A few weeks ago, I took the plunge and started a PhD. Like many people, I found my experience of honours very challenging. So why have I come back two years later to go through it all again?

Since I was little I have wanted to be a scientist, and doing a PhD was an obvious step on this journey. I am passionate about science, I get excited about the amazing strangeness of the natural world, and I love having deep discussions with other people who feel the same way.

I often thought about getting a PhD as similar to becoming a Black Belt in marital arts. A few years ago when I starting doing Tae Kwon Do, getting your black belt seemed like the pinnacle of achievement. But as I worked my way up through the belts it became clear that the black belt was just the beginning. Our master instructor told us one day –

‘Everything you do to get your black belt is just basic training. Only when you get your black belt can you really begin to learn’.

In academia, all your education up to your PhD is just training you how to think – once you get your PhD you can start applying that training and doing the really interesting stuff. It seemed like a secret society, and I wanted to be in it.

But when it came to actually taking the plunge, I found it wasn’t quite as simple or obvious as I had imagined. Doing honours is most people’s first real taste of research, and for many the reality of research is very different to how they imagined. Yes, research is exciting, interesting and fulfilling, but it can also be stressful, boring, competitive and overwhelming. So why am I doing a PhD?

Imposter syndrome

Throughout all my schooling, academic achievement had always come relatively easily to me. But I also had the niggling feeling that everything was somehow too easy, that my good results were flukes or because the teachers liked me, and that one day someone would find me out as a fraud.

When I started honours, this feeling become overwhelming. Without the structure of lectures, and the regular assurance that I was doing well on assignments and exams, I struggled to stay confident in my own abilities and I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Honours made me feel more stupid than I ever have before.

I later discovered that this feeling is very common, and even has a name – ‘Imposter Syndrome’. It is especially common amongst high achievers and, interestingly, women seem to experience it more than men (Clance & Imes 1978). As I have started talking about it with others, it seems that many of my friends and colleagues have felt this way at some time or another, to varying degrees.

If so many people in academia suffer from imposter syndrome, why do we keep doing it? The thing that has always got me through my anxiety is the excitement of discovery, of doing something no-one else has done. Someone once said to me,

‘If you feel like you know what you’re doing, you’re not doing anything worthwhile’.

Feeling stupid may just be something I have to get used to, and recognise as a sign that I’m pushing the boundaries of knowledge.

(In another sense, my imposter syndrome may actually be one of the reasons I’ve decided to do a PhD – part of me just wants to prove to myself that I can!)

Burn out

The stress of honours leaves many students horrified at the thought of ever doing research again. Honours is a crash course in how not to do research – by the end of my project, I felt more relief than a sense of achievement. I couldn’t even bring myself to read my thesis again for several months. But when people started to show an interest in what I had found and I got the chance to share my knowledge, I started to fall in love with my project again.

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Relief – handing in my honours thesis in 2013

Getting the balance right

For me, it’s really important to have a good balance between research and application. During my honours, I was lucky enough to get a job with Greening Australia – an environmental NGO doing fantastic on-ground restoration work. Working for Greening Australia allowed me to see the relevance of my research, and also get experience working on meaningful projects. I was able to share my expertise with landholders, researchers and other environmental practitioners, and make recommendations about how GA could change their practices. Seeing the application of your research is very fulfilling – but after a year or so away from research I was ready for more!

The practicalities

The decision to return to university to do a PhD was very difficult – it would mean leaving a job that I enjoyed, taking a pay cut, and committing to a project for 3-4 years. It also meant the decision that having a baby would have to wait a few more years (unfortunately, this is still a serious consideration for women in academia, but I think that’s a topic for another blog).

I was very fortunate to receive a scholarship, and to be in a position where my husband can support me, but many others are not so lucky. In the end, I figured that if I was going to do it, it might as well be sooner rather than later – it’s much easier to do it now while I don’t have kids, and while I’m still early in my career.

Do you really need a PhD?

When I started to think seriously about doing a PhD, I got a lot of conflicting advice from people. Some people were very encouraging and said it would be a great experience, but others questioned whether it was really a good idea, or whether I really need a PhD. It’s true, I already had a job in my field of interest, and many people have great careers in science without a PhD, arguably with less pressure and more flexibility.

At this point, I don’t really know what I want to do after my PhD, and academia certainly isn’t the only option. I see it as an opportunity to do my own original research, and learn a range of skills that can open up a lot of opportunities outside of academia. I may not necessarily need a PhD, but I want to make the most of the experience and see where it takes me.

So, why AM I doing a PhD?

To answer this question, all I really have to do is go back and read the first paragraph of this post. I’m doing a PhD because I’ve always wanted to, because I love science and research, and because it just sort of feels right. There are lots of reasons why not to go down this road, but I think if I chose not to I would always regret that I didn’t try.

Now that I’m actually starting my PhD, my imposter syndrome is back with a vengeance. Part of me feels like I’m not good enough to be here…but another part of me knows that this is exactly where I belong.

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The door to my new shared PhD office – keen to get started!

References:

Clance & Imes (1978) The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15:3. Available here: http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

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