It’s been over a year since I successfully defended my dissertation and received my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Tennessee. I want to share some of my thoughts about the process, the costs, and the rewards of getting a PhD. One obvious conclusion is that it is exhausting — it has taken me a year to get back to working on this blog!
It feels like a lifetime has passed since I started the process of applying for PhD programs, and then finally finished my masters. In some ways my experience was fairly representative: I earned my stipend by teaching biology labs each quarter, finished in 5 years, published a couple of papers, and then managed to find a post-doc project in my field. In other ways, I am a very non-traditional student: I have lots of non-academic experience, and I had financial reserves from that experience that gave me a few more options than I might have had otherwise. That outside experience both helped and hindered me, but I’ll write about that another time.
The process of getting a PhD is intense and consuming. It’s a wonderful escape from the real world. The ivory tower shielded me from many “adult” worries, such as limiting myself to what is practical or economically viable. I was free to simply focus on training my mind to do science. The best times were sitting around debating no-longer-arcane-to-me topics like the definition of species, the ethics of biodiversity, or the merits of Bayesian statistical methods. Learning how to critique the scientific work of others and how to receive critical feedback on my own work was arguably the most valuable result. In my experience, the best metaphor for the experience is tearing down who I was intellectually and emotionally, brick by brick, and then rebuilding it on a foundation made with my own hands. I now understand how academics are seen as arrogant: if you can survive this metamorphosis, it feels like you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to.
If you are considering this path, regardless of your background, here is my advice. First, put good effort from the start into building your support network, ideally consisting of other graduate students you trust in your cohort. Those relationships will reward you for the rest of your life, and they may well save your life during the metamorphosis. Second, take responsibility for your own success. Nobody will do this for you, especially not your advisor, and the sooner you accept this the less you will suffer. Finally, trust in the process and don’t give up. There are really bad times for everyone who goes through this, but if you are committed to the process, the bad parts will end. The self-confidence and other internal resources you leave with will be worth it.
I am very lucky. I had the resources to follow this path for reasons other than financial security or even for my future career. My motivation was two-fold: first, I wanted to be of service to the natural world in a way not possible in the business world. And second, I wanted to see if I could do it. Like many girls my age I was told that I was not good at math, and it took me 40 years to get over that. I will always get great satisfaction whenever I look at that diploma on my wall. I don’t know where this path will lead, but I’m pretty sure it will be an adventure and I’m always up for that.