My PhD Journey 2: Lessons Learnt So Far

“Do you know how to drive a manual car?” He asked. “If you do, you would understand this illustration vividly: if you want to accelerate, you start with ‘half clutch’, then you slowly release your legs from the clutch and step fully on the accelerator”. As I listened to this informal welcome speech, my mind raced in different tangents. It was officially my first day as a PhD fellow at the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), and I was in the office of the Director along with three other Masters students from Nigeria. It was a very casual interaction, but the lesson resonated deeply, and it has helped me a great deal.

From the first Departmental seminar I attended (where I felt somewhat out of place) to several other presentations (which became more engaging once I began to understand certain concepts better), to reading numerous journal articles, delivering class presentations, attending lectures centred on cutting-edge molecular biology research and its applications, working in teams on class projects, writing mini-reviews, and then the three-phase comprehensive exams (which was quite a tough nut to crack – not because it was difficult but for the tell-tales and expectations)… Through these, I kept reassuring myself that I was on ‘half clutch’ and things would get better.

Gradually, days have turned into months and now to years…this leaves me wondering where all the time went. I am currently well into the second year of my PhD programme (which is actually my first year of research), and it has been a beautiful experience so far. About a year ago, I shared a blog post on some of the lessons which I had learnt in the first year of my PhD programme. I have learnt so much more since then…, and I keep learning more every day. In this post, I provide updates you on some additional lessons I have learnt in the past year.

