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.

PhD Students…we run the world

It’s hard to explain what being a PhD student is like because every experience is so unique. While success in the endeavor requires all aspiring students to possess a few standard qualities such as self-motivation, determination, and a certain level of intellectual curiosity, the journey one takes toward the finish line is a very personal one. Two students setting out on the same path, even in the same field of study, would have vastly different experiences based on how they choose to approach their research, who their supervisors are, the environment they are working in, and their own personal motivation and drive.

I knew coming into this PhD program that there would be long hours. I knew that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I knew I had a LOT to learn….what I didn’t know, however, was how quickly I would become invested in my project and how simultaneously lost and found I would become in my research. Obviously prior to starting the candidature process I had a passion for clinical exercise physiology, but my path to a PhD started long before I knew anything about the clinical realm.

Like most people in the sports science field, my passion for exercise science began from my obsession with athletics. As a lifelong athlete, when I found out that I could major in “Sports” at college, I was immediately won over. What could be better than working with high performance athletes? Forever driven by my competitive nature, I knew working with other athletes was my dream job. I very quickly learned, however, that of all the students who endeavor to work professionally with athletes, maybe only about 10% actually make it. Undeterred, and knowing I needed something better than a bachelor’s degree to “make it” in the field, I progressed to a masters in Exercise Physiology.

It was in my masters program that I was first introduced to clinical research studies and the exercise is medicine movement. A shift was happening whereby exercise training was becoming more mainstream and starting to be recognized as a medical intervention to aid in both treatment and prevention of diseases. How cool. I mean, obviously we all intuitively KNOW exercise is good for our health, but gosh it’s just so much work to wake up early to get in a workout before work. But what if you knew that just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can dramatically improve your health outcomes. What if you knew that regular exercise could combat high blood pressure in similar magnitudes as some medications?

This exercise is medicine movement is what first sparked my interest in clinical exercise physiology. I loved the idea that exercise could act as a treatment in lieu of medications, and, in some cases, actually be MORE effective. Over the next few years my interest in clinical populations slowly became a focus…and before I knew it these patients were my passion. As cliché as it may sound, I found myself finally feeling like I was truly making a difference in my little niche area of research. I was working with patients who could hardly walk 10 meters. Three months of an exercise intervention later and they were bragging to anyone who would stand still long enough about how they had walked all the way from their car without stopping, or how they did their grocery shopping with a cart instead of a scooter. I had one participant explain that for the first time they were able to get down on the ground to play with their grandkids, without worrying about how they would stand back up. Hearing all these stories made me realize that this is the type of research I want to be involved in. I was making a measurable, significant and quantifiable difference in the every day lives of these patients.

My PhD project differs slightly from my previous clinical work in that I have shifted to working with patients with heart failure. I have no prior experience in this population, but I have spent the last 6 months learning everything I can about the disease pathology, progression and prognosis. I will be working with some of the most fragile clinical patients, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because these are the people who need interventions the most, but daunting because they are typically very physically compromised. While I won’t be incorporating an exercise intervention in my project (while 3.5 years seems a long time for a PhD, it’s actually quite short for a clinical trial), I will be testing the effects of a natural dietary intervention (yay beetroot juice) on exercise tolerance in heart failure patients. Before you scoff at the idea of beet juice, go Google some articles on exercise performance following beet juice supplementation. There is some pretty cool data. I won’t go all science-nerdy on you just yet (I’ll save that for when I reach expert status in my PhD process), but I will say that there has been promising data from both healthy people and clinical patients demonstrating the benefits of beet juice on exercise performance.

So for me, my PhD journey started a long time ago. My project is now set. I know what I am working towards. Pieces may be tweaked, but the overall concept is pretty much in place. Even so, this process leaves me in a constant state of learning, development, and self-reflection. Working on a PhD is unlike any other degree. You are truly in charge of your own education, and while homeschooling for most of my life definitely taught me the power of independent learning, this level of studying is a whole new extreme. Some days I literally get lost in the literature, only to emerge hours later wondering where the daylight went. But I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I am being paid to learn everything I possibly can. I have been given 3.5 years to focus on one area of a field that I have a deep passion for. Three and a half years to make some meaningful contribution to the study of a disease plaguing millions of people worldwide. And, on a more self-indulgent level, I have been given 3.5 years to build myself into the strong, independent, confident researcher I’ve always wanted to be.

Everyone’s journey is unique. This is simply my story. Hopefully this gives a small insight into my motivation and passion for my chosen field. One of the things I value most about this experience is sharing it with other students who are equally as passionate and motivated as I am, but in a completely different focus area. While we can’t always help or advise each other on methodologies or recent articles, we can share in the experience of taking an idea, formulating a hypothesis, and changing the world, one dissertation at a time. Ok, fine…maybe we won’t all change the WORLD, but if my research somehow made a difference in the life of even just one person, that would be good enough for me.

On that note, I’ll share a piece of writing I particularly identify with…a poem I discovered many years ago at a LeaderShape conference (spoiler alert, it’s the one in the featured image of this post, so if you read it there, feel free to disregard the following):

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