On Finishing a PhD

This past week, 3 years and 4 months after moving to Switzerland, I defended my PhD.  It was a pretty great day, I have to say.  Better than any of my other graduation type days.  I’m still flying high and it feels somehow cathartic to write about it.

I didn’t think I would be nervous, given the many other much more nerve wracking presentations I’ve been through.  I had to count it up for an award I’m applying for, and I’ve presented on my study 20+ times over these past years, most of those to international researchers much less disposed to be kind to me than my own institute (not even counting internal presentations).  In fact, I was feeling cool as a cucumber until I woke up the Wednesday before my Friday defense in the midst of a nightmare about failing and getting booted out of the building.  I then had to stuff these fears away and hurry off to Basel for my orientation + a day of work there, but I devoted all of Thursday to rereading my dissertation and reviewing my slides.

Friday morning I went on a jog to let off some energy and Benno and I had lunch together.  He really generously took the whole day off from work without asking me, and MAN did I end up being grateful.  He was able to keep me calm and grounded.  At that point there isn’t much more to do to prepare, but true to my usual form there is plenty of overthinking to do.  Every university seems to do it somewhat differently, but here’s how it went at University of Zurich:

2pm-3pm: I present my work (40ish minutes) and then field public questions.  Around 30-40 people came (my supervisor took a picture of the left half of the room).  There was a spirited discussion.  One thing I really enjoy about my study is that it is easy and compelling for many people to understand, so there is always an interesting discussion when I present.  I really appreciated that my new supervisor and also two of the PhDs on my new project came to watch as well!

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3-4pm Private closed questioning by my PhD committee members and any other faculty members who want to join.  This was not nearly as scary as I was anticipating- they didn’t ask me tough statistics questions, but instead focused on methodological approaches.  Given how much I’ve thought about the study over the years, it seemed pretty straightforward.  They then sent me out of the room, which was a bit awkward given that all of my friends and acquaintances were milling about outside waiting for the apero.  They then summoned me back in and told me that I passed, and with no revisions!  That means I am totally done!

At 4pm the fun part started.  The institute hosts an apero (champagne and food event) to celebrate after a PhD defense.  First my two main supervisors gave 2 very very nice speeches about me (it was strange to get SO much positive feedback at once, as this is not at all the usual style of my Swiss supervisors), then I gave an impromptu speech.  It was hard not to cry at this point, but I kept it together.  I was also presented with the traditional hat, which your fellow PhDs decorate with symbols that represent your PhD.

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A few highlights:

Swiss, US, and Thai flags: my adopted country, my home country, and my study country

A tree: I used regression trees in the main paper of my dissertation

Beach chair and umbrella: study is about Thailand

Pumpkin: this one made me laugh.  two years ago I hosted a Thanksgiving celebration at my apartment with a good 15+ people.  One of the dishes brought by an American friend was this traditional sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top.  My friends were so surprised by this combination that they remembered it two years later for my hat!  Except they thought it was pumpkin and not sweet potato 🙂  Also I didn’t make it, haha.

Plane: both because I like to travel and my study is about travelers?

Skiing and mountain photos and paraphernalia: obvious for anyone who knows me 😛

Swiss cheese, chocolate, and prosecco: duh.

 

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All of my Swiss supervisors past and present are in this photo. 

 

We had drinks plus snacks for a couple hours at the institute, then headed to the bar where I had reserved apero part 2 for the evening.  I was so so amazed by how many of my good friends in Switzerland, from work, from running, from every other sort of place, stopped by to wish me well.  Benno covered our first round of drinks and made sure I ate (I have a tendency to forget to eat when I am drinking long term like that) and was overall just the best.  We celebrated until around 11pm, when I hit a wall of exhaustion and we headed home.

THANK YOU AGAIN to everyone who wished me well or congratulated me.  I am so happy to have had a successful conclusion to this last chapter of my education.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the whole PhD process over the years, but I have to conclude at last that it works and I feel overwhelmingly positive about the experience.  It has truly made me into a scientist.  I complained sometimes about the salary, and don’t get me wrong- I am excited to have a full salary again this month.  But in terms of life goals, it is so rewarding to have the luxury of asking your own questions and finding your own answers, to be given years to ask a question of the world and get the answer back.  This week wraps up a period of intellectual growth and freedom to indulge my curiosity that I will always remember with gratitude.

