Letter to my younger self

Dear younger me,

Congratulations! You have just been admitted as a doctoral student. You are eager and fresh and ever so ready to contribute to a tiny corner of the scientific world. 

Just one thing before you start: this will be a long process. You remember the story of the hare and the tortoise, right? Here in Sweden, your PhD project will take at least eight times longer than your longest research project as a master student. Eight times! Can you really imagine how long that is? And can you imagine how fast time will fly by in reality?

I don’t think you can, and don’t worry, that is okay. I just want to tell you something to keep in mind. Things will change during that time.

I know this seems obvious, but allow me to elaborate. People change over time, and you as a PhD student are actually supposed to: it is called developing yourself. Relationships between supervisors and students change during that time, for better or for worse. Goals change during that time. Plans change during that time. New techniques will come up during that time. Science will change during that time.

This means two things.

Firstly, it is essential to plan your PhD project well. A project that long has to be carefully thought-out, designed, laid out. So work on your plan with your supervisor, as he/she is an expert in the field. 

Secondly, you should be ready at any time to throw your initial plan out of the window if the moment arises. As we all know, the most exciting science is hard (or impossible) to plan. Alexander Fleming certainly did not plan to invent penicillin, and yet, he did. He did not put it in his study plan or make it an intended learning outcome, but he was open-minded enough to look beyond the initial scope of his experiments. 

Of course, there is a danger in being too open-minded, both as a student and as a supervisor. If you jump at every opportunity to dig into something else than your own difficult, frustrating, slowly progressing project, you can easily spend many years in the lab before you graduate. And if your supervisor always sees opportunities for new experiments based on your data: that’s an amazing quality for a supervisor to have, but you will still have to write your thesis at some point (yes, younger me: that means right now. You will still sometimes procrastinate in the future).

I guess what I am trying to tell you is that being a PhD student is a process. And it’s very important to see it as a process, and to allow yourself to try and fail and think and try again. It will often be hard to see your progress at its snail’s pace (or should I say tortoise’s pace?), and yet it will be so important to be flexible, but also to set small goals and celebrate those every time you reach them.

You don’t know it yet, but you will learn how to do experiments and pass your knowledge on to others. You will get familiar with your scientific topic and get to know yourself. You will realize that stepping out of your comfort zone is much harder than actually being outside it. You will meet amazing people, who will be with you when you struggle and when you succeed. You will find outlets to hone your other skills, like writing for this blog. 

Defending your PhD thesis will be the end game. How you will walk the long way there, is up to you. You will soon learn that the possibilities are endless. Undeterred by all its ups and downs, I hope you pick the path that leads to me. 

Photos by Jarda Zaoral

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