Learning Student-made Thesis

On the other side: Reflections from my PhD journey

A PhD can seem endless when you first begin, and even more so as you near the end, working to finalise things. Though rest assured, there is life on the other side of the struggle. Having gone through the stressful, frustrating, interesting and sometimes fun journey that is doing a PhD, allow me to reflect on the path walked and how it feels being…’done’.

I can still remember how I felt starting my PhD. The 3- to 4-year path the lay ahead seemed like aeons. Of course, the fact that home was half-way across the world didn’t help matters either. I came in with a plan in mind and questions that needed answering. Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I thought I was ready, and I was.

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My first year was simultaneously slow and fast – you know the feeling. Doing the literature review was a pain in the neck – literally. Though it helped answer some questions, posed new questions and gave me a starting direction, even though I was working on a topic I had proposed. I call the first year the fun, breezy year, and it was. It was the time period during which I got accustomed to how things were done and got into the groove of things. I took up a sport, which I continued throughout my PhD (it came in handy from my third year onwards as an outlet). I made friends, some of which are still in my life.

Before I knew it, I was in my second year. At this time, I had a better handle on things in terms of what I was doing, and meant to be doing, with regards to my research. This was when the ‘real’ work actually began for me. My second year went by faster then the first, though there was still a work-life balance. This was my time of exploration and experimentation, trying out different ways of doing things and carving out my own way. Ah, good times… Well, that was until third year came around.

The time from when I began my third year to when I submitted my thesis is a bit of a blur. It went by very quickly and was a stressful period. As I have come to realise, having spoken to colleagues (snippets here and here); towards the end of one’s PhD is the time when anything that can go wrong will most likely go wrong – Murphy’s law. There were a lot of setbacks and delays during this time, though I also managed to get a lot of work done. Admittedly, the work-life balance did slip a bit. From my experience, the third year is the time when you actually know what you have to do and want to do. Though it’s also when you’re most pressed for time. This was the point I realised that 3-4 years was a relatively short period of time to do ‘ground breaking research’.

Anywho… I managed to get my thesis written and completed through a combination of starting early and, in my case, working over the December break. Thesis writing seemed tedious at the time, that was until I had to do the corrections. Nonetheless, I also survived that, and I am now on the other side. So, how does it feel like? I’m glad you asked…

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For me, it’s more a feeling of relief. I am enjoying not having to worry about deadlines, attending meetings or equipment/prototypes malfunctioning.  However, it has been a bit tough to completely ‘switch off’ and do nothing. The ‘struggle’ has been in making an overnight transition from working towards deadlines and having daily objectives to doing nothing, or at least far less. I know, ‘first world problems’.

I haven’t been kicking back and relaxing as much as I thought I would be. Though whatever work I have been doing has been done on my own time, and that has been nice. And I have had a day or two of really doing nothing (cue the Bruno Mars song).

So, what does the next step for me look like? Another good question. Firstly, I plan to continue taking some time off to relax and detox from the PhD journey. I want to get a bit bored and do other things that interest me which I didn’t have the time to do. After which, I plan to go it my own way.

Closing thoughts – if I had a time machine, would I do the PhD again? Yes. It has been a challenging but interesting journey. I have learnt and grown during this time and I walk away better equipped to create a career that will fulfil me. Though on a side note, if I had a time machine I would be a ‘time explorer’.

Would I do anything differently? That’s a catch 22 scenario. The temptation is to say yes. If so, I would do certain things earlier. But in actuality, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Every path I’ve taken has led to my learning and brought me to where I am today. I am glad I chose to undertake the challenge of pursuing a doctoral degree. Some of my takeaways from this journey is that I am more resilient and determined than I thought I was. I’ve also come to realise that there more you know, there more you realise how little you know.

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