The struggles of doing a PhD

By Melis Pisiren

“Doing a PhD is hard”, this is what I have heard by many for years. I didn’t understand what this meant, but now three months into my PhD journey, I think I finally understand what everyone was trying to say.  I have dealt with very demanding situations before which have made me a strong person. However, I have joined the ‘doing a PhD is hard’ crew pretty quickly. Let me explain why…

For my PhD, likewise, for my masters and undergraduate degree, I have been fortunate as I have always been surrounded by extremely helpful, patient and enthusiastic scientists who have taught me what textbooks could not. I am very grateful for every scientist I have crossed pathways with as I have learnt an incredible amount. I have learnt from my mistakes and some were incredibly embarrassing, but I was always endorsed by the environment I was surrounded by. But, even though I am in a very supportive environment with admirable scientists, I’m really finding that doing a PhD is hard.

It’s hard because it’s your project. It doesn’t matter that you are a part of a larger team, and all are working together for one cause, at the end of the day, your PhD project is your project! Doing a masters was very difficult, especially during the pandemic, but your project was part of something else, and you could always ask questions and pretty much have answers straight away. But a PhD is not the same. Yes, you do ask and receive answers, but the proportion of receiving answers than asking questions is much lower. And I guess this is where all the fun is. But this can also be very hard to come to terms with.

For your project, you have a fantastic plan of how you want to answer your burning question, and everything seems very fun and doable. But once you bump into a minor hurdle like not making your simple western blot work, you start to feel like your whole project is crumbling and you feel like a total failure.  Are you a failure because you can’t get one of your westerns to work? Erm, of course not! But that feeling sucks and it lingers with you. I nearly had tears when my western did not work or when I forgot to put the correct concentration of antibody for my assay. Was it the end of the world (okay we’re in a pandemic, possibly, maybe?) definitely not! But did I feel like it was the end of the world? Of course! But why did I feel like this, only three months in? Well, it’s the first time I am ‘failing’, and I am not failing for someone else but for myself, which hurts and is very hard to accept.

From what I understand as a new PhD student, doing a PhD is very important as you get to research a topic that you’re very interested in and provide to a wider scientific community. But a PhD is not just about research; it’s actually learning how to fail and accepting to fail. It’s self-growth but in a very harsh way. A PhD makes you learn how to completely accept your failures and breaks you into every little element that made you and then teaches you how to reconstruct yourself.

About the author:

Melis Pisiren is a first year PhD student in the MolecularBionics lab at UCL sponsored by AstraZeneca. Her research involves working on the macromolecular transport across the blood brain barrier. She has a molecular biology background and has a great interest in neuroscience. You can find out more about her research on her lab’s website here or you can visit her Twitter profile or LinkedIn profile.

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