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PhD: Staying Positively Headstrong and Determined

Posted in: Survive and Thrive

Hello, my name is Emilee and it’s been 5 months since I last yelled “That’s it, I quit graduate school!”

It comes in waves, like the build-up of ripples at the beach followed by the crash against the shore’s rocks, or the slow and steady climb up a rail on a roller coaster followed by the sudden drop.

Eight days before the first day of graduate school, I shattered my ankle in 27 different places. A few months prior I had suffered the loss of two important people in my life. I could barely function. When I walked into Principles of Gene Expression, a course that requires full attention and total immersion, it was with two things that were already broken. It felt like I was already losing at the start! Understandably, that first day the singular thought in my head was: How am I going to get through this thing! And by “This Thing” I meant the 5-6 years of graduate school required to earn a PhD.

The thing no one tells you about graduate school is that life STILL happens. Indeed, we are told that the process is challenging and can be trying at times, but no one ever says “Be prepared for life to kick you in the teeth!” While some become overwhelmed and defeated, others are able to weather through the storm. Is it because those individuals are better or more determined to finish grad school than those who choose to leave? No, they’re just stubborn, more resolved. So how do these types manage, what makes them “win” both in graduate school and in life?

The Pursuit of a PhD is a Marathon

After much contemplation I’ve arrived at one possible answer and as cliché as it sounds, it is a proverb befitting to anyone that chooses this path:

This journey is a marathon, not a sprint.

What could be a better analogy for life as a PhD student than a 26.2-mile race?! If you have ever run this distance officially, you know that there are many ways to reach the finish line. Very few run it in its entirety at a sub-5-minute-mile pace, some stop to smell the roses (or take pictures) along the way, and others walk the course. Then there are those who set out to run each leg of the course at a certain pace in order to set or beat their personal record.

However, along the way they may experience setbacks (e.g., cramps, heat/cold shock, wrong turns, etc.) that force them to readjust in order to accommodate these unexpected interruptions. This is exactly how it is pursuing a PhD, and just as with running a marathon the outcome can prove to be unpredictable. However, if one is equipped to progress through it, immeasurable growth is what can happen in the space between start and finish.

So, here I am about to embark on the fifth leg of my journey and, given the opportunity, I will look every fresh-faced incoming first-year student in the eye and say this:

Plan Your PhD Path From Beginning to End

You have already trained for this race. In fact, for 16 years you’ve been practicing! So before you embark on the journey, assess the course and plan your strategy. Know what you want to accomplish between now and when you walk across that stage.

Don’t Be Too Rigid Along the Path: Allow Room for Flexibility

While this may sound contradictory to the first point, it is not. One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that just because I had set out on the path I’d chosen and created for myself, this does not mean that life won’t happen. Circumstances arise that force us to hit the pause button, regroup, and re-prioritize. Events that force us to be flexible turn into life lessons on growth because they become the checkpoints at which we gauge our problem-solving abilities. We should allow ourselves room to do just that before getting back on the wagon to proceed onward!

When You Stumble, Lean Forward

This way in case you fail, you fail forward. We get so lost in the momentum of what is happening that we often forget to learn from the process. Too eager to cover up our shortcomings, we miss out on the big picture. For those of you perfectionists who are always cautious about not looking stupid in front of your PI or lab mates, or in front of a room full of know-it-all scientists, you’re wasting your time. Trust me, I’m a recovering perfectionist. After eating enough humble pies to impress even the world’s record holder on The Most Apple Pies Eaten, I now choose to process my feelings towards failure differently. Unless my failures were the direct result of a complete bone-head move, I’ve learned the following about them:

  1. Lessons happen in the stumble
  2. Strength-building happens in the failures
  3. Success happens when we lean forward to fail again

As You’re Running, Monitor your Pace, Break if you Need to, and Ask for Help

It is important to set a regular schedule during the course of your PhD study to gauge your well-being, of both your work and your person. This step is separate from your annual committee meetings, of course. This is a “self check-up” of your academic and, most importantly, mental progress. What mistakes or failures have you experienced and how have they impacted your progress? I challenge you to take this a step further and share it with your work-wife or work-husband.

Who is that?, you ask.

This is an individual that is also in the same program as you; someone you can talk to about the challenges you’re facing. Look for someone that will hold you accountable and will be an encourager. Let me caution you here about picking someone that likes to gossip or engage in negative-Nancy antics. You want someone who will add to your growth; someone who will be there at the finish line, cheering you on!

Finally, my fellow philosophers, change the way you see this journey. You are not waiting to contribute to science; you already are contributing to the advancement of science. Own every aspect of it, both the good and the learned the hard way—raise your hands when you are going up that roller coaster. Then, with a smile on your face and your eyes wide open, scream out loud during the descent!

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  1. KaBe on September 5, 2016 at 7:50 pm

    There is nothing wrong with quitting a PhD program. I quit, opted for an MSc instead. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner. If I had, I would have had enough money left to go to pastry school. Chocolate is way more fun than a PhD.

    • Emilee on April 5, 2017 at 8:34 pm

      Hahaha! I hope you still went to pastry school, the world could definitely use more people that know how to make stuff, anything, everything with chocolate!

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