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PhDoh! My experience in gaining a PhD

Dr Li-Shean Toh

NEVER in my wildest dreams did I think I would pursue a PhD. It seemed something so alien to me, I mean, these were the smart people right?

I sometimes multiply numbers wrongly or don’t quite know how to open a milk carton! I did, however, always know I wanted to be a pharmacist. Doe-eyed, I entered the pharmacist workforce. I tried out different fields such as tertiary hospitals, community and general practice. I loved my job, I love my patients and I found the ins and outs of medications ever so fascinating.

But, after all the years working as a pharmacist, I noticed that there were always improvements that could be made in the healthcare system. Quite often as a front-liner you are too busy with your patients’ immediate needs and it was difficult to make a strategic change affecting the larger picture. I got enveloped in prescriptions, and seeing patients get better seemed enough. Yet, there are days that I felt jaded, I wanted to do more and there was this incredible intellectual itch, to learn more.

Lift off
A serendipitous encounter with one of my supervisors in the hospital staircases gave me the push I needed. I got lost in a new hospital, and her liking to taking the stairs instead of the elevator gave us an opportunity to talk about research and her PhD. It was inspiring, I pondered with the idea and ended up trying for scholarships.

After much sweat and tears with numerous applications, I finally got a scholarship from the University of Nottingham which was also a fortunate happenstance where I met my second supervisor at an education fair, who introduced me to a third supervisor with the funding. After going through the application process and interviews, I embarked on my PhD on a part-time basis which lasted a year. After that, I switched to full-time.

I thought I went into my PhD with my eyes open. However, when people said “it was difficult,” I thought they were referring to just the intellectual impasses. Truth is, no one really talks about the unexpected challenges such as the emotional and motivational difficulties. When doing a PhD the freedom is nice, but it adds an element of anxiety. Even with very supportive supervisors, I have constantly asked myself “Am I doing this right? What if all I’ve done is wrong and they’d fail me at the end of three years?”

Frustration is also a common friend throughout a PhD. Frustration when the research you do gets stuck, when you are trying to work through a problem, but you don’t know what else you can do. You are supposed to be the expert right? If you can’t solve the problem, no one else can… Supervisors and peers can offer you a different perspective, but the pressure is immense.

A seemingly simple task like writing a thesis takes a toll on your determination and endurance. There are some days I got so fed up and annoyed by merely looking at my thesis feedback. I would avoid reality and sleep for three days straight with the irrational hope of making it all go away.

As you go along, you realise everyone can regurgitate and apply the knowledge. But, creating new information is what a PhD is about. The more you read, the more you realise you don’t know. And that’s what it’s all about, about exploring, creating new knowledge and making changes. Of challenging the well-known science status quo, and pushing the norms outside of their comfort zone (see the image below).

Aside from the emotional component, the intellectual impasses were as perilous as I had feared. In the first year, I had to study a bunch of things I had no idea existed or thought I needed. My research interest was about osteoporosis, but before I could do research I needed to understand the philosophy of science, and methodology that goes hand-in-hand with it. There was jargon galore that sounded more like Dothraki (Game of Thrones reference) to my ears than proper English.

There is an ocean of literature you have to swim through on your own. But after surviving this journey, I can now navigate through the large amount of data by quickly identifying the useful and the not. Hence, deriving information and then knowledge from the huge amount of data gathered.

Expanding comfort zones
Socially, I didn’t expect the need for self-promotion. I knew that the competition for academic jobs was fierce, but I had not known the amount of self-promotion needed in networking at events such as conferences. This is not something that comes naturally to me and it didn’t help that I don’t use social media well. Putting myself out there was something I had to learn, self-promoting when I felt a certain amount of “imposter syndrome” was really difficult.

I did however, adore the travel bit that comes with the conferences. People and their cultures travel from all over the world to meet and discuss ideas at these conferences. It rejuvenates and inspires me to meet people whose work I have cited. It was a fan girl moment for me when I could discuss my project with one of the authors of a renowned paper. I was giddy with excitement and all the days of banging my head on the keyboard was worth it!

Additional costs
Another factor I didn’t anticipate was the cost on friends and the increased isolation, you tend to follow the social rules of the academia, at the expense of your own personal ways. A friend of mine once asked “Why do all you PhD students seem to work till late nights and eat at odd hours? You don’t even work? You’re just doing some research at Uni right?” But they have very different lives and might not get why you are so stressed and busy all the time. They may have good intentions by asking things like ‘How is your PhD going?”, the dreaded “When are you finishing your thesis” or “Does your research have any impact in everyday lives?”

These academic social norms can lead to detachment from your old friends as the work done throughout a PhD is very different from a 9-5 work week.

The best advice I can give before embarking on a PhD journey is to read books on it and/or talk to someone who recently completed their PhD. My third supervisor did strongly emphasis during my interview: “You will need to work very hard for your PhD. I mean hard, as in VERY hard. Do you understand me? I mean really VERY HARD,” and every bit of that is true.

The PhD journey is a hard one. Every PhD candidate has had major euphoric ups and epic fallings, including crying buckets. But I haven’t met anyone who has regretted embarking on a PhD journey whether they have completed it or not. I never regretted mine and I still want to make changes albeit, baby steps because like the famous saying goes ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?”



Dr Li-Shean Toh is a lecturer in medicines management at the University of Tasmania

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