My PhD experience (so far)

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.

Then why?

I still had – although I knew it was not correct – the┬áromanticized 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).

Start!

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.

A drawback

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 bad

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.

The good

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).

Conclusion

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.

3 thoughts on “My PhD experience (so far)”

  1. “Furthermore, the academic world is really focused on publishing, publishing is everything.”

    Sadly true.

    No time to really think through a problem, look at it from a different angle etc. pp. , publish or get no funding – maybe unless you are already a BIG name in the science community, which you usually are not (yet) while writing your PhD.

    Side effects:
    p-hacking, watered down studies, almost impossible to compare the quality of different works from different countries and universities.

    1. The whole complete academic community should try to change this, because they are hurting themselves. For change, you need money and for money you have to follow the current system… So it is difficult to change it. Everyone knows it, no individual or institute can change it on his own. (Especially if you are a nobody, just doing his best to do good research.)

  2. Dear Tony!
    Sadly enough, I could’ve written the very same post during my last years of PhD (just a couple of years back), so I know what you mean. Although, if I would’ve written it, I would’ve probably added a couple of extra nasty things I had encountered during my years, like how some professors are artificially increasing their h-index, how flawed the review process is nowadays, how the majority of funding flows only in the general direction of well established names, how geographical location and names have unwarranted positive or negative bias toward manuscripts sent for review, and the list could just go on.

    The sentence you wrote “the academic world is really focused on publishing, publishing is everything.” even has a name: Publish or Perish (P&P). Unfortunately enough, this is considered to be a positive thing, although we must see that this really hurts science altogether. I think it would be high time for the scientific community to move on to the next letter in the alphabet: ‘Q’. Quality over Quantity (Q&Q).

    Because of the reasons you already mentioned (and some extra others I already hinted), I left the academic world to work in the industry to be able to work on real world solutions to real world problems. I would definitely recommend for you to do the same sooner rather than later. The initial transition times might be bumpy, but I think you would still be better off. Good luck!

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