  • Each second counts: I work in a research laboratory that houses two distinctly different research groups, and our large research family is made up of at least thirty members. Each individual has their own project – and every project is important. One of the first lessons I learnt when I began my research was to plan my time more efficiently so that I book the facilities I need to use early enough so I could have unrestrained assess to them when I need to use them. I also learnt to be very considerate in my use of equipment, knowing that many other students are waiting to use the same facilities. I tried to avoid the ‘morning rush’ by planning my experiments in the early afternoon right after lunch when I was both refreshed and productive, while I put my mornings to good use reading scientific literature and writing. Typically, Mondays are my busiest days with departmental seminars in the late morning dovetailing into early afternoon and my lab’s journal club meetings right after the lunch break, so I try to use this day to plan my experiments for the week and for any other tasks does not over-exert me physically or mentally.
  • Start from somewhere…anywhere: The day after I was notified that I had successfully scaled through my qualifying exams, I remember feeling this gripping fear – it dawned on me that my solo-journey had begun and I was too scared to start. I had a mental picture of what I had to do, and I understood the theoretical concepts, but putting to practice what I had read was where my challenge lied. The nature of the experiments I was about to do was a lot different from anything I had ever done in my life, but I knew that I needed to start from somewhere. With some encouragement from my supervisor, I set up my first experiments, optimised my protocols and set up several successful experiments. This was a major confidence booster for me. From each experimental set-up, I learn, unlearn and relearn new ways of doing things, and this makes it so exciting. Looking back, I realise that there is never a time when I would feel adequately primed to begin a new round of experiments or in fact anything in life. I need to start from somewhere – anywhere.
  • Self-Motivation: During the first phase of my PhD programme, I had to sit-in for classes: some of which were mandatory, others were voluntary. When I had some free time from classes, I would work on assignments, make preparations for class presentations, peer discussions and then do my personal study. The realisation of the amount of work I needed to invest in order to scale through the hurdle of my PhD qualifying examination was enough motivation to get me going through that phase. As the research component of my programme kicked in, I realised that I needed to have something more tangible to get me going: I knew that I had full control of my time (I still do) and I needed to work independently to execute my project. This made me think critically about my reason for pursuing a PhD and how it aligned with my life’s purpose. This became my morning mantra – I learnt to continually remind myself why I needed to get up each morning and turn up in the lab to get things done. For the first few weeks of the commencement of my research, this was the most challenging thing I had to do, but over time, it got better. These days, I wake up with the full consciousness of what I need to achieve. I find that being focused on my goals and working consistently makes me more productive.
  • Team-play: When I tell people that I work in a molecular biology lab, it is tempting for them to visualise a place where you have lots of equipment with magical abilities to produce beautiful pictures of micro-organisms which we can not see with our eyes. They also picture lots of micro-organisms that can cause terrible, incurable diseases (my PhD is focused on infectious diseases, and my research seeks to identify new treatments for Animal African Trypanosomiasis, a wasting disease of livestock in Africa). In reality, people work in labs too, and it is essential to understand these individuals and to work effectively with everyone to achieve the aims and objectives of the group. I work in a group with individuals of different ethnicities and as a result, different beliefs and ways of doing things. Over the past few months, I have learnt how to work with every member of the group by effectively leveraging the strengths of each person and complementing their weakness. On few occasions, conflicts arise due to differing views, but I have also learnt the importance of working through our differences amicably knowing that our primary focus is to ensure the success of the team as a whole and each individual that makes up the team.
  • Striking a balance: A few months ago, I married a really amazing man. I knew this new phase of life would require lots of adjustments – and I am learning every day how to be more productive in all that I need to do. One of my greatest concerns as I made the transition was in my ability to have enough time to devote to my studies. When I was single, I felt like I had unrestrained control over my time and resources and I could do as I pleased to achieve my aim – even if that meant working extra-long hours and eating whatever I pleased whenever I wanted to. Now that I am married, I am accountable to my husband, and every little decision I make has to be in the interest of our family. I have the tendency to be so carried away with work that I neglect some other things which are equally crucial for enhanced productivity, and my husband helps to keep me on track. It helps that my husband has also been through the PhD process so he can relate a great deal to the demands (though I know that my programme is more tasking than he can imagine). I am learning to direct all my energy to my work in the short bursts of time that I have when I am at work and to take my mind off everything and focus on my family when I am home. I also try to find time for things I enjoy doing, such as writing, reading motivational books and cooking. Although I have a little less time to do the things I used to do, it also means that I have enhanced focus when I do the things that I need to do and it makes up for the lost times. I find that being balanced helps me to be more intentional about my use of time and opportunities, and hence to produce more results.
  • Keep detailed records: I used to think I had a photographic memory – until I started my PhD research. I quickly discovered that one of the biggest lies I could ever tell myself is that I would remember every detail of my experiments. After a few futile attempts at remembering little details of great importance, I started keeping a scrapbook by my side as I worked. It helped me immediately document every modification I made to my protocols as well as mistakes that could be confounding factors in my experiments. Every so often, I read through my scrapbook, and it helped me understand each of my results better. It also helped me update my lab notebook more accurately. I find that every information I can document is essential both now and for the future.
  • Effective planning: A PhD by itself is a tasking learning experience, but a PhD in Africa is even more demanding. For a pessimist, it is discouraging, but I like to see the bright side of things. I am so thankful to be working at a centre which provides access to state-of-the-art research facilities both here in Africa and worldwide through the help of our strong international collaborations. We, however, still have our peculiar challenges. For instance, when research supplies are ordered, they take months to arrive, and if proper care is not taken, this could stifle creativity and productivity. To work around this situation, I have learnt to plan my experiments several months in advance and to order adequate quantities of the items that I need to execute my research knowing fully well that I might not have easy access to all the supplies that I need when I need them. I am now translating this principle to other aspects of my life.
  • Accountability: A few years ago, I was privileged to supervise the undergraduate project of a small group of students. It was a great learning experience for the students, and more importantly, for me. I learnt from their mistakes and successes. Now that the table is turned and I am a student again, I have a strong sense of responsibility towards my supervisors/advisors. I know that my PhD research experience is meant to be mutually beneficial, so I try my best to periodically feed up details of the progress I am making with my research, learning points and challenges. At some point, I felt like I was providing too much unnecessary information that would put undue strain on my supervisors, but I quickly realised that this was not the case. Constant interaction with my supervisors helps me learn more from my supervisors through their feedback and makes me think critically about each step that I take; I would totally miss out on these if I were not open enough to share my progress updates. It also helped me to remain accountable to my supervisors on how I am managing my time and research resources. These interactions help me assess my performance, set timelines and milestones for my work.
  • Presentation skills: Early this year, I attended a course on presentation skills organised by the University of Ghana’s Pan-African Doctoral Academy (PADA). My aim for attending the course was to improve on the visual appeal of my presentations and to gain mastery of my ability to communicate (abstract) scientific concepts to both academic and non-academic audiences. The course was very well organised and provided a beautiful learning experience for me on designing posters, effective poster presentations to a variety of audiences, designing presentation slides, delivering talks to a variety of audiences and many other things. One of the most important lessons I learnt was the art of giving and receiving critical feedback. After each presentation, all the participants of the course were made to assess the presentations of others (peer-assessments) and to give constructive feedback on the presentations. This experience was transforming… After the course, my confidence in delivering presentations drastically improved, and I am constantly working towards becoming better each time. This is just one of the many skills that I hope to continue developing in the course of my PhD programme.
  • Learning from every experience: Before the commencement of my PhD programme, I heard several stories about PhD blues and frustrations. At the time, I could empathise with those going through such an experience, though I could not fully understand how it would feel to be in their shoes. I had my experience of it in March/April this year when some of my experiments did not turn out the way I had anticipated they would. For some days/weeks, I was destabilised. This gave me a better understanding of not just the PhD life, but life itself. Like any other life experience, the PhD journey has its highs and lows. During these times, I think deeply about the situation and the possibilities. I have learnt to enjoy each phase mindfully and to learn all the lessons I can from each experience maximally. I like to remind myself from time to time how far I have gone in this PhD journey and dwelling on positive thoughts gives me more strength for the rest of the journey.

