On 31 August 2020 at about 13:00 in the afternoon, I read, re-read and then re-re-read an email to my university exams team, submitting my PhD thesis and three appendices. The moment I hit “send” I felt the weight of the world lift for a moment. Then I grabbed my waterproof jacket and trousers and headed to Go Ape (an outdoor adventure centre) with my friend Ashley which, by the way, was a terrible idea because we were in the middle of a storm and the winds were so strong we could barely stay on the ropes.
Of all the things I have done in my 26 years aboard Planet Earth, submitting my PhD thesis might be my greatest achievement. It’s either that or coming close second to the President of the University of Leicester rugby team in a hot wings eating competition. Just like the hot wings competition, I have learnt a lot about myself and have a lot of joys and regrets about my PhD Journey. If you’re at the beginning of your journey, half way through, looking back fondly or even curious to know what a PhD is like, I’m going to share some of the crucial moments with you in the next few paragraphs.
Write little and often
Every thought, no matter how inconsequential it may seem at the time, has real power. I cannot tell you how many times I thought to myself, “I’ll remember that later” and then never did. How many of those thoughts would have made my experience easier, better or faster? Who can say. But it only takes one good thought to change the course of your thesis.
For example, I was sat in the lab one day counting seeds in petri dishes when my lab partner came over and asked me about a manuscript I was drafting. As I described my work, I said “it’s tough because the seeds are sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place” and bingo, I had the manuscript title. If you want to find out what publishing is like, I have also written a post about publication.
Writing longer pieces can also be really beneficial. In my first year, to help me learn about seed dormancy and dispersal, I wrote a few pages on the dormancy and dispersal models I came across. When it came to my PhD write up, most of that work ended up being copied and pasted into my thesis, saving me hours of writing. Trying to remember something you learnt three years earlier is so much easier when you have it written down.
Ask for help
This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised by how many of my friends and colleagues had to be convinced to ask for help or be interrogated to find out what was wrong. They say it takes a village to raise a child and that writing a thesis is like giving birth, so one can only connect the dots and assume it takes a village to write a thesis.
When you’re at undergraduate or masters level looking at PhD students, you assume they have their life together. They look so mature and self-assured, when in reality, we’re still just as confused as you are but with more responsibility. There is no manual for completing a PhD and everyone’s journey is different. All you can do is ask others about their experience and learn from their mistakes.
I will forever be grateful for the wonderful humans who helped me in my time of need during my thesis write up. Not only did I have a team of about eight people who read various parts of my thesis, but three kind strangers from Twitter offered to help me edit my methods section for one of my chapters. Sometimes you just have to reach out a hand and a hand will reach back to guide you along your way.
Celebrate every success
Did you write 100 words today? That’s great! Pass your first year? Amazing! Read a difficult paper and it took you all day? I’m proud of you! There is no greater lesson in delayed gratification than undertaking a PhD. It feels like you’re not winning or achieving anything for months or years at a time and before you know it, you’re done.
Tell your friends what you’ve achieved, keep a sticker chart or just pat yourself on the back every once in a while, anything to remind yourself how hard you have worked because it is so easy to slip into a cycle of self-doubt. Good things come to those who wait, yes. But there is no harm in celebrating every time you finish writing a difficult paragraph.
I felt like I had achieved nothing by my second year and started to really doubt if I could complete my PhD. What I failed to keep sight of is all the amazing things I had achieved along the way, everything I had learnt and how far I had come. It’s only now looking back that I’m able to say I really did do my best, and I wish I had started being kinder to myself earlier on.
Prepare for your evolution
When you write your first project proposal and hand it in, save that file somewhere for yourself to read when you complete your thesis. You will not recognise the initial ideas from the final thoughts and that’s good, the scientific method dictates that we adapt our understanding as we learn. We learn, we evolve and we adapt. But it’s not only our research that changes over time.
They say you stop growing when you reach a certain age. I don’t know what age that’s meant to be and I certainly haven’t found it yet. Over the last three years, I surpassed my own expectations, learnt more about seeds than I care to admit and developed into someone I’m really proud of. Undertaking a PhD is one of my proudest achievements because it was so tough and I fought so hard to finish it.
Resilience, perseverance and endurance; three skills that I have really honed during my PhD. Not only will these be crucial to any job I do next, but they’re also so important for my personal life. I’m stronger, my mental health is the best it has been in a decade and I have so much hope and inspiration for my future. I am ready to grab the next experience with both hands and make the most of every opportunity.
I decided to write this post for today, because tomorrow (9 November 2020), I will have my viva which, for those who don’t know, is where I have to defend my PhD before a panel of examiners. So although I haven’t quite come to the end of my journey, the end is in sight now and I am so confident I will have a sprint finish.
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Writing notes: Karolina Grabowska
Tough mudder: madsmith33