PhD Life
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Navigating that #phdlife: Why do you want a PhD?


PhD

Three simple letters with so much meaning. A terminal degree. Subject matter expertise. Street cred. The pinnacle of your academic training. For me, it’s the ability to finally become an academic researcher and a professor.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to teach, mentor and explore new ideas. I was an extremely inquisitive child – I constantly sat in the front row and raised my hand to ask my favorite question of all: WHY. I also loved the feeling of creating something new, whether it be through dancing, singing, acting or writing. That is why it doesn’t surprise me that I gravitated towards research.

I distinctively remember being in a high school seminar where we were discussing what professions to explore in college. My hand shot up when they asked who wanted to be a scientist. Since I loved genetics, I was convinced my career goal was to pursue a PhD in Biotechnology. Why a PhD? Well, the few scientists I knew all had PhDs, so it was pretty simple: I need a PhD to be an academic researcher. The plan? Linear and concrete: Go to college, get a bachelor degree and go straight into a doctorate program.

my-path.pngFast forward to today: while I’m finally pursuing a PhD, my path was anything but linear. It took nine years after graduating from my undergraduate program to finally start my PhD. During that time, I transitioned from basic sciences to public health, got an MPH, and worked within multiple job settings: Lab Research. Federal Government. County Government. Academic Partnerships. Health Education. Even some retail and serving in between. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because these experiences gave me invaluable insight… the exact insight necessary to once again answer the question:

Why a PhD?

If I’m being completely honest, knowing the answer to this question from the start is the key to a successful doctoral experience. Few people openly talk about the difficult aspects  of pursuing a PhD. And, guess what: It is scary, daunting, and by far one of hardest thing I have ever had to do.

Yes, pursuing a doctorate degree is an exciting, stimulating process. It is extremely rewarding to finally be immersing yourself in theory and literature, designing your own dissertation and pushing boundaries. However, it can also be incredibly lonely. Although your advisor is there to help guide you, you are expected to delve into a topic and become an expert on your own. On top of that, you will be partaking in required coursework, completing comprehensive exams, and most likely engaging in other research projects and extracurricular activities. So, finding a way to juggle it all, while also trying to keep your personal life afloat, is taxing.

In my case, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD after exploring different career options and realizing I was happiest when I worked on designing and implementing new research projects, and while I was teaching. I am also extremely passionate about mentoring others. Academia offers a venue for me to do all of these things. Being clear and decisive about my reason to pursue a doctorate degree has been instrumental in staying motivated and making the journey much more manageable.

Will it be easy

Know there will be periods of darkness, frustration, and doubt. Every PhD student I know has gone through them, at least once. You will inevitably go through phases of the imposter syndrome, and don’t be surprised if you start questioning your beliefs and other aspects of life. If you don’t know why you are pursuing a doctorate degree, these moments will seem much more difficult than they actually are.

So, if you are genuinely considering a doctorate degree, I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why do you want a PhD?
  • What is a PhD going to provide you that another degree will not?
  • What do you envision using your degree for?
  • Why now?

These questions may seem obvious now, but trust me when I say that this will be one of the most difficult phases you will ever go through. Write down your answers and revisit them every time things get challenging, lonely, or you start to question why you are doing this again (because, you WILL question it!). Having a clear end goal has truly helped me navigate my emotions during the process.

Also, be open to these answers changing slightly (or entirely) throughout your doctoral trajectory. Your personal journey may challenge you to reevaluate your end goals, or you may come across something new that inspires you to move in a different direction. The important thing is to have a reference point that will help you navigate your experience and allow you to constantly check-in with yourself.

To clarify, I am not trying to deter anyone from pursuing a doctorate degree. This period has been so fulfilling and I would do it again in a heartbeat! The road to getting a PhD has challenged me in so many facets of life, and has definitely made me a better, stronger version of myself. I only encourage you to make sure you know why this matters to you. Know your reasons for pursuing the degree and have them serve as an anchor and as motivation throughout the process. And, remember: there are no wrong reasons, as long as they make sense to you.

As for me, I’m less than 15 months away from graduating and achieving a goal I’ve had since high school. Although my path here couldn’t be farther from what I had envisioned, I’m sure my 15-year-old self would be incredibly proud.


I hope you enjoyed this first post on navigating the #PhDLife! To receive updates on future posts, follow my Facebook Page or sign-up for blog updates below.

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Yona is a native Puerto Rican who splits her time between Puerto Rico and whatever U.S. city she currently calls home. She's now finishing up her PhD in public health and social media research. She loves writing about a little bit of everything and sharing her thoughts on life.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I am curious about the development of this blog section. I am 3 months away from finishing my PhD, and my new emotional state is full of future anxiety. Now I wonder about when the doctorate pool became so saturated and post docs (sometimes more than one) are the new pinnacle (although field-dependent). I would like to know what you think about the split between academic researchers, researcher assistants and teachers. Some Ph’Ders say that if by the time you finish your PhD, you don’t have your brain wrapped up with questions to answer, you’ll likely become a researcher assistant or a lecturer (all of them being great options).

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    • Thanks so much for sharing this, Sherly! I know exactly what you mean – I am currently in the process of discussing my next steps with my advisor, and while I agree it is field-dependent, a post-doc seems to be the next “logical” step… but I do think there are other options for those of us who want to delve into academia. I’m not sure what research area you are focusing on, but I do think people outside of the basic sciences have a little more flexibility. In terms of the split, I’m quickly learning it is about understanding what you are comfortable with in terms of soft vs hard money environments. I will definitely be writing some more about this soon, so I hope you check in again, and share your thoughts! And if there is anything else you would like to see discussed here, please let me know! Good luck moving forward, CONGRATS on making it this far, and know it will all be worth it 🙂 Are you applying to any specific types of positions?

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      • Gracias! …Y estaré pendiente. My PhD focuses on soil microecology (responses to global stressors). Currently, I would like to be searching for postdocs Anywhere, but between writing my chapters for publication/dissertation, dealing with journals, trying to figure out what’s the best for the team (my husband is also finishing his PhD)…. so yeah, I’m screwed jaj’. I can imagine you will be covering some of that too: how to balance family?…
        Good luck to you too! And congrats for this great blog. Btw, I’m not sure if you remember, but I remember you. I went to high school with Roberto Soto jeje.

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      • Sherly, claro! Qué grata sorpresa 🙂 Definitivamente voy a escribir sobre todo eso – y podemos hablarlo también, pq la cosa no está fácil, jeje. Búscame en FB. Me alegra que te guste el blog hasta ahora ❤ Un abrazote!

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  2. Pingback: Navigating that #phdlife: Dissertation Diaries | Finding Symmetry

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