I recently celebrated my sixth year with the immunology department and it was a bittersweet anniversary. I have loved the experiences that graduate school has granted me, but I feel like time does not make the heart grow fonder. No longer do I yearn to attempt cloning for the second time in my life or to stay in the lab until midnight just for the fun of it. As I reflect upon my time here, it becomes clear that the PhD can be subdivided into separate stages that all graduate students go through.
The Orientation Stage
At first, the U of T undergraduates will segregate from non-U of T undergraduates, but this won’t last very long. Don’t be afraid to make friends with the faculty. They are there for your benefit. And you are there for their amusement. So make the best of it! Over the next few stages, you will grow to be great friends.
1st and 2nd Year: The Uninhibited Continuation of Undergrad
This stage probably begins in your first year as you become more comfortable around your peers and is defined by a higher frequency of pub outings when naïve statements, such as “I can do this PhD thing in 4.5 years”, or uninhibited retorts of “I think there is a scientific way to make the teenaged mutant ninja turtles; they won’t look like the ones depicted in comics, but it will TOTALLY BE EXACTLY LIKE THAT” are made. Actually, the frequency alcohol is consumed can be traced to the early years of the degree and in the later years when you are most critically evaluated, as depicted in the principal component analysis in Figure 1.
2nd and 3rd Year: Full Day Experimental Catch-Up
After your reclassification or qualifying exam at the end of second year, you will realize that if the rest of your PhD continues along the same learning curve trajectory then you will be here for a very long time. You will start to pull those extremely long experiment days that began approximately three months before your reclassification exam. Coincidentally, the dullness will start to seep in. In your first two years you would correct every family member and acquaintance who called you a medical doctor and would laboriously explain what each stage of academia is, hoping that you have imparted to each taxpayer and voter what is truly important in the debate of medicine versus research. During this stage, however, you nod your head when your Great Aunt is toting that you will be a doctor who can cure patients of their cancer.
3rd and 4th Year: Seeing the Faint Light at the End of the Tunnel
When you begin your PhD you will think that $18,000 take-home pay is more than plenty to live off of, in contrast to your destitute undergraduate years when sidekicks sufficed as a fulfilling meal. However, in your final years you will abhor this travesty and begin to feel you are Alice on the wrong side of the looking glass, watching all your engineering friends on the other side riding really expensive bikes. You will refer to your younger siblings as your older siblings in feckless attempts to deflect questions of why they already own a house, while your most valuable possession is the computer the lab purchased for your academic use.
You may also exhibit strange behaviours, such as getting haircuts by nonprofessionals and contemplate participating in health studies that compensate heavily for the possibility of serious adverse side effects, including death. Fortunately, this is the year you are finally eligible for a teaching assistant position more substantial than invigilating exams or teaching medical students. The new amount that shows up in your bank account will make you giddy and justify buying the really expensive lattes at Starbucks instead of coffee, because you’ve finally made it! Soon enough, however, you will start to question the ability of undergraduates to become our future leaders and state wholeheartedly that you never possessed any of their shortcomings, much to the amusement of the more senior postdoctoral fellows.
5th++++ Years: Writing Your Thesis
In your final year, either you or your supervisor will be very enthusiastic about finishing your academic training. If you are extremely lucky, both of you will be enthusiastic about this process at the same time. While writing your doctoral dissertation, and then subsequently re-writing your doctoral dissertation, you might sink into a little bit of depression. This is normal. When you are used to social interaction on a daily basis (even if it is in the context of “You cannot kick me off the LSR yet; I booked it to exactly 4:07pm”) drastically changing your schedule to reading and writing all day long is a complete shock. Anticipating this in advance, when you are writing your thesis and studying for your defense, try to incorporate at least one “social interaction” a day. This refers to anything that would cause you to leave your apartment or not stare at a computer screen for one hour. This will also ensure that when you go to the grocery store you don’t linger with the cashier while pining for a conversation more extensive than “No, I do not need to purchase a bag.” Due to this behaviour, you should also refrain from your sudden and erratic desire to adopt a cat from the humane society (Figure 2). Knowing in advance that this stage will tax your willpower and weaken your resolve will hopefully make things go smoother.
You might also find the relationship between you and your supervisor resembles your relationship between you and your parents right before you were about to leave for university. It will be a growing period for you both. However, more and more you will notice how intertwined science is in your life – potentially from the fact that the only two master folders you have in your documents are labeled “Science” and “Not Science”. And the “Science” folder is 100 GB large, whereas “Not Science” is a measly 10 GB.
The Brief Postdoctoral Period
Yes, I know I only said there would be five stages. This is the sixth, and you can rest assure that you can properly count to six. I put this here as a surprise because everything will take much longer than you think it will. This is just preparing you much in advance. But you shouldn’t accept this stage as is. You should still try to finish everything as quickly as you can, but know that it is very common to stay longer than you anticipated. That’s also how your anticipated three year postdoc turns into seven!
In the end, when you look back at this period of your life it might not seem as long as it does while you are experiencing it. However, obtaining your graduate degree is an important stage in your personal development and should not be glossed over. In her TED Talk, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, defines our twenties as one of the pivotal times in our lives that should not be taken for granted because it encompasses the stage in which you truly define yourself (thus this video is likely only suitable for those <29.5 years old). As challenging and taxing as a PhD is, you have the opportunity to network with great minds and make interesting discoveries while maintaining a strict 11am work start time, so enjoy this period of personal and intellectual discovery and make the best of your experience!
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