PhD. More than just a degree

Making your experience wholesome and enjoyable while pursuing an advanced degree

Parth Vakil

PhD. The first thoughts that come to one’s mind upon hearing that word are: smart, highly specialized, long hours, lots of research, and maybe, no life for a while. I disagree. A PhD is a journey that you embark upon in ‘real life’, hopefully to pursue your passion to learn more about the world (and contribute), and not just to get a degree or fill a segment of your life because you are not ready for the ‘real world’. Your PhD is part of your real life and the real world. In real life, there will be real life events and you need to remember that pursuing a PhD does not mean you set aside four to seven years of the experiences in life completely aside. Your life can be your PhD, but I hope that your PhD is not the only memory you come out with at the end of that journey. I hope that by sharing my journey with you, you are inspired to make the most of your time during this stage in your career, and even more, I hope that you get to do more than maybe what I did.

To start off, I would like to share the quote by the first African American woman astronaut, Mae Jemison:

“Science is very important to me, but I also like to stress that you have to be well-rounded. One’s love for science doesn’t get rid of all the other areas. I truly feel someone interested in science is interested in understanding what’s going on in the world. That means you have to find out about social science, art, and politics.”

I don’t know about you, but this quote resonates with me so much, and has been one of my favorite quotes. It’s possible that I love this quote because I was (before starting my PhD) a curious human and also grew up with parents that encouraged me to learn about what goes on in the world. In any case, I am sure that most of you have hobbies, and interests, and care about so many causes and issues in the world, or at least the world around you. Just because you are working on your PhD does not mean that the rest of your interests need to disappear. Yes, the PhD is the main objective at that stage in graduate school, but that is not the only objective. I am not asking you to work less hard on your PhD, but I am asking you to push yourself harder but in a more fun way to get the most out of your experience.

My academic journey began with an undergraduate nano-engineering degree at the University of Toronto in Canada during which I also had the opportunity to participate in a co-op internship at Sanofi Pasteur as well as a summer research position at McGill University right before my last year of undergraduate studies. Moving from Toronto to Montreal for that McGill University position gave me the opportunity to live in a new city and force myself to make friends. I was lucky that Dr. Juncker’s group was large enough and had undergraduate, masters, and PhD students with whom I bonded quite well. I not only hung out with them but also got to meet some of their friends that I had the opportunity to interact with. I played tennis and soccer, went running up Mount Royal and attended an Eminem concert to name some of the activities. This experience prepared me well when I moved to Florida State University (FSU) for my chemistry doctoral program.

I was more than ecstatic to move to sunny Florida for my PhD. I did miss the all-year sunny weather of Kenya (where I grew up) while in Canada but was going to have it back in Florida. Life was even better knowing that the chemistry buildings were located next to the tennis courts. Anyway, something to keep in mind about PhD programs is that they vary by country, university (even within the same country), college/school (arts & sciences, engineering, medical), as well as department (chemistry versus physics). With the chemistry program at FSU, the first semester focuses on on-boarding the graduate students which involves understanding what being a graduate teaching assistant (TA) is like, and getting to know the program and professors, as well as taking a few classes. Additionally, international students like myself, have to get to FSU before the semester begins for orientation that is specific to international students. This beginning of the PhD is the best time to really make some friends, get to know your university campus, explore what sort of student organizations exist and what sort of exercise/sports  facilities are available. As you get busier with research, you will tend to recede from all these things. I took advantage of this time, and literally went up to people on the tennis court to ask if they would be interested in playing sometime. Trust me, I am an extrovert and made many new friends, but I was quite terrified of just going up to people and asking them to play tennis. But guess what, some were more than happy to do so and even informed me about the FSU Tennis Club and its Facebook page. Be brave, my PhD padawan, you can do it, and you might end up with life-long friends too. I was also fortunate that the university’s international office (The Globe as we call it) was really amazing, and through orientation and the Friday Coffee Hours, I made so many new friends including graduate students in other departments. I am forever grateful for the efforts of The Globe to make international students feel part of a wonderful FSU community.

