PhD Life: A Breakdown

PhD Life: A Breakdown

Hello, neurons! Fun fact: this isn’t my first rodeo in graduate school. As a matter of fact, I graduated in May of 2019 with my Master’s of Science in Biomedical Engineering in the biomechanics track. During those two years, I worked on a master’s thesis, took classes, commuted two hours to campus (roundtrip), worked part-time as a graduate assistant (GA) in a non-academic office, and served a full term as president of the graduate student association at my university. If you were thinking it: yes, it was hard.

Fast-forward to today – I am in my second semester of PhD school doing neuromechanics research and let me tell you – this couldn’t be more different than the Master’s program. Aside from the fact that the thesis I worked on is vastly different than the research I conduct today and that I switched labs/advisers, there is so much more to being a PhD student than I ever could have imagined.

Scheduling & Time Management

Part of my job as a GA was to host workshops and one-on-one mentoring sessions with undergraduate students to teach them valuable skills for success such as time management. Not only was it my job to teach these skills, but I was also the embodiment of time management. How did Leslie Knope put it? What I do for fun: “jammin’ on my planner!” I had absolutely no choice but to schedule every aspect of my life because I WAS DOING THE ABSOLUTE MOST.

And then I started the PhD program, fully-funded on a fellowship without a work requirement, and I moved in with my girlfriend closer to campus. My only obligations were research and classes and I honestly couldn’t function for the first two weeks. I had a lot of time to work with and absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do with it. I mean, yes – I did have to start a research project from scratch. But, brainstorming and going through the design process is abstract, time consuming, and often times you have to discard your progress and start over.

It was clear to me that being a graduate student before barely helped me to adjust to PhD life and before I knew it, I forgot every scheduling and time management instinct. Thankfully, I caught the signs of a spiral before it happened, so I took action and followed any and every PhD student and academic on Instagram and Twitter in hopes that they shared what PhD life actually entailed and how I could make the best use of my time. Thank you, internet strangers! Now, I have a pretty good routine going: I used my calendar and planner to schedule my work-from-home days and lab days, writing blocks, literature review blocks, hands-on work, lab/adviser meetings, mentoring, and events.

A photo of a daily planner listing tasks and events
A snapshot of my not-so-neat planner

Basically, being a PhD student means you have a flexible schedule and a lot to accomplish: you can either do a lot in small bursts, or a little every day at any time of day. All that matter is getting the work done. You just have to find a system that works for you.

Research & Doing Science

I thought I knew what research meant having done a thesis. I was wrong. I didn’t know that I needed to publish at least four papers before graduation, how to apply for funding, and the nuances of proposal writing (funding is typically necessary to do the science and I didn’t know – thesis was not funded). Conference presentations? What’s that? I have yet to present at a conference. Manuscript? Where do I start? I felt like I took a plunge into ice cold water and panicked when I couldn’t find my way up.

Author is pictured wearing headphones and typing on a laptop
Mother of Neurons – me! Working on some code for one of my research projects

Luckily, my adviser and lab mates were all incredibly understanding and receptive to my questions so here’s what I now know about the research process (this just briefly summarizes it):

  • Find your research question and define hypothesis (what you think may happen if you do x, y, z)
  • Review current literature to see if your question fills a knowledge gap, then regularly check for updates in the field for methodology or insight that might be useful in answering your research question
  • This part is pretty specific to engineering, but: try out/experiment with different devices/solutions/software that will be useful for the research project and start thinking about device design (I am building something for my doctoral research).
  • See which designs work and which don’t!
  • Get permission from institutional boards to collect data from human subjects (most biomechanics/neuromechanics research is done on human subjects if studying human movement)
  • Collect data, analyze it, test your hypothesis, get the information out there via conferences, research forums, seminars, etc.; and update your manuscript (it’s a draft of a journal article, y’all).
  • Try to secure funding! Then secure it.
  • Expand on your research question.
  • And repeat for the next four years.

Student Expectations

So, along with doing science, some doctoral programs expect their students to complete some coursework and maintain at least a 3.0 GPA before they can be ABD (all but dissertation, basically your research hours). Given that I came into my program with a Master’s closely related to the Mechanical Engineering Master’s, I had already completed 75% of the courses I needed for the PhD. That being said, I’m still taking courses, but I don’t have that many to get through.

Then, there’s the whole qualifying exam and candidacy exam thing. PhD students, after taking some coursework, are meant to take qualifying exams to test their fundamentals – basically, to see if you are qualified to do your doctoral research. After passing qualifying exams, or quals for short, you are expected to prepare for your candidacy exam. The latter is where the term “PhD Candidate” comes from, meaning if you pass this you become a candidate for the doctoral degree. AND THEN, you defend a dissertation, which is like a thesis, but for doctoral research done over the course of 4+ years.

I walked into this program expecting the dissertation, but not knowing much about the process to graduate. Along with research, I am also making sure to meet the student expectations for my program.

Life, Relationships, and Mental Health

I’ll keep this short for your sake and write another post on this topic alone. Just know that everything changes. A PhD is not only time-consuming, but mentally and emotionally taxing. We all hear stories about PhD students not having lives, losing/damaging their relationships, and the severe mental health impacts they experience. What I will say is that to combat these things:

  • I regularly communicate with my family, friends, and partner about what I’m going through
  • I schedule time to be spent with loved ones, as well as me-time
  • I go to mental health counseling
  • I remind myself on a daily basis that my PhD is my job and not my life

That’s it!

I hope you all enjoyed my breakdown of PhD life and what I’ve learned about it so far. I can say that with its many lows, there are so many highs. I’m learning so much about myself as a researcher and as a person, learning from some of the best minds in the field, and loving the process. The PhD experience varies from person to person, but I can confidently say that it will be worth it – if only to make young me proud by becoming a scientist (well, an engineering scientist?) For the record, young me wanted to be both a princess and a scientist.