5 lessons I have learnt about academia: a postgraduate student’s perspective (so far)

I think that feeling of being thrown into the deep end and doing something you never thought you would accomplish is really powerful.

Reshma Saujani

Photo by Federico Gutierrez on Unsplash

Being part of academia is never easy. At different stages of the academic career, we all struggle with different things. For PhD students, it may be trying to master a new experimental technique and lead your own research; for post-doctoral researchers, it may be trying to get as many high impact factor publications, either as a first author or a senior author, and building up your track record. For early career researchers, it may be trying to establish your own lab, securing competitive grant fundings for research, and working towards tenure-track positions. As long as you decide to stay in the game, there will definitely be more challenges coming.

I signed up for the academia ‘hunger-games’ (derived from Crossley lab’s “I love science but why has getting funding become like the Hunger Games?” and Brown lab’s “How Academia is REALLY like the hunger games; a PhD perspective from someone who has read the books far too many times” ) unknowingly 18 months ago as an Master of Philosophy (MPhil) research candidate. My research interest is using bioinformatics to understand mysteries of plant epigenetics ie. the study on factors altering the gene expression outcome without changing the underlying genetic code (to know how I got myself into this, you can read my guest author article with the Editage Insight “Transitioning from wetlab to bioinformatics: my research journey”). I thought as long as I am not a PhD student yet, I would be spared with mercy from the ‘game’ itself.

But I was wrong.

My journey through MPhil is not a bed of roses. I have lost count on times which the question ‘Should I just forget about doing a PhD and quit?’ crossed my mind.

In the end, I have decided to soldier on by accepting the offer to upgrade from an MPhil to a PhD.

The following are the five lessons I have learnt throughout my short research career life. I am sure there will be more adding onto the list as I continue on my quest as a PhD in science. Hopefully, for those who are in this game with me, this piece of writing would provide some perspective and positivity boost if you decide to stay in academia.

Lesson 1: Self-learning is essential to drive your research

Being a masters student, I have always assumed that there will always be someone to guide you step-by-step on your research project. However, the truth is a certain level of independence is expected. Don’t get me wrong, the seniors in your lab (supervisor/co-supervisor/post-doc/other PhDs) will still be able to give you sound advise and directions, yet it is YOUR project at the end of the day. Hence, YOU are the main person responsible to make your project take flight and see where it leads to.

The feeling of actually having to learn new skills on your own can be daunting. It feels like being thrown into the sea when you are only a novice swimmer, and somehow have to keep yourself afloat and swim to your destination somewhere in this vast ocean of discoveries. As for my self-learning journey, I teach myself on new (previously unheard) concepts, how to code, and perform different types of data analysis through online courses, video tutorials, textbook mining, and reading relevant literatures about that area.

Self-learning can be difficult and stressful as it might take sometime for you to get your head around this new found knowledge. Therefore, I am always grateful to those who are willing to set aside time to teach me. Self-learning requires a lot of discipline and patience too!

At the end of the day, when you have the self-learning ability up on your sleeves, you will cruise (slightly) through your research journey.

Lesson 2: Research is not always ‘behind the scene’

Yes, unlike in movies, researchers/scientist don’t just stay in the lab and do experiments or run analysis.

In fact, being part of the science academia also requires you to master the skill to communicate your research findings. You will need to design academic posters; you will need to write informal articles on your research, and publish your research findings in journals. You will need to talk about your science through interviews, presentations. At some stage, you will get to travel around for conferences, meetings, and research collaborations

All these requires you to put yourself out there, and some people might find this uncomfortable. The good news is, the more you have a go at it, you better you will get! During my MPhil candidature, I was given the opportunity to present in seminars and conferences. This trained me to manage my time well and to work efficiently under a huge pile of workload. Attending conferences/events/workshops certainly is a plus to see academics ‘in action’. You will learn a lot by attending these events, then emulate the professionals in communicating research beyond the lab setting. Whether it is a poster presentation, a talk, or an informal talk about science through events such as Science in the Pub (SciPub) and Science Say! ,these experiences are definitely worthwhile and rewarding.