During the first year of my PhD, I joined several student organizations including InternatioNole, and Environmental Service Program, the Congress of Graduate Students (student government), got selected to help organize a TEDx event and attend a Florida International Leadership Conference event. I also took time to join some intramural tennis, soccer and softball teams, as well as spend time at the amazing gym we had on campus. I also taught my first group of students as a TA and picked my research group. I would like to say that being a TA has always been a meaningful experience to me because I had the opportunity to directly impact the life of a new university student. There’s no greater feeling of success than the genuine gratitude from these students for helping them and marketing you as an excellent chemistry TA to the rest of the community. I never considered teaching or a TA position as a waste of time, and nor should you. If you thought that teaching university students is tough, you should try teaching elementary students. The Globe at FSU had a Global Ambassadors program that basically partnered with local schools to allow international students to present about their home. I chose to talk about Kenya, used lots of images and had to explain how I didn’t fall while I was hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro (Hint: how do kids draw mountains on paper). This first year of the PhD also involved attending college football events at Doak Stadium, watching movies at the student cinema, basking in the sun on the beaches around the Gulf of Mexico as well as taking a trip to New Orleans with my friends from InternatioNole. Doing all of this alongside my PhD was not stressful, but enjoyable. I chose to participate in this. I chose to work hard for my research, and spend evenings and weekends doing other things. It is possible and there is nothing wrong with that. I chose to see the PhD as a holistic growing experience both in the lab and outside. Your physical and mental well-being is as important as your academic progress.

As the PhD progressed, I spent more time with research and reading up on the literature in the library with some of my friends – most of whom were not part of the chemistry program. At times, we sat in the chemistry building, or in Denny’s, or at the Starbucks outside campus. Make friends, and the PhD will seem more fun. I still made sure that I took time to keep myself healthy through sports and spend time with my close friends. I also developed a deeper love for photography and spent some time diving more into the nitty-gritty of photography whenever I needed a break from nanoscale science. I participated in the Art in STEM competitions that showcased images from our research in the science library. Inspired by a friend, I decided to start a project called A World Out There which captured stories about travelers and places they visited. This was a project that lasted for about two semesters but then stopped. I did continue brushing up on my photography by doing free graduation photoshoots for my friends now and then. My FSU friends really liked my photography and one of them encouraged me to apply for a position with Humans of FSU (inspired from Humans of New York) that a student had started. Strange as it may be, a chemistry PhD candidate was selected to take over the project. I was honored, excited and a little worried especially because I was wrapping up with the PhD soon. Tracey, the founder of HOFSU, took me under her wing, showed me the world of prime lenses and taught me a lot about talking to people. The HOFSU experience is something I will always remember because it gave me the opportunity to interview some really amazing humans who live a rich, complex life like the rest of us. During the last two years of my PhD, when life permitted and opportunity arose, I also volunteered with various organizations that did beach cleanups,  recycled waste after football games, and donated excess food to homeless shelters. I will admit that the last two years (out of six) of my PhD did get quite busy so I spent a lot of time in the lab, and only spent time exercising and working on HOFSU when possible. Throughout the PhD, I did ensure that I took time during holidays to visit my close family when possible, as well as see some of my other family in the US during shorter breaks. I also did appreciate the fact that my advisor did value time with family and respected the time that I was visiting them and during holidays.

To wrap things up, I would like to say that a PhD by no means is easy and by no means am I the only PhD student that did more outside the lab. I have a friend who did his biology PhD as well as MBA, and occasionally played tennis as well. I know of friends who had fellowships and internships during their PhDs that enriched their experiences, and maybe something that I maybe should have tried to do. Did you know that even at the PhD level, you can do an internship that pays well and helps you gain experience in industry, and possibly a job (if that’s your trajectory)? One last piece of advice I would like to sprinkle in before the curtains go down is spending time learning skills that might benefit you in current times…skills like data analysis, project management, coding and data science, six sigma certification, and more that make you more valuable when exploring opportunities. Many universities have access to free learning resources like LinkedIn Learning that you should take advantage of for such learning or even for your hobbies like photography or digita; photo-editing. Reach out to folks in industry, in teaching university, in government labs and in various tier research universities to learn more about their role and collect enough information before leaving graduate school. This all takes time, and should be part of your PhD experience.

In the end, life is what you make it (that’s actually a book title for a book written by Peter Buffett) and you define what success is. To me, life is supposed to be a rich experience, and that is what I chose to do even during my PhD. By sharing more of my extracurricular participation, I hope that you too find the inspiration to enjoy your PhD journey as much as I did.

Dr. Parth Vakil is an Applications Support Engineer II at TA Instruments – Waters LLC

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