There are several other lessons which I have not shared in this post. I hope that over time, I can share more of these lessons. Which of these lessons do you find most helpful? Which of these lessons are you going to implement in your life immediately? What lessons have you recently learnt in your PhD programme or in your life that you think I can learn from? Kindly share them in the comments section below. As always, I would love to hear from you!

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Categories: My PhD Experience

21 replies

  1. Thanks a lot, Prof for sharing these very important nuggets

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  2. Hi Pearl, thanks for sharing these important lessons.

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  3. Everyone needs to read this now and come back to read from time to time. It is so inspiring. Thank you so much for these lessons.

    On a lighter note, do you like meat or chicken? Asking because of your research work. I imagine you see a lot of things we don’t see and you may not like to eat them as such.

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    • Thanks for your kind words and for sharing this piece with your network, Jules. I appreciate you… I am very excited to know that you found it inspiring.

      😁😁 I like and eat most types of meat including beef, goat meat and poultry (chicken, turkey). However, I am very particular about where I source them from and how it is prepared.

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  4. Wow, Pearl, these lessons are amazing! And I’m glad I can have a free PhD orientation before getting in deep. Thank you!

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  5. Nice, and beyond interesting, it was inspiring. Hope I will get a Ph. D someday soon

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  6. Nice one Pearl. Your post always rekindles an imaginary boost in me to do better & improve on myself.

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  7. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

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  8. Pearl dear
    Ever so nice to read your posts.
    I find this very interesting and inspirational.
    You touched a number of salient issues and I’m happy I read through. Interestingly it’s so rich that everyone has something to take home !
    I particularly appreciate your resilience and openness.
    You share so willingly.
    May God bless you richly and keep you shining for all to see.
    Remain Blessed.
    You are highly appreciated.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Prof. I am so glad you made out time to read this. You have always been an inspiration to me (you still are)…and it brings me so much fulfillment sharing my experiences so that others can learn from me just as I have learnt from others.

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  9. Wow… What a wonderful write-up.
    I picked balance and Each second counts as something I would apply immediately.
    Every thing up there was helpful. Thanks for sharing. God bless

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  1. #082: Pearl Osirike Story – PhD Career Stories

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