary credentials to pass and was cheated. I mean, I would have lost 2–3 years to a fruitless pursuit. So I chose to fight. I pulled in external resources and contacted the faculty. God favoured me, and the panel wanted to reverse their decision, but anyone who knows academia knows I lost. I won the battle but knew I had lost the war.
Tip 5: Choose your battles carefully… Negotiation will get you further than force!
Pulling in external people made the department look bad, and I would pay for that one way or the other. So, I began to search for a different PhD position which offered me the chance to complete my PhD without having to start all over again. The fight was to gain time. Thankfully, I got a new opportunity. It was good, but remember, all these happened during the COVID period and its accompanying stress. So I left for the new position jaded, tired and unaware of my condition.
Tip 6: Take heed unto thyself
When I arrived at the new city to take up the new position, I quickly realized that I could not meet up due to a particular structural setup (meaning, the new prof didn’t have enough money to sponsor me, so they split my time between their group and another institute… another common thing in academia). Now, I have two jobs again, where I have to work full time on each but this time with a jaded and tired mind. Then the institute also discovered they didn’t have enough money, so I had six months to live on minimum wage and apply for my project funding (job number three). If you know anything about academia, you will understand that getting research funding is tricky.
Anyway, I said yes, but then I began to withdraw. I told the new prof that I just wanted to finish. I didn’t want funding anymore because I was tired of the PhD. I figured I could get a regular job and complete the PhD part-time. The prof disagreed and said I could only finish if I did good work. And I can only do good work full-time (don’t ask me how that logic works, but that was their argument). Don’t forget that PhD students have to “contribute their quota”, which means teaching or helping the prof. So here I was, mentally exhausted and in a dilemma caused by my inability to communicate.
Tip 7: Communicate, do not assume, ask questions and set clear expectations (important enough to repeat this twice).
So I left the prof’s sponsorship. Thankfully, another prof in the institute was willing to take me on. So I began work with this prof. However, a meaningful relationship was affected by this switch. The contact that linked me for the position was unhappy, and I knew it. I lost my contact’s support. However, I still had a project with this contact, so it was fine, right? Well, not really. My mental exhaustion surfaced. In sorting out the residence permit and payment, I spoke disrespectfully to the institute’s CEO, and he terminated my contract relatively fast… now, I was without an institute or a team. Still, at least I had a project and a prof, right? well… I could no longer work on the project because of exhaustion, so I quit. Now, I had only a prof without a team and support. I lost valuable relationships.
Tip 8: Think before you make decisions. Understand the costs and consequences of a path before taking it.
Tip 9: Be respectful to all! Even Ronaldo learned this the hard way.
Tip 10: Take care of your health; take a step back when necessary.
Well, was I ever going to finish? At some point, I lost hope: no projects, support, and a measly array of papers. However, a new paper I wrote got accepted, which pushed the professor to get me off his hands quickly. Who can blame the prof? I was not in a good situation. In the end, I finished my PhD. But I learned valuable lessons ranging from caring for your health to honouring people and communicating clearly. I tried to salvage some of the relationships I jeopardized. But I realize I should not have taken certain decisions in the first place. I have learned from this and am grateful for the lessons.
Tip 11: Don’t give up on yourself. Forgive your own mistakes. Keep learning and growing.
Every experience prepares us to do better in the future. Keep moving forward. Accept the wins and the losses. Integrate the feedback into your next steps.
If you know anyone currently doing a PhD, you do not understand what they are going through. Be kind to them. Hug them and tell them they can do it. They need all the compassion they can get. I know I needed it back then.