Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Highs and Lows of Doctoral Study

by Eva Lantsoght

After almost two years of doctoral study, I’ve gone through an array of emotions ranging from pure euphoria (“I want to do research for the rest of my life”) to complete despair (“I’m quitting this!”).

Before you decide to work towards a doctoral degree, you should know that it is perfectly normal to experience a wide range of emotions. I’ve listed some of the major highs and lows which you can and probably will come across during your studies.

The Lows:

1. Getting stuck

As the act of carrying out research implies that you will be pushing the borders of the knowledge within your field, you might eventually reach a point where you really get stuck. Lab results which don’t make sense, a computer model which won’t run…

Don’t get frustrated, but take a break from it and have a second look at it a few days later, or ask your supervisor for advice.

2. Slow progress

If research meant you could solve problems in a blink of the eye, you wouldn’t need 3 years or more for getting a doctoral degree. At times, your progress will be slow and research will seem tedious to you. That’s the point where you need to show the world some stamina and simply soldier through.

However, avoid getting absorbed too much. Don’t think that you can speed up the process by simply putting more hours a day into your research. Make sure you keep the journey bearable by scheduling some nice evening activities.

3. Living as a student

While you are in doctoral school, living on a student’s salary or a scholarship, your former classmates will have started their careers and will be in a better financial situation than you.

You can turn this situation into a challenge: what really matters to you and what can you take out of your life?

4. Criticism, or even worse: rejection

Regardless of your field, there will be discussion regarding your research. Some fellow researchers might have strong opinions, different from yours and criticize or reject your ideas openly.

Stay calm, and remember it is never personal. Without debate, science cannot exist. Learn how to argument and discuss your point of view.

The Highs:

1. Presenting at a conference

After working hard, writing a paper and preparing your presentation, you finally get to the point where you are sent out to present your work to fellow researchers. Suddenly you are part of the scientific community. Other researchers who interest in your work, you exchange ideas and connect to peers.

2. Constructive feedback from your advisor

Another person’s input can help you significantly in your progress. Your advisor might suggest you to look at your problem from a different perspective. Having a fruitful discussion will leave you with the feeling that you are indeed moving forward and that your research is taken seriously by your advisor.

3. Finishing a long piece of work

The end of months and months of experiments, a simulation which is finally running, a journal paper accepted for publication… These examples all are the result of many hours of work, and mark a milestone on your way towards your doctoral degree. Don’t forget to celebrate your successes!

4. Suddenly finding something new and exciting

At very rare occasions, you can suddenly get a brilliant idea. It might come while you are driving, biking, baking, in the shower or wherever you least expect it, but it will be your Eureka moment. And at that very moment you will completely love that you are doing research and can spend time on exploring your new idea.

Eva Lantsoght is a structural engineer currently pursuing a PhD at Delft University of Technology on the topic of shear in one-way reinforced concrete slabs. Originally from Lier, Belgium, she received an Engineering Degree from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and a MS from Georgia Tech. At her blog PhD Talk, she blogs about her research, the process of doing a PhD, the non-scientific skills you need during your PhD, living abroad and her travels.

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