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Confessions of a PhD Student

The Promise of Delayed Gratification and the Uncertain Reality That Awaits Future Scientists

Does anyone remember slam books? Do you remember what you wrote under the "what is your ambition" question? I do. I wrote, "I want to be a scientist."

The Dream That Got You Started

My interest in science can be traced back to a monggo planting experiment in grade school and watching Sineskwela—a science TV show in the Philippines. It fascinated me how the natural world worked. It was thrilling to discover the logical explanation or the scientific basis of things that are deemed mysterious. Learning about the delicate and meticulous procedures perfected to provide answers to help mankind made me realize this is who I wanted to be. I want to be a scientist.

The Unexpected, Harsh, and Exhausting Journey

Some people rant about deviating from their childhood dreams. This wasn't my case. I wanted to be a scientist since I was a kid and I became one. But I have to admit, it wasn't entirely what I expected. In order to be considered a scientist, society expects you to hold degrees that prove you can do magic. I had my fair share of sleepless nights solving problem sets and deriving equations, countless experiments and lab analysis to get a statistically valid number of data points, developing and improving systems hoping it would be better than the ones previously published, and constantly asking what I got myself into.

It is true that professionalism is gendered—and currently, women still lose. Yes, academia has been incredibly progressive, but in some countries, it is still very much a world of men. Women need to do an extra 100 mile more compared to men to be taken seriously. This is on top of all efforts put to establish personal style and self-presentation as much as on intelligence and insight. To be recognized, women sometimes need to tiptoe around male colleagues to not hurt their ego and mess with the office dynamics. It is tough out there for women scientists, but there is no other way but to take responsibility for our own careers. Own that hustle!

The Mini Achievements from Unlocked Challenges That Kept You Going

It is not always difficult and frustrating. Sometimes you get rewarded for your hard work. It could be through a solved problem set you've been working on the whole weekend (that probably made you skip a trip to the beach with friends). It could be through optimized procedures after a series of setbacks. It could be through positive feedback from experts you met in a conference, or from journal reviewers on your submitted paper. There are those mini achievements that make it seem that you're making progress, although it felt that you weren't, at least not in quite some time. As long as you put one step after another, you'll be surprised how far you've gone.

The Bitter Reality of Uncertainty

If you think a doctorate degree will make you immune to unemployment, you are absolutely wrong. Did you imagine red carpet laid for you towards a big fat paycheck right after graduation? Well, it might be time to head back to reality. You'll feel confused about whether you're overqualified or underqualified in most of the job postings. You won't have all the specific required skills for a potential job offer, and although you have a good set of transferable skills, this just might not be good enough. The truth is many recent PhDs will accept a post-doc somewhere while they figure out what they really want to do after. This is not a bad route at all, especially if you're gearing towards a career in the academe. But it might be debatable if you're looking to go into the industry. The reality is you have a lot of tough choices to make.

The Strength to Move Forward

Realizing there's no red carpet waiting for you although you've done the hard part with your years of study is the first step to move forward. All companies will require different combinations of overlapping skillsets. Some may consider interpersonal skills more valuable than high-technical competence, or vice-versa. You have to remember that constantly questioning your work is the heart of every scientific process. Don't let crippling feelings of failure get you off track. After all, a curious question is what got you started on your journey to seek truth in science.

“We have to do the best we are capable of. This is our most sacred human responsibility.” —Albert Einstein

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Confessions of a PhD Student
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