*M-form is a form that verifies completion of a PhD program*
Disclaimer 1: This rant does not pertain to PhD candidates who have sailed through their dissertation phase because, frankly, I hate you.
Disclaimer 2: This rant might be a tad heavy on biology because yours truly is a biologist.
Disclaimer 3: I use “we” to stand in solidarity with all PhD aspirants (even though I technically graduated)!
I know I speak for 98.99% of PhD candidates when I say, every week atleast once, we wonder why we started pursuing this degree and, more specifically, what led us to it. And why wouldn’t we!! Nobody ‘gets’ our frustrations, except us. The pay is usually one-fifth our real-job holder-friends’ rent (yes rent, not paycheck). There’s a constant halo of stress around us. We are perpetually in a bad mood. While both of these ensure bad health, our health insurance, ironically, does not insure anything besides the incompetent university medical center. Our blood pressure, metabolism, and diet is probably compromised for life. I could go on, but you get the point.
The central question is what are we being tested for to deem capable of being granted this degree. My best guess is our patience (or is it endurance?!). Let’s break it down, shall we!
Semester 1: Fall | Stress level: 0 | Caffeine addiction: Not addicted | Personal life: Great
We are on top of the world to make it to our school of choice (well, almost). We are brimming with excitement and have a lot of enthusiasm. After all, we are going to save the world with our cancer cures, sociological reforms, game theories, mathematical models etc. The new busy schedule is so overwhelming we feel like adults. In 2-3 months, we have been called the worst TA, our experiments have failed countless number of times, we have been the horrible daughter, a bad test-taker, and we are broke.
Winter break | Stress level: 1.5 | Caffeine addiction: Do I need coffee? Or do I want it? | Personal life: Parents there, RIP boyfriend, angry friends
While we are looking at our friends’ beach vacations on social media, we get ready to start our day. There is no winter break for us. There is uninterrupted research when there are no classes in session. At this point we are probably in our rotation and impressing labs and PIs so that they let us join their lab. We learn “experiments don’t fail, hypotheses do”. That being said, what do we do (rather what can we do) when our sixth hypothesis has failed? Is it time to blame the organism or machine yet? No silly, it is us! We have to stop crying and modify that hypothesis again.
Semester 2: Spring | Stress level- 4 | Caffeine addiction: Cranky without it | Personal life: Wait, what?
Some of us haven’t been able to multi-task well, and have either messed up our GPAs or did not manage to woo over any PI. During our second semester, we are either buried in text books and ‘papers’ (which FYI take several hours to read and extract information at this point in life) and/ or we are troubleshooting.
Summer | Stress level- 4-5 | Caffeine addiction: Still the same | Personal life: Parents have temporarily disowned us as we canceled the annual visit
If we are part of a lab and have an interesting project at hand and our GPA is back on track, we are pleased with life, well somewhat. As a newbie, we can either be the sole investigator on a project or be a lackey to a senior grad student. I’m sorry for the latter genre of people especially if your student mentor is a complete jerk to you. No offense student mentors, we don’t know we are stupid, yet. Regardless, we are doing research and living the big PhD dream. <However, we are still very naive and have no idea what’s going to face-slam us in a month>
Semester 3: Fall (Qualifiers) |Stress level: 10^99999 | Caffeine addiction: Who’s counting |Personal life: RIP
The qualifying exam is a rite of passage. Passage to where? Another rant for another day. There is a certain amount of generic preparation that goes into this phase. We read so many textbook chapters, a multitude of scientific papers (at a much faster pace though), several protocols. We also email corresponding authors because they did not do a good job of detailing in their manuscripts. This is when we face reality and rejection. We are scared, hungry, frustrated, and sleepy. We eat pizza and shop online. Laundry is luxury. After 2-ish months of prep, when we feel confident we give a mock talk to our colleagues/ seniors and find out we know nothing. After a roller coster ride of 3 ish months we ‘qualify’ for PhD. We think we did it. We crossed the biggest hurdle. The cancer cure is a couple of experiments away.
Semester 4: Spring (Winter break has blended in between semesters) |Stress level: 8 | Caffeine addiction: Who’s counting but why do I have insomnia and indigestion! |Personal life: Is that a ray of light?
We crossed the biggest hurdle in our PhD. NOT. The worse has just begun. Quitting (especially in our fourth or above years) will come with a life-long guilt and we all know that. We can scream or cry in the cold room but someone will most certainly walk in on us. Why? Because life hates us, naturally. Some drink heavily. While this may be a common mistake for third years, 4th/5th years know that a hangover doesn’t help data analysis. Some of us haven’t found our thesis story yet. Our committee ate the pastries and gave all sorts of feedback. We move on!
Semesters 5-10: Seasons don’t matter | Stress level: A different kind of Zen | Caffeine addiction: 2-3 cups in the morning, none after pm | Personal life: Parents bring up the “relationship” topic, and now we temporarily disown them
The next 2-3 years (depending on a multitude of factors) are spent in lab mostly. The bright side is that we are constantly learning- and not just our subject. We know better than to throw a glass cylinder at the undergrad (even if he just trashed ALL of our newly purified protein) because that gets us into a couple hours’ worth of sensitivity training that is held all the way across campus. We learn that hard work doesn’t transpire evenly into manuscripts. We know exactly when to talk, how to talk, and where to talk to our PI. We are fortunately no longer the ‘lost puppy’ running to our PI with preliminary data. We learn that failure teaches us to think and come up with solutions that we did not know existed. We now use words like ‘putative’, ‘suggests’, ‘may determine’, ‘apparent’, ‘’does not fully elucidate’ etc.
Somewhere between the above-mentioned details we made our peace with the little joys we found in our discoveries/ inventions/ cures. The real question is, nonetheless, was it all worth it! PhD cannot possibly just be a degree or a test of patience; it is an experience. It teaches us a multitude of things. For those of us who emerge on the other side we change, both personally and professionally. From thinking and talking we also deal with our daily lives differently. I can proudly say I don’t regret my time as a PhD student. Not one bit. I say you can take the PhDs out of PhD, but you can’t take the PhD out of PhDs!