Everybody knows doing a Ph.D. is no easy task that comes with its sweat, sorrows, and sweet moments. The truth is when you join a Ph.D. program you are unsure what exactly you will learn. Sure, you will learn about the topic you decide to investigate, and you will learn the ropes regarding conferences, publications, and being part of a research team. But as a recent Ph.D. graduate, I was pleasantly surprised with what I learned beyond my academic studies. From my personal experience, I would like to share three life lessons I learned during my Ph.D. program:
1. Asking for help is not a weakness.
Recalling the time when I was pulling together my proposal, I realized that I needed another approach to strengthening my dissertation. I eventually decided to adopt a mixed methods approach, which entails mixing a quantitative method (e.g., a design to collect numbers) and a qualitative method (e.g., a design to collect words) (Creswell & Clark, 2011). Such an approach would provide me with a rich dataset and a better understanding of my research topic.
However, I was not confident that I had the required skill set to conduct the quantitative method needed, so I asked a peer from the Faculty of Computer Science for help. Best decision ever. I learned so much from her, which also built up my confidence in quantitative methods. I share this simple story because I think we should ask for help more often. I think many of us hold back from doing so because we are fearful of being judged on revealing our struggle and need for help.
Here’s the thing: when you do not ask for help you will only worry more, and worrying will take its toll on you, becoming this heavy burden, which could have easily been shared with others. I was delighted to have someone with quantitative expertise working with me on my research and because of that experience we continue to work on various research projects together. So, do not tough it out alone, because from my experience asking for help is not a weakness but a strength. It shows that you are willing to share, learn, and tap into others’ experiences, knowledge, and talents to improve you own understanding, which will help you to grow.
2. Do not compare yourself to others.
While in the Ph.D. program, I can assure you that you will compare your progress with that of your peers, but I learned that constantly doing so is unhealthy. We all have different experiences, knowledge, and talents, which will impact how we approach the Ph.D. and move through the program. There is no right way to completing a Ph.D., but if you compare yourself to others, you will think there is and that you are doing something wrong. Just a few weeks ago, I got a text message from a peer in the Ph.D. program who felt that she was not working hard enough and was worried that she was falling behind because others were heading into defense. But you see, she was working hard doing three jobs to ensure that she had food on the table and able to pay her rent, while also attending conferences, producing publications, and trying to finish her dissertation.
Multitasking is emotionally exhausting and requires so much more from us. Just ask the student trying to complete her Ph.D. with a newborn baby or the student who is trying to do so after being diagnosed with cancer, I know them too, and it is tough. For me, they did not fall behind but were troopers balancing their work, family, and academic obligations with such grace. So, be kind to yourself, work at your pace, and do not compare yourself to others. In doing so, you will produce work that reflects you with all your sweat, sorrows, and sweet moments.
3. Your voice is important too.
You want a dissertation that reflects you and your voice. This can be difficult at times since you may get overwhelmed and yes even lost in the literature. While writing my dissertation, I wanted to present a solid and objective argument, so I did my best to use as many important research studies and scholarly voices to support my research, but it was missing something. It was in a research team meeting in which one of the professors emphasized that we needed to remember that our voice was just as important as the scholarly voices we quoted. That our dissertation is our position, view, and stance on a certain topic and including our voice allows the dissertation to flow and be more coherent.
At that moment, I realized what was missing from my dissertation, my voice. I was pushing my voice to the side, I was devaluing it, and I needed it to successfully defend my claims and arguments, only then would my dissertation be solid, only then would it be mine, only then would it become a piece I would feel proud and worthy to submit. This professor had given me a much-needed reminder that my voice was needed because it had an important part in bringing together my dissertation. So, remember to value your voice, do not be afraid to let it rise because doing so will add that extra sparkle to your claims and arguments.
These are the three life lessons learned during my Ph.D., and I hope they are helpful in some way. Having the opportunity to enroll in a Ph.D. program was a privilege but experiencing a Ph.D. was unforgettable and even brutal at times, as I previously mentioned it is no easy task. C.S. Lewis once stated, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn,” which I did. And so, to all the Ph.D. newbies: you got this!
Creswell, J. W., & Clark, V. L. P. (2011). “Designing and conducting mixed methods research.” Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications