The enigma that is the PhD

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A PhD has always been in the cards for me.  I idolised it in college, denied it after my masters, and chased it after a few years in the workforce. It was something that, on some level, I think I always knew I wanted to take on. I think originally I sought the challenge. I wanted to see if I could really achieve that “highest” level of education, but beyond that, the more I learned in high school, college and graduate school, the more I wanted to learn MORE. I never wanted to leave this amazing “safe space” of exploration. Within the university walls, intellectual curiosity wasn’t just encouraged, it was expected.

So here I am, chasing that dream of having two simple letters placed before my name. I’d be the 4th Dr. Woessner in my family, and the only one earning that title on foreign soil. Every day I’m thankful to be going through this process (ok, well, maybe every other day or so…we all have our “off” moments) and though I remain just as driven to achieve that final outcome, I think somewhere in the last two years while I kept the “what do I want,” I’ve changed my “why.”

I always thought a PhD was that big thesis you write at the end. So my why was always, to prove that I can finish a thesis. For my non-academia centred friends, the thesis is that giant book of a document you construct to illustrate to the “world” (not really the world, the only people who likely every read your thesis are your supervisors, external reviewers, and maybe an extremely overly supportive parent) what you wanted to learn, what you actually learned, and why it mattered. For the longest time I thought this document was the PhD. Writing it, after all, marks the “finish line”… so it makes sense that you define the process by the product right?

Wrong.

While most people know the end product of the PhD, the actual process of GETTING it is shrouded in mystery. It’s like a secret society. A process best described by the following quote: “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it, from the inside looking out, you can never explain it.”

The PhD is not just a document. It’s a cult.  It’s a life. It’s a world all in its own. The further down the “rabbit hole” you go, the harder it is to poke your head back out and breathe. The only people who truly understand the extremes are the ones living through it beside you. There’s this instant state of camaraderie with any of fellow candidates. There’s an unspoken agreement to avoid “how far along are you” and “how’s your writing,” but then, even WE can’t help but to ask the questions now and then. Because we know. We get it….and let’s be honest, we are kind of curious about your progress so that we can adequately gauge our own.

But even though we innately “get” the journey we are cumulatively on, each individual is still walking their own walk. You can have research teams, groups and programs, and you can even be in the same college or university, but at the end of the day, you are the only one going through your journey. Because of this, it can be a very lonely road…if you let it.

This is the other side of the PhD, that no one really wants to talk about. The part where you spend long hours questioning every aspect of your project and all the decisions that you made, whilst simultaneously running through the countdown clock in your head. 4 years until I don’t have a scholarship, 3 years…2….1….

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the PhD is far more than the finish line. I know from the outside looking in, “when will you finish” is the only question some of my friends and family know to ask, but from the inside looking out, sometimes that’s the last thing we want to here….partly because there’s no easy answer to that. We are in a race against time are really our only hope for when we finish is that WE finish before our scholarship finishes.

I’m in the middle of my venture. I’m past the new and shiny phase of the project, but not quite to the complete disillusioned state. I still love my project. I still love the world and life I’ve created here, but it’s hard. My days, to a certain extent, will be on replay for the next 14 months or so as collecting data for my clinical trial is slow going. I’m doing other things, of course. Like almost every PhD student I know, I too am teaching, writing, and finding any  unique ways to improve my resume. I’ve also taken on a role at the university where I am helping to develop course content for several masters and undergraduate classes, and blending them into online videos and content. It has been such a steep learning curve, but something I’m sure will really help me when I am out job hunting one day.

It’s not all tough going….during your PhD you have some of the greatest “job” flexibility of your life– depending on the project you’ve set up. Mine, for instance, is an ongoing clinical trial. I am constantly enrolling new heart failure patients, and each patient undergoes about 9 testing visits over the course of 8 weeks, whilst also consuming the correct colour and dose of beetroot juice (my intervention of choice). This means that, for all intents and purposes, my project is always running, making it very hard to ever just “take a holiday.” Sure, I can work from home, and maybe take off early now and then, but if I want my project to ever be finished, I (and any holidays I want to take) am my own biggest obstacle.

Maybe for some people getting a PhD really could just be about conducting a study and writing a paper, but I think by taking that approach you would miss an incredible opportunities for self growth. Every day I learn something new about my project, my field of study, and most importantly about myself. So sometimes I think it’s good to sit back and be thankful for where I am. My what hasn’t changed. I am still doing a PhD. But my why is no longer just to face the intellectual challenge of completing a thesis. My why is because I want to challenge myself. I want to challenge my way of thinking, my determination, and the person I want to become.

This PhD isn’t about developing a project. It’s about developing myself.

What a life.

What an opportunity.

What a privilege.

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