How is PhD life different to Bachelor time?

In the last month, Chiasma Auckland successfully held its annual event - Synapse. It was great to see so many enthusiastic students and industry members there. This year’s event was of high quality and I am very proud of being a member of the team. For those who missed Synapse, it is an event that bridges industry members and scientists with university students. At the event we had three guest speakers, Richard Little, Anna Stove and Stephen Henry, following by traditional networking and some stall exhibitions.  Chiasma organises such events every year. If you missed out this year, I strongly recommend you keep your eyes open for next year’s Synapse!

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Ok, let’s get back to the theme of this blog. I would like share my experiences of transitioning from a Bachelor student to PhD. I graduated with a Bachelor of Technology with 1st class honours from University of Auckland two years ago. At that time, I was relatively unsure of what to do in the future, and there was a PhD opportunity that really attracted me. I was like “Ok, PhD sounds really cool, I will become Dr Wilson one day, let’s do this”. That’s actually my primary motivation of doing a PhD - to get a Dr title.

The full name of PhD is doctor of philosophy, or more descriptively “permanent head damage”. Generally, you conduct your own research over three to four years and contribute novel knowledge to the field. At the end of journey, you defend your thesis and get rewarded as “Dr”. As a Bachelor student, you take papers, write reports, assignments and exams, then you pass the course. These are obviously challenging tasks, and I am still familiar with the tears and stresses I had throughout my degree. However, you should be aware that these formats have answers. That is, at the end of the day, you will get a right answer for your task. If not, that means you have done something wrong. Research is so different, as there are no answers for your questions and what you need to do is to work hard to find answers. Sometimes, the results may look strange, do not make sense, or even completely opposite to what people thought. That’s the nature of research, all about novelty.

I have worked with quite a few research projects during my Bachelor. But most of the time (and typically for all types of research projects at Bachelor level), your supervisor would hold your hand most of the time. All you need to do is to follow the instructions and work hard to achieve that. Getting into research at postgraduate level (PhD and Masters), it is then a complete different story. Your supervisor will be the funder, and most of the time you will know far more than your supervisor on the topic. Then, you would need to work out your own protocols, design experiments and manage your time for different tasks/projects. It is not easy at the beginning, and most of the time I felt really frustrated with that, especially as I had great success in my Bachelor. Thankfully, the transition period was quite smooth for me, with a lot of help from my colleagues, university and my supervisors. Now I have adapted into PhD life and made progress towards my ultimate aim.

I am often asked for advice on whether it is worth doing a PhD. I think the experience is more important than the research itself. I mean research is exciting, you are contributing new knowledge to society. Other than that, a lot of skills you learn and the way you think are useful for lifelong. However, if you are not both physically and mentally ready for this monster work, that’s probably gonna be endless nightmares. Think carefully before coming aboard.

Lastly, I hope everyone enjoys the semester break and good luck for your past/upcoming tests and exams.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect that of Chiasma's as an organisation.