After obtaining my master’s degree in electromechanical engineering (option aerospace to be complete), I was asked if I was interested in doing a PhD. I didn’t think I was very suited for the job: I didn’t really enjoy writing the master thesis and I’m not that smart.
I still had – although I knew it was not correct – the romanticized image of scientific research: a group of young people, driven by the desire to decipher the world and make it a better place. Of course I wanted to try to earn my place among those people! I wanted – like almost everyone – to make a difference and maybe a PhD could realize this. Why not?
But I don’t have to make it sound better than it was: it was also very convenient. PhD students are well paid in Belgium and it meant staying in the world I already knew for five years. Back then, saying I was not very happy is a bit of an understatement: it was the most awful time in my life. I felt terrible. A change of environment would maybe have helped, but I didn’t want to risk it getting worse (although I didn’t thing that was possible).
So I started my PhD. At that time I didn’t drink coffee, now I live on that black liquid!
It was in a different department than my master’s thesis, so obviously the subject was something completely new. The only thing that was constant: it had to do with numerical simulation.
The first problem: the department didn’t have any experience in modelling and couldn’t really provide the guidance I needed. Therefore I changed departments (and subject) after around 2 months. Which was actually totally out of character for me. In the new department, it got a bit more (not a lot) more guidance. But all in all, I didn’t do great.
After maybe a year, it got better: I didn’t feel bad al the time anymore. I discovered cycling to set my mind off my worries, that improved my work. Still, far from ideal, but I got (some) results. I got some new hope I could see it all through.
Funding problems! No funding for my subject. But my supervisor still wanted me to work on that topic. His solution: keep on working on the initial subject, until we find some extra funding, but until then, combine it with a complete different topic. What could go wrong? (hint: no extra finding was found.)
The things that went wrong: supervisor didn’t care about the new project, but I still had to go to all the meetings and pretend I was working fulltime on that topic. In reality I worked a couple of weeks on it every six months. As you can imagine, after six months I forgot all the details of what I had been done for the previous consortium meeting. So I lost some extra valuable time. Result: a growing hatred towards the project. Not very motivating and consequently I didn’t master the needed expertise to approach the problem correctly. Nightmare material for someone who is always doubting himself and has almost no confidence. So I have two topics: one on which I was allowed to work on almost fulltime on and one (the project) I had to do in between.
If by change, a new PhD student would read this: learn to say “NO, I can not do that.” and learn to complain to the supervisor when a problem (lack of time, no good project proposal, …) arises. IMMEDIATELY! Back then, I thought I could pull it off by working crazy hours. Shocker: I couldn’t and felt unmotivated for that project, leading to a huge lack of focus. Waiting to sound the alarm only made it worse: it is to late to complain.
Furthermore, the academic world is really focused on publishing, publishing is everything. Publishing good research comes only on the second place. This can be really frustrating.
There is a lot of competition between search centers for the same funding: project proposals have to be ambitious. That would be ok, if realizing at least 75% of the proposal was realistic. Some professors promise The Holy Grail withing the domain. Eventually ending up with objectives no one can realize (my project). And yes, once the money is there, it is your problem.
Always unforeseen problems! Inaccurate measurements, IT problems, unavailable data, lack of equipment, … and supervisors often expect you to solve everything yesterday.
It wasn’t all bad of course, otherwise even I would probably have quit along time ago.
You are surrounded by young people with all more or less a passion for science, research or the academic environment. You become better at writing, structuring, organizing your work, to teach, … and if all goes well, you earn your PhD degree. You have very flexible hours: you want to start late or from home? No problem. There are also a lot of opportunities to meet people and to travel.
If I would start over, I would do approach it all a bit differently. Now I know how I have to organize my work to get them done. Online tools like Trello, confluence, python notebooks (server), overleaf …. To bad I only got to know these tools about a year ago (better late than never).
Today, I have emailed my text to the members of the jury of my PhD defense (Belgian system: private defense of maximum 3 hours and a public one). In one month, my private defense is planned. I still am terrified about the part (<30% of the complete document) discussing the new project I didn’t had time for.
Even writing this post didn’t really go as planned… My initial aim was to write down my experiences as some sort of guide for other (starting) PhD students. I felt I had to sketch my situation and that resulting in this elaborated lamentation: more negative than initially intended and to long.