Yesterday was a day of intentions! What a statement.

As part of the thesis examination process, we have to submit a form to the university’s admin office stating our intention to submit a thesis. It must be completed at least two months before we intend to submit. I have a final deadline for my thesis – the end of September this year – so I thought it was about time I got that done.

However, the process got me thinking. Of course, we all start a PhD with the intention of submitting, but what if we don’t? There have been numerous points during the last 3 years and 9 months (or 3 years, 8 months and 23 days, to be precise) when I’ve wanted to just throw in the towel. I’ve had daydreams of causing some major glassware breakage chaos, leaving my bench and never returning to the lab. I hope – and I’m sure – that I’m not alone in this. I have experienced crises of confidence, days and nights when I am totally sure that I am not good enough to do a PhD, that I’m not cut out for research. In-between those times I have wondered what the consequences would be if I didn’t finish – I was desperate to know that if I did have to make a sudden exit, I wouldn’t have wasted my time starting a qualification that I didn’t finish. So I made a list of things my PhD has taught me, just in case I had to justify to myself or others why I ran away from a situation (if that ever became a reality)…

  • I have learnt to deal with failure (I’ve written elsewhere about this)
  • I can manage my time effectively – need to put on four reactions and also find the time to work them all up? Staggering! Empty 30 mins while something is stirring/warming? Wash up! File NMRs! Collect missing IR data! Voila.
  • Playing hard is just as important as working hard – if you don’t give yourself downtime, or the opportunity to just sit in a pub garden with your friends, you’ll burn out. There’s nothing more useless than a tired, grumpy, stressed-out chemist who can’t even work out molarity.
  • Guestimation is useful – yes, it’s heresy, but my maths skills are appalling. Ask anyone who knows me and they will dutifully report back that I am a humanities student disguised as a chemist. I sometimes struggle with calculations, and have learnt that the most useful thing is to always approximate whatever it is you’re tackling and see if your properly-calculated answer is the same as the ballpark. For someone who finds formulae a foreign language (but not alliteration) it’s so, so important to check that things just roughly make sense in terms of magnitude or units.
  • It’s all just a giant puzzle – what’s that, your data don’t make sense? No, they do! It’s just you haven’t figured out the reasons why yet. If I took some of my results at face value, hadn’t scrutinised NMR signals relative to others, hadn’t written out what each bit of information actually told me in very simple terms and then looked at the bigger picture, I would have missed some really interesting things. Just because it’s not obvious, doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution.
  • Patience is key – particularly when awaiting the magic touch of the crystal fairy…often things are best left alone, particularly if you’re frustrated. Rushing or being hasty rarely brings favourable results.
  • Know when to seek help – OK, you know your chemistry better than anyone else. Of course you do, you’re living/eating/breathing (well, perhaps not eating) it 24/7. It’s so easy to get tunnel vision when you’re so heavily involved in something. Taking a step back and seeking the opinion of others, whether it’s your boss, coworkers, fellow PhDs or even your Mum, can sometimes be surprisingly useful. Having a fresh take on a situation is never a bad thing, it doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough to solve a problem if you have to seek someone else’s help.
  • Being curious is key – we’re all told off as children for asking “why?” too often, usually when we are 2 or 3 and our parents just want to make it round the supermarket in peace for once….but as a researcher, or in life in general, we should never stop asking why! Question everything. Find new solutions. Enjoy looking for answers.
  • Many other skills – the “usual” CV jargon, but it’s true! Problem solving, working effectively in teams, working effectively on your own, being organised, processing data, etc. etc….
  • (I’m sure I could go on. Thoughts?)

In the last six months I’ve found some sort of zen state, an acceptance of the inevitable, that I will climb hurdles that I thought I may not be able to stomach: I will stop doing labwork, I will write a thesis, I will have my viva, I will finish the PhD. But even if one of those hurdles proves too much for me, I find comfort in the fact that I have learnt so much from my time in a research lab, and not just acquiring niche skills in air-sensitive organometallic chemistry. Oh, and countless DIY skills, too – I love working in a hands-on laboratory. Need a new water bath? You know where the old plastic bottles and the hacksaw are! Plug not working? Open it, change the fuse! But I digress. A research lab is a wonderful place to learn about yourself, and to gain so many skills that are useful in all areas of life. It will help equip you for the future, whatever that may entail!

In other news, we also entered our notice of marriage yesterday at the registrar’s office. Finishing a PhD and getting married in the same year, am I mad? (Yes. Probably. It’s OK, I think I can deal with it – thanks to research!!)

Categories: PhD

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