A finished PhD: a retrospective

There was this thing that Frederic used to say to me that would drive me absolutely crazy. After listening to me whine about the lack of progress for half an hour or so, he would shut me up and say something along the lines of: ‘Stop complaining. Everybody goes through the same problems and it’s normal that things go slow.’ I used to get so frustrated when he said that but it’s really quite an appealing idea. And over time it became a thought that kept me warm at night, and sane during the days.

We come in with such ambition, such expectations. We have a fire burning in the pit of our stomach but as reality slowly starts disappointing us and things don’t go quite the way we wanted, that fire consumes us. Slowly but surely the frustration rises and it breaks our spirit and to our dismay we notice that grimy aftertaste every time we catch ourselves saying something a bit more cynical than the day before. Yet every time we voice our frustration, we’re fed this idea that it’s ok to be awesomely mediocre, that it’s normal to have some period of struggle in our PhD’s. Hey everybody goes through it after all. And before soon that becomes the new normal and we give up on trying to change things. We stop trying to rise above the average. We settle for just getting a PhD rather than delivering a PhD that will be remembered, a PhD that will have an impact. We say things like: I’m sorry, Fred, I guess we won’t be sharing a Nobel prize together after all.

And at the same time that we feel our motivation starting to slip away we start looking for people to blame. We start second-guessing our trust in those who guide us. We start noticing much more than before the things that don’t run smoothly. We obsess over the things that go wrong and feed the ugly rumor mill whenever we bloody well can. And in this negative spiral we seem to forget that the opposite of success is not failure… but inertia. The worse is not to do something wrong but to do nothing at all. We lose track of the value of mistakes. Not only those mistakes that we’re so graciously allowed to make ourselves, but also those from the people around us and above us. And believe me, mistakes there were many and even though we often wondered if anybody learned from the mistakes, we seemed to forget that hindsight is always 20/20 and that one day it will be on us to decide. And as we come closer to the end, all we can think of is that soon we can leave all of the mess behind and we will never have to bother with it again… but in reality we’ve stored all of the lessons in a room labeled experience and we’ll be visiting it more often than we think.

And sure enough there is light at the end of the tunnel and we come out on the other side of the tunnel to find a brand new world. And faced with that new world we find that despite everything the fire is still burning. I’ve seen that renewed hunger in the eyes of many of my fellow graduating PhD candidates and I find myself basking in that same ray of sunshine at this very moment. I feel that dormant energy bubbling in the deep, that vast potential for things to come and I want to say to those of you who are still in the shadow that we are more than the sum of our publications, we are more than the sum of our lab books, presentations, posters and patents. This is not our last chance to make a difference, it’s not our last chance to do something extraordinary. Remember that energy you felt when you started and remember that that will always be there for you to draw on whenever you need to. It’s never too late to aspire, it’s never too late to invent, it’s never too late to achieve. And when you do, I’ll consider myself very lucky if our paths were to cross again so we can share our stories.