Lesson 3: Research -> Publication is not a direct route

Completing the research project itself, or generating meaningful results for publication is challenging on its own. Nevertheless, trying to publish your research is not easy either.

Whilst working on my first manuscript, I have learnt that it takes a long time to write up your results. Then, you are required to format your manuscript to different journal’s submission requirements, uploading data onto repositories, writing a convincing cover letter and so on. That is not all, you will have to first pass the editor’s review before your manuscript gets send out to reviewers for peer-review. The reviewing process can take up to one month, sometimes more.

Rejections are common. In some circumstances, you might need to go through the appealing process as well for your manuscript to be reconsidered for publication, or rebuttal of the editor’s decision in rare occasions.

Even if your manuscript is accepted, once you have revised your manuscript, you will need to do point-by-point addressing reviewers’ comments. These includes the changes you have made to the manuscript, and the reasons why some changes are not included. This requires significantly high level of writing skills, although it may seem like a relatively straight forward process.

To spice up the game? Competition and politics are a thing too! There might be another research group that is working on the same project as yours. You might have heard the saying ‘Publish or Perish’. If your project gets scooped, it will certainly add difficulty to publishing your work. There will be times where research becomes a race against time, whoever gets it out there first, wins.

For first timers, this process can be traumatising, exhausting, and painful. An academic in my school advised me not to take these rejections to heart, just keep submitting, improving your manuscript until it gets accepted for publication! If you manage to get sufficient results for publication during your postgraduate student years, definitely give yourself some credit on your effort because this is not a walk in the park at all.

Lesson 4: Beware of the academic-workaholic pitfall

It is so easy to become a workaholic in academia. It starts when you see everyone around you: your peers, supervisor/co-supervisors, and post-docs worked so hard to get the research going, to get first author publications, and to secure grant fundings. Soon, you will develop the mindset that the harder and the longer hours you work, the more progress you will make. Imposter syndrome might join the ‘party’ sometimes. The fear that you are not good enough, or being a fraud will drive you towards the workaholic state.

Slowly, you will have less sleep, or some sleepless nights. You then give up your social life, your favourite sports or leisure activities because you thought no reward comes without substantial sacrifices – some people calling it ‘no life’. Until one day, you realise your mental and physical health deteriorated.

That is what I call the academic-workaholic pitfall, and I have been there (If you are interested, you can read my blog post on self care here).

The lesson I have learnt from this is always put self-care first. Rest is as important as working hard. You will definitely do better when you are at your best state of your health, as you will feel energised and confident. A senior PhD student once advised me: ‘Research is a marathon, not a race. It is important to pace yourself, rather than sprinting at the beginning, then losing your breath before the finishing line’.

Lesson 5: Keep your passion burning, and let your curiosity grow !

When I first started my research journey, I received advise from other PhD students not to be too passionate about your project, because the disappointment will be too much to bear if things do not work out in the end.

I beg to differ.

I agree that there is a possibility that the research project which you undertake might not end up to be a ground breaking discovery that changes the world. In fact, it might sometimes end up with no results. Having that in mind, I think is important to stay passionate about your work and stay curious about what you are going to discover through your research journey. Passion gives you power in times of despair. It keeps you going, even though things do not seem optimistic at the time. When you truly love what you do, the idea of not doing it hurts you more than doing it badly. Curiosity, on the other hand, is like a coach that keep motivating you to continue discovering new findings. The happiness of understanding something that is not known before, or rediscovering known knowledge, gives you the ultimate joy and distracts you from focusing only on failures. These two qualities help build distress tolerance, endurance, and cultivate optimism, which are really important aspects of life, irregardless if you decide to continue on academia or switch paths later.

Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.

Oprah Winfrey

In summary, these are the 5 lessons I have learnt through my time doing MPhil. It might not be for all, but hopefully it serves as a reference for those who are considering or doing a postgraduate degree. I am thankful for the lessons learnt, and I believe, these lessons will benefit me or those who have been through them in the long run.

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