Like any postgraduate student, over the course of my PhD I spent a lot of time moaning. There wasn’t enough material, no one had enough time for me, meetings were too long, kit was broken, my computer wasn’t fast enough, PowerPoint kept crashing, Origin deleted my default graph formats… I had my viva a week ago and all of these immature and trivial problems came back to me. Now that my research project is finished I feel strangely empty and hollow. It’s weird, I was so frustrated with how long everything in universities took, from submitting papers, to writing a thesis to planning a viva, I didn’t begin to think about how the end would feel. You know that a viva is going to happen from the minute you sign up to a PhD, you know the majority of people pass their viva- but nothing can quite prepare you for what it’s like when it’s over. I’ve just lost something that was more than anything in the rest of my life. I’m completely lost when I wake up and can’t cycle straight to my lab to warm up the lasers without having to justify it to anyone.
My PhD was the happiest time in my life and I feel proud and privileged to have done it. I met some people I’d never have met and I went to countries I would never have gone to. There were the PhD students in China who helped me get on the right train (which isn’t as simple as it sounds) there were the researchers in Korea who drove me and my mentor/ lab partner/ best friend to a French bakery when we couldn’t handle beef for breakfast and there was the academic in Brazil who told me how to handle the barbecue restaurant. There was the support of dedicated administrators to book flights, arrange visas and sort out hotels, tell us when we needed to submit forms and help us plan group meetings. You’re not really a grown-up but you’re more respected than an undergraduate- you don’t need to share your calendar, you can be late for meetings, you don’t really need to go to any meetings. Without all the politics and teaching requirements of an academic, you are an academic. You can collaborate with your friends without needing anyone to sign a form and you can use people’s equipment without paying them. You’re both an expert and a newcomer, no one has massive expectations of you but people are still impressed by attention to detail. You can mess up, you can break things and you can ask questions without being embarrassed. You don’t need to take on any responsibility, but when/ if you do it’s recognised beyond your wildest dreams. You can teach undergraduates and work with schools and cross the campus meeting wonderful people. You’ve got the keys to a lab where miracles can happen.
So I’ve finished my PhD, and I’ve worked with some of the most complicated and neurotic and intelligent and terrifying people I’ve ever met, and I’ve had my viva, and I’ve survived, and I wish I could do it all again.