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.

Turkey Day in Oz

Being an expat is exciting. Every day has some element of “newness” to it. Even today. Even ten months into this whirlwind of an adventure I find something new each day. There are the lunchtime debates surrounding the proper way to eat a sausage (why do they not like hotdog buns here??), the horrible screeching sound some of the birds here “sing,” the highly suggestive ice cream bar commercials, the animal character adorned icy pops, the tongue twister worthy outer suburb names, and so on and so forth. It’s all new. It’s still new. And as fun as it is…it’s also challenging.

For every new discovery, there’s an unfamiliarity. There’s no history, experience or memory associated with at least half of the things I’m experiencing here. Which is great! Talk about a crash course in broadening your horizons. Consider me officially dunked in the proverbial pool of cultural awareness. It is hard though. The best way to describe it is like being on the outside of a constant stream of inside jokes. Only the jokes aren’t jokes–they are a candy. And they aren’t called candy. They are lollies. And then when you go to share your “insider information” on your country’s oddities, there are blank stares and you become very aware of the fact that you are an American. And you are not in America.

I’m sharing this not to make the expat experience seem less exciting than it is, because, as I said, it’s pretty exciting. I just wanted to shine some light on the other side of things. Sometimes we get so caught up in sharing the new and exciting that the whole experience loses some of it’s authenticity. Hopefully by shedding some light on the challenges associated with this expat life, the other moments are able to shine just a little brighter and carry a bit more weight. Take Thanksgiving, for example…

This was my second thanksgiving that I spent without my Papi who passed away last year, and my first without any of my family. Let me take a second to say how blessed I know I am to have had 25 years of never missing a thanksgiving meal with my family. I was so worried about spending this time of the year away from home because I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 25 years of my life. I am very thankful to say that absolutely nothing changed this year. Well. Sort of.

I am in Australia, not the US. I was homesick for the first time since I got here. I spent my week working at Uni rather than sitting at home with family. I had to track down a turkey. When they only had frozen ones (and TINY 4kg ones at that), I had to thaw it out over the course of a week. I actually had to COOK the turkey, and not sleep in while my mom or Nana did the work. I had to bake the pies and organise the food, drinks, dishes and people. I had to plan ahead and do a grocery shop at the only american food store in Melbourne to collect a few “key” turkey day items. I had to host the meal outside because I had 16 guests and a small apartment.It was work. It took time. And I could stop here and leave thanksgiving as this, but let me back up and tell it properly.

I am in Australia, not the U.S. So every time I spoke about thanksgiving, everyone just got really excited about this whole holiday they never experienced. Expectations were high, and it honestly made my holiday mean a bit more to me to have so many people so excited about it too. I was really homesick. There’s no way to sugarcoat that one. It was a hard week and in years past, the week of thanksgiving is the easiest most relaxing week because you just sit at home with family!

I did have to find a turkey, but when I did and realised they were only 4kgs, my other American friend here stepped up to cook a second turkey. Then I ended up grabbing another quarter turkey. So all in all, thanks to Australia and their teeny tiny turkeys, I set a new personal record for number of turkeys at one thanksgiving at 2.25.

At home the pies are one of the highlights of the meal (duh), so I was very nervous to take on this task. Luckily I didn’t do it alone. One of my best friends here spent a very late friday night baking pies with me. It was quite a task because the ovens here are 1)in celsius (boo!) 2) are fan forced (which just really destroys any confidence I have in my cooking). I also did not make the process any easier by proclaiming the pies burnt every 5 minutes. I was entirely obsessed with “oven watching”–I swear that night it might as well have been my television. You know you have a good friend when there are flowers, cookies, wine and patience in response to my complete and utter pie meltdown. They turned out delicious by the way…

I did have a long trek to the one and only American food store, but, as is the theme of this story, I wasn’t alone in that either. Not only did one of my guy friends drive me down to the shop, but he even walked away with a few goodies too (though I did advise against the twinkie purchase). ha. Here are some of the items only available at the American food store!