 

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On Finishing a PhD

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned

I still remember the feeling after finishing my master’s thesis, 5 (!) years ago.  I felt like I had made my way through a trackless wilderness of data and literature searches and SAS code and finally organized that big heap of data into something coherent, a process during which I had little confidence in my own ability and was somewhat overcome with amazement when the file sat completed on my laptop.  I sent it off gleefully and went out for drinks, glad that I would be able to return to a normal job with normal deadlines and defined tasks and endpoints.

Well, that didn’t last long.  Five years later, I sit here with my fifth manuscript accepted for publication, about to submit another and starting to daydream about the next couple.  And I’m proud of how they’ve turned out- one has been cited 32 times by other scientists per Google Scholar and even been quoted in the New York Times.  And all of it with literally a fraction of the stress of that first masters thesis.  So clearly something has changed.  Part of it is just the confidence factor.  I really do believe in myself and my ideas now, and I have oodles more training and experience, thanks to wonderful supervisors and trainings.  But I’ve also learned a few hacks that I am thinking about now, at the tail end of my PhD.

  • Always have a plan.  At any given moment, I have a yearly goal and milestone spreadsheet, a monthly one, and a weekly one.  They are revised almost every week.  This type of organization is so, so key for a scientist.  No one is watching over your shoulder or telling you when something is due, making it far too easy to get bogged down for weeks in tasks.  My personal tactic when I realize that I’m getting stuck is figure out someone I can ask for help (such a great part of academia is the depth of the friendly brainpower around us!)  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to brainstorm some new tactics.

 

  • The Pomodoro Method.  A productivity manager that has really helped me partition my time effectively.  Essentially, I divide my day into 25 minute intervals, with small 5 minute stretching breaks between each block (read more here).  I don’t adhere to it religiously, but find it especially helpful with writing large documents and other tasks that require high focus.  I put my phone in airplane mode during each block and don’t allow myself to stop writing/brainstorming/coding/whatever during that time.  I don’t use it at all for things like checking email or meetings so it keeps me really conscious of when those less productive things are eating up too much of my day.  It also tells me when I can quit- when writing something like a dissertation it can be hard to know when you’ve done “enough” work for the day.

 

  • Keep your storyline in mind.  We did a multi-day training the first year of my PhD that I have found endlessly useful.  It was a training on how to give an effective presentation, but I have found some of the things apply to almost every aspect of my job.  For example, what do you want your audience to remember when they think of your talk days later?  If you want them to remember anything, you had better make a compelling story out of your research, and even then they will at most remember 1-2 things overall.  What do you want those 1-2 things to be? Now, when I prepare for another talk or begin to write up a new analysis or design a new data visualization, I first sit down with a pen and paper and brainstorm 4-5 bullet points of how I want my “story” to go.  If I can’t distill my story down to a few bullet points that make a logical story, I know I’m not quite ready to start drafting.

 

  • Make time for networking.  No one does science in isolation any more.  Well, probably they do, but you have never heard of them because they don’t get the grants/write the papers/join the collaborations.  And it’s super fun!  I mostly apply for things like consortiums and workshops and conferences and join R Users Groups because they sound like fun, but I have learned so so much, widened my scientific horizons, and made so many great connections through them.  I’ve gotten really comfortable with emailing random people to ask them about their research, etc, and it can have big payoffs.  Also, it makes it much easier to find a position after graduation 😉

 

  • Set boundaries about your time.  This directly contradicts the last point, and I admit is one that took me a while to learn.  But people are always going to be asking you to help with writing grants and teaching classes and giving talks, stuff that is an important part of science but not the part that is most important during the PhD specifically.  During the PhD the most important thing is to build your track record by publishing.  Learning how to say no diplomatically has been a big part of my PhD.

I am curious if others have the same experience as me.  I’ve learned that everyone has a different PhD experience- I had very hands off supervisors in a lot of ways, which comes with a very specific set of challenges and also opportunities.  Like this week I’ve had a bad summer cold and decided to just work from home, a decision I don’t have to justify or run by anyone.  In fact it would probably take at least a month before my supervisors noticed I wasn’t coming in, no joke.  My friends certainly notice, so don’t feel too sorry for me 😉

P.S. Summer colds suck.

How to be a productive scientist: what I’ve learned