The biggest lessons I learnt from pursuing a PhD

POSTED ON: 2018-03-08 08:17:56

I am writing this post for two reasons. This post is for someone who is planning to pursue a PhD or is in the beginning stages of your doctoral degree. Secondly, this lengthy piece here serves as a reminder to myself that I gained a lot more than just an additional line in my resume.;)

Just be aware that I did a PhD in Engineering. Doctoral degrees in different fields would most certainly present challenges of their own and what I mention here may not be something that you can relate to or would experience. I would still like to write about it anyway because even if one person found this enlightening in some small way, this post would have fulfilled its purpose. 

When I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in engineering, there was this persistent droning voice in the back of my head saying, "Are you sure about this Feli? A PhD? in Engineering? You didn't even enjoy slogging for your undergrad. At least then, you had your friends and their company you know?....Aren't you getting WAAAAYYY in over your head??" *twitch twitch, wink wink*. I was scared.... shitless. Nevertheless, the appeal of living on my own........away from the prying eyes of my family in a foreign country..... with my boyfriend at the time (now ex-boyfriend)......felt like too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Now having graduated with my PhD, I feel like my greatest takeaway(s) from the whole experience is not the additional certificate in my folder. So after wasting about 2 minutes of your life with that irrelevant introπŸ˜ƒπŸ˜ƒπŸ˜ƒ, here are some of the biggest lessons that I learnt from pursuing a PhD.. (note: still learning now.. 😁😁😁)



There is a difference between thinking about doing something versus actually doing something. You will always find a reason, ANY reason to explain why you can't do it yet. For me, I used to chalk it up to limitations in resources and funds. While those issues were obstacles, the main reason as to why I struggled so much was because I always hesitated to take the first step. My excuses? "I don't have this material yet so I can't start my experiments yet; This equipment isn't here yet so I can't do this yet. My plans are not thorough enough; What if I missed out on something crucial? What if this method is wrong?".. You get the idea.

With time and hard earned lessons, I have come to realise that no matter how much you plan or question, none of it matters until you take that first step. Every step that comes after that, becomes a tad easier. Be proactive.  It is still challenging but I would like to think that I am now a little better at not knowing what waits for me at the end of the journey.

" You don't have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step." - Martin Luther King


Looking back at my entire doctoral experience, keeping my worries and doubts in check was possibly the most difficult hurdle I had to manage. Over the course of my studies, I realised that there is a huge chance of multiple things going wrong...concurrently... repeatedly. To my recollection, many things did not go my way the first 2 years of my studies.

I became increasingly fearful with every obstacle I encountered. When something didn't go my way. I questioned myself constantly and worried about my peers' opinions, my supervisor's comments. It dawned on me that my fears were paralysing me from moving forward.

I knew that I could not completely rid myself of my fears. I learnt that anxiety and discomfort were part and parcel of the process and I needed to keep them in check. Channelling those fears into achieving something productive is key. You'd come to realise that with continuous effort, the fear gradually diminishes. Make it a point to achieve something every day, no matter how small. Use those small achievements as motivations for you to keep moving forward.

" We grow fearless by walking into out fears." - Robin Sharma


Unlike a taught course, there are no learning outcomes, no tutorials or lectures prescribed to you to help you learn. When you are doing a PhD, you are expected to TEACH YOURSELF. Even with the most knowledgeable and experienced supervisors, he or she will only be your guide. The supervisor's role is not to provide you with the solutions to your challenges, YOU are responsible for that yourself.

Take it upon yourself to go the extra mile and learn beyond what is expected of you. Attend courses and training sessions from any source that will be beneficial to your PhD. Don't hesitate to make decisions about your research on your own. There will be times when you won't be able to afford to wait for your mentor or supervisor to tell you if you are doing the right or wrong thing.

"Don't lean on others. You don't need to. You were born with two feet for a reason" - Unknown.



At the beginning of my studies, every bad comment and every misstep I made chipped at my confidence. Everytime my experiments failed, I would go to bed crying myself to sleep dreading what the following day would bring. The self-doubt and questioning really took a toll on my research timeline. I know that if I had learnt to handle these setbacks more effectively I would not only have saved some time but also a lot of unnecessary stress.

A shift in perspective and focusing on the positives is necessary when it feels bleak. Understanding that mistakes are rich with lessons is important and a good sign of maturity.I met a Professor of Mechatronics once who said this to me. "You don't need to be exceedingly smart to do a PhD. You do need the endurance to stay and finish the course".

"A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing." - George Bernard  Shaw.



You need to be able to assert a degree of independence as a PhD candidate. However, when you know that you have hit a roadblock that you cannot overcome on your own, ASK FOR HELP. Admittedly, I am still really bad at this. This will probably be a lifelong struggle for me. I would like to think that I am better now, but I always have had difficulty asking for help even when I clearly need it. While I do believe that one should try their best in their pursuits, it is also important to acknowledge that we have our limitations. It is not a crime to seek assistance. No man is an island and everyone needs help from time to time.

Taking up a PhD typically means that your workload can be heavy and often overwhelming. Having a helping hand does not only lighten your load but also is an opportunity to broaden your view and improve your research outcome in unexpected ways.

"You are never strong enough, that you do not need help." - Cesar Chavez



Now there is no guarantee that you will not make the wrong decisions. Nonetheless, the PhD project is yours; it is your responsibility and there is likely no other person (including your supervisor) that knows your work better than you do. There were a number of instances where I doubted my instincts and listened to someone else with less than satisfactory results.Consider carefully before accepting a third party's opinion of your work. While there may be some truth to those opinions, always weigh the pros and cons before accepting someone else's opinion above your own. You will find that most of your own choices are likely the best that could have been done at that particular time.

"Trust your own instinct. Your mistake might as well be your own, instead of someone else's." - Billy Wilder.



The work never ends. It is a healthy practice to take a step back to clear your mind and reset your thoughts. When you are in the thick of your research, your visual space often becomes clouded and you often forget to consider the bigger picture. You forget to savour your own accomplishments and use that to push you to keep moving forward.

Take the time to stop and to appreciate the people around you that supported you on your journey. I would not have had the strength to endure had it not been for the support system I had back then. While we did not share similar research objectives, my PhD colleagues became a source of strength because we faced common difficulties. My family never failed to show me support even when they were physcially far away.

Research accomplishments aside, I am very grateful to have met many new people, experienced an entirely different culture, and did things that I thought were beyond my capabilities.

" Pause and remember - Every single event in your life, especially the difficult lessons, have made you smarter, stronger, and wiser than you were yesterday. Be thankful!" - Simple reminders.

For those of you who made it to the end of this post, Thank you and I hope you found it useful in some way. For those of you who are in the throes of your research, keep going and don't give up. As humbling as it is to go through all the hardships and challenges, the rewards waiting for you at the end of your journey are priceless.