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He also took on the ultimate thanksgiving challenge by tackling the stuffing. After an awkward conversation about what stuffing ACTUALLY was, he emphatically took on the task. (when I said stuffing he thought he was going to make what was going into the bird. I had to explain that in America stuffing is a side dish and does not necessarily get shoved into the turkey. He then started calling it dressing, which was equally confusing, but I’d heard the term before so I was convinced at this point we were at least talking about the same thing)

Stuffing is my absolute FAVORITE part of thanksgiving. He was well warned of the importance of his mission, and I’m proud to say he surpassed all expectations. He left the recipe up to me, so I went non traditional and assigned him a beer bacon and cheese stuffing. That dish disappeared immediately on thanksgiving. So good.

Back to prep. I did have to cook the turkey. There was no getting out of that one. Luckily another friend came over to cook his banoffee pie (never heard of this before, but it was another fan favourite) the morning of thanksgiving (we celebrated on a saturday), so he got roped into turkey baking as well. I played my whole “it’s burning, thanksgiving is ruined” game again for a while, and ended up with a beautiful turkey. I have no idea why I didn’t take a final pic of the turkey, but here’s the quarter turkey (a quarter of a very large bird) and the turkey carving.

Sixteen guests meant the party was not going to be a traditional sit down because my apartment is way too small. Instead we moved the party down riverside. It was perfect. The weather was beautiful, we set up on a picnic table, brought out eskys (coolers), and waited for the guests. Everyone really came together for the event, bringing a dish and drink to share. As is traditional, all guests were required to share a thing they were thankful for before the meal.

As cheesy as it was, we all shared some semblance of a statement about being thankful for each other. But you know, I hesitate to call that cheesy. In that moment, that’s all that came to mind. All week I had been so stressed about not being home and then about making this meal perfect and as I was standing there all I could think about was how thankful I was for that moment. For those people. For that day and memory.

So you see, in a lot of ways this Thanksgiving was nothing like the last 25. I am in Australia. I’m away from family. There wasn’t one giant turkey. I wasn’t seated around a huge table. I wasn’t home. But you know what? Nothing important changed.  I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 26 years of my life.

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Empathy vs sympathy (12-18-2013)

It’s easy at times to become so focused on the trials you are facing that you fail to notice the struggles of everyone around you. The truth is, at any point in time, everyone is fighting some sort of inner battle. While we do our best to hide behind the masks of well placed smiles and perfectly timed laughs, we all have those moments of feeling defeated. It is in these moments of darkness when we reach outside of ourselves to find comfort in a friend. These moments are what define friendships, and far too often in these crucial exchanges we become flustered and end up trying to “fix” our friends rather than console them.

There was an article/video I came across a few days ago comparing empathy and sympathy and the dangers of confusing the two. This piece has literally transformed the way I think about my interactions with people. When someone comes to you with something deeply concerning and emotional, it is in our human nature to yearn to comfort them. We want to console and find a way or a word to make everything “better.” For instance, when someone tells us something is wrong, a typical response will involve a short statement of empathy “I know how you feel,” followed by a monologue of “at least it’s not” or “it could be worse because.” We use these phrases to try and show that there is a brighter side, but really all we have accomplished is to minimize the trial they are facing.

When I saw this, all the times I’ve used the “it could be worse” patch with my friends came flooding back. Rather than just being there in that moment, listening to their struggles, and appreciating their trust in me as a confidant, I tried to give them a bandaid and have them leave smiling. The truth is, as this video states, no words can truly fix a problem. No perfect sentence exists to remedy a broken heart or utter distress. Words don’t fix things. Connections do. Knowing someone cares matters more than their ability to “cheer” me up. When I leave a friend’s apartment after sharing a burden, I will still return to my home feeling the weight of that burden. Their words won’t suddenly relieve all of that pressure. But now they will carry the burden with me, and that will make all the difference. I will know I’m not alone.

So when people seek your counsel, I urge you to remember and be mindful of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy is simply recognizing the emotions of someone and having concern for their well-being, whereas Empathy is recognizing and experiencing the emotions of someone. Sympathy is feeling bad and trying to cheer them up. Empathy is truly understanding what they are experiencing so that they aren’t alone in their emotions.

There are no perfect words. Nothing you say will fix the trials of another person. Sometimes the best way you can help is to be honest and say “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me,” because that creates a connection.

We may use empathy and sympathy interchangeably at times, but in moments of crisis, the difference between the two is the difference between a band aid and a connection. One acts as a momentary patch for the problem, and one provides a second heart to carry a burden that could be truly overwhelming for one to carry alone.

SOURCE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw