29 September, 2005

Endings and beginnings

Yesterday was my 27th birthday. I am quite introspective at the best of times, and this time of year usually triggers even more wallowing in questions of the "Where have I got to, where am I going, and is this where I should be?" variety. A further contributing factor this year is the fact that on Monday, I also submitted my PhD thesis. Therefore, as well as giving me not one, but two, convenient justifications for demanding free beer from my friends, this week also marks the end of an era. So it's only natural that I look back and ask: what have I learnt from my PhD?

  • Don't do any lab work in the month before your funding runs out. It's far better to wallow in ignorance than to uncover data which forces you to completely rewrite your thesis. Believe me.

  • When your supervisor asks you to help with something, 'help with' is invariably a synonym for 'do without any further input from me'.

  • You'll always bump into your supervisor on your coffee breaks or when you're leaving the building at 3:30, but never when you're working feverishly and leaving the building at midnight.

  • The fact that you don't pay taxes will earn you the eternal scorn of all your friends with proper jobs, even though they still take home three times as much money as you.

  • Erm...

Seriously, although I have spent almost four years doing research, and have even had a couple of papers published (with more on the way), I'm still not entirely convinced I understand how the whole scientific endeavour really works. Which is unfortunate, because that was the whole point of my doing a PhD in the first place (although the fact that I got to spend a serious amount of time doing fieldwork in New Zealand may well also have contributed to my choice...). At the end of my degree, I knew I wanted a career with some sort of scientific spin, but I couldn't really find anything that really appealed. I liked the idea of doing research, but was unsure whether I was cut out for the academic life.

And right now, I find myself in exactly the same position. I've enjoyed the research, but in many ways my PhD has felt like an extended undergraduate dissertation; lots of time working on my own, and not really feeling part of the research community in my department, let alone in the world at large. So how am I supposed to assess what working in it is like? Or maybe that is what it's like...

Either way, it seems I have a bit more time to answer these questions. Although I now have a few ideas about what else I might want to do, they have yet to bear fruit, so next week I find myself starting a new job working for my PhD supervisor. Nothing like a bit of continuity, I suppose. And I do get my weekends back.