A View from the Other Side

By Laurence Dumouchel, Ph.D.

Laurence Dumouchel and colleagues
August 16, 2018

When I first considered writing a blog about the experience of getting my Ph.D., I thought I would be able to provide life-changing advice or deep thoughts about the transformative process through which I had just gone. Now, having recently made the last edits to my dissertation, sent in the final version, and received the famous congratulatory email from GWU, I feel… exactly the same as before. Is this a common feeling? 

Throughout my Ph.D. program, one of the most interesting life lessons that I learned is that there are many ways to be a scientist, and many ways to be successful when undertaking the challenge of pursuing a doctoral degree. For that reason, I decided to integrate my personal perspective with the results from an informal poll of my colleagues with whom I shared this experience in the last year.

When asked about what it felt like to get a Ph.D., my colleagues’ answers varied from “A f-ing accomplishment” to “anti-climactic.” Dr. Kaitlin Wellens (CASHP Ph.D., now a post-doctoral scientist at Trinity Washington University) succinctly explains these mixed, sometimes conflicting feelings: 

“I think in part [the feeling] is because there is such a long build up.  Five to six years is a long time to be working on getting a degree, so when the time finally comes around to defend your dissertation, you kind of just feel relieved that you survived and that it is all over. However, being a few months out, and looking back at the entire process, I am really proud of myself. I have realized just how many skills I picked up along the way, even if I didn't recognize them as I was learning them.”

When starting a graduate program, we almost immediately discover that time management skills are essential, research experiments can fail, samples are never as varied or abundant as you hope, and anxiety can strike when facing a blank page. My anxious brain had (over-)prepared for many academic and scientific challenges, but I did not foresee one major hurdle: life gets in the way. 

A lot can happen in five years, and sometimes you simply cannot prepare for the personal, financial, psychological, and physical challenges coming your way. When asked about what they perceived as being their hardest challenge during their doctoral program, all interviewees brought up the factor of time: the work is long and can be monotonous. For some, limited funding sources and financial support were the most salient drawbacks. Another challenge for interviewees was the importance of interpersonal skills: 

“I also think no one realizes how important people skills and management are in graduate school, but learning to work with lots of different people with many different personality traits, research opinions, and work styles can be just as challenging as the research itself.”

Despite the challenges, all recent graduates agree getting a Ph.D. is extremely rewarding. All in all, they appreciate having been able to dedicate years to pursue their passion, travel around the world, develop useful skills that can be applied to future endeavors, and the ability to control their own schedules – to an extent. Dr. Emeline Raguin (University of Montreal Ph.D., currently a post-doctoral scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science) mentions her greatest reward was: “providing insightful answers to a previously poorly studied research topic”.

As for me, I realized in hindsight that it was mostly an opportunity to recognize my own ability to overcome many types of obstacles, and the reward lies in the process itself– challenges and all!