8 Life Lessons i learned from Doing A phD

4 months have quickly gone by since I defended my PhD on 22nd January 2020. In the days leading up to my viva, I was expectedly nervous but was surprisingly calm on the day. I think knowing that the viva was the final hurdle in the journey to getting the PhD did the trick.

My viva went very well (it was over in 1 hr 55 minutes). In particular, the examiners commended the quality of my writing and the volume of work conducted in the project. I cannot accurately describe how I felt when I heard the words, ‘…we recommend that you be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy…’. Finally, it was over after 4 years spent immersed in the world of nanomaterials, bacteria, cells and electrospun fibres. The long hours in the lab as well as the intellectual and emotional toll of writing an 83,000-word thesis were worth it. The uncertainties and disappointments that occurred along the way. Every one of those events had led me to this very point in time.

Typical day in the lab – setting up an ELISA

Looking back on my PhD journey, some key lessons have stood out for me:

1. It’s okay to fail. As a PhD student, you will be no stranger to failure. However, this can be challenging especially if you are a high-flying student who has previously been accustomed to succeeding at first attempt. It is possible to do everything by the book but still, things do not turn out as expected. One positive aspect about dealing with failure is troubleshooting – figuring out where things went wrong and using that knowledge to devise a solution or different experimental approach.

2. Do what you can while you still can. Opportunities may not always present themselves a second time. Equipment can fail, cell stocks can be accidentally destroyed and supervisors can take up new positions in a different university or country. Therefore, to the best of your ability, make the most of every situation and the available resources you have.

3. There is usually a way out. A key aspect of my research project involved developing different strategies to incorporate nanomaterials into polymer scaffolds whilst preserving their functional activity. The process taught me an unforgettable lesson – there will usually be a way out. It also impressed upon me the importance of knowing when to move on. These lessons have stuck with me ever since.  

4. Put yourself out there. If you can, volunteer on the student leadership committee, take part in competitions, present your research at conferences, apply for grants and participate in outreach events. You never know who is watching or what opportunities lie on the other side.

5. Little things count. In 2017, at the suggestion of a mentor, I was a volunteer at Soapbox Science Brighton where I supported speakers during their talk and monitored visitor engagement. This was my first encounter with science outreach. From volunteering in 2017, I went on to become a speaker at the 2018 edition and in 2019, I was part of the team which brought Soapbox Science to Lagos, Nigeria for the first year (I wrote about my Soapbox Science experience here). Also, I was invited to speak about my public engagement experience at my university’s PGR festival last year. All of these amazing opportunities arose from volunteering at one event.

6. Document your journey. Whether in a journal, pictures and videos, take notes along the way. These will serve as pleasant reminders of the journey when the PhD becomes a distant memory. I learnt this from a mentor, Dr O.

7. Cherish every moment. My typical day in the lab consisted of long experiments and sometimes having to shuttle between multiple labs. Needless to say that by 3rd year, I was eagerly looking forward to completing lab work and submitting my thesis. Fast forward to the current #COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period when things have been quieter than usual, I have on more than one occasion caught myself reminiscing about those days spent in the lab running experiments.  

8. There is nothing you cannot learn. Coming into the PhD, my background was in Biochemistry. However, since I was working with nanomaterials, I had to master key concepts and techniques in materials science. The same could be said for all the other techniques I had to learn. This experience taught me that there was no skill one could not acquire. In addition, it is sometimes difficult to see how much progress you have made until you come out on the other side!

What could I have done differently?

In retrospect, I should have started writing my thesis earlier on in the journey. Taken more time off work. Explored more. Nonetheless, I am grateful for all the experiences I had in my PhD which have made me a better researcher.

Acknowledgements

I am especially grateful to the University of Brighton for a fully funded PhD studentship award. To my lead supervisor, Dr Susan Sandeman, for being very supportive and giving valuable feedback. To my family and friends who lent a listening ear, encouraged and prayed for me.

That’s it from me! I know this sounds like a cliché but when things get tough, it is really helpful to remember that the PhD is a journey which will definitely end. Try to enjoy the process.

Are you currently pursuing a PhD? How is it coming along? I would to like to know.

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