PhD Chronicles: Part VII

I like reading books written by authors who aren’t linked to science and academia to get a different perspective on life. What intrigues me the most is how most biographies of successful people out there are about the self-made man. If you don’t understand what this means, the self-made man is the archetype of successful men and women who had to start from the bottom, in poverty and hardship, to reach the acme of their chosen careers against all odds.

If you are a music connoisseur and American HipHop fan, you must have heard a lot of songs about the self-made man. Some include, Drake – Started from the bottom, Rick Ross – Self Made 1/2 albums, 50 Cent/The Game – How we do etc. So, it is easy to see that the American dream and the self-made man are intrinsically linked. This is because the self-made man originated in the United States. It was first described by Senator Henry Clay in 1842 who used the term to describe individuals who attained success on their own with little or no external help.

Drake – Started from the bottom

The self-made story is seductive because it offers many the hope and encouragement that anyone can become one, with hard work, consistency and persistence. However, in reality, the self-made man is a myth. I had previously written about it here. Hard work, consistency and persistence are all prerequisites for success but we all need people to move from point A to point B at different stages of our lives. And there’s no shame in admitting that nor asking for help.

In the context of a PhD degree, no one goes through the journey without external help. Although the PhD is a lonely journey in which you are “always” on your own, the effect of support from family, friends and colleagues is really underplayed. I’d use myself as an example here. My current supervisor played a major role in me securing the funding/grant for the PhD and till now, she has continued to support me in so many ways. My colleagues and technical staff have also come to my aid in the laboratory when I was stuck. Also, I had to collaborate with researchers from other universities and the industry to get to this point. Lastly, journals are often written by more than one author. So can I really say that I am self-made? Is anyone really self-made?

It’s our ego that makes us downplay or ignore the external efforts we get en route to our success. Our ego gets in the way at times and we can’t help it because power and influence are two things humans naturally yearn for. So, we momentarily embrace self-aggrandisement and instant gratification. However, it is important to plough the long-term path and acknowledge the effort others contributed to your success no matter how little or minute you may think it is. This way you empower others thereby building a stronger network that may propel you to even greater heights. After all, every master was once an apprentice. And every PhD Student is just an apprentice in research. Never outshine your master.

PhD Chronicles: Part VI

During the course of this programme, I was introduced to podcasts by a friend and ever since then I’ve been hooked. Listening to podcasts made the long hours in the lab bearable especially when I’m all alone doing microscopy. I swung like a pendulum from one podcast to another, including The breakfast club, Alex Jones show, Joe Budden podcast, the church of what’s happening now, uncovered with Dr Laura Berman until I settled for the The Joe Rogan experience.

There’s something about this particular podcast that piqued my interest: it can be honest, funny, deep, informative/educative, real and raw all at the same time. The guests come from all walks of life ranging from comedians, politicians, musicians, sportsmen to scientists. However, what really impressed me about Joe Rogan was his abundance mentality and how he encourages people who have something to say to start their own podcasts. He understands that there’s enough room for everyone to excel and their successes won’t deter his own.

The abundance mentality stems from a deep sense of self and inner sense of self-worth. It is an archetypal thinking that there’s more than enough out there for everyone. It reflects in kindness, generosity, sharing accolades, complimenting and being happy for others. In return, it creates rooms for options, possibilities and alternatives. Contrastingly, the scarcity mentality is the mindset that you have to hoard whatever – whether it is time, knowledge, skills, money, food, emotions – you have as there will never be enough. This stems from fear, insecurity and a place of lack, and often reflects in envy, desperation, jealousy, talking trash about others, plotting/lying against others and malice.

The concept of abundance and scarcity, with regards to the mind, was explained by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He described those with scarcity mentality as people who see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone gets a big slice of the pie, it would mean less for everybody else.

Most people, including those in science, academia and corporate world in general, are ingrained with scarcity mentality. Companies often pit staff against each other and in the advent of promotions, raises or recognition, people tend to put others down or hoard information that they perceive will give their competitors an edge over them. This is short term thinking and often useless in the long term.

Most people feel overwhelmed like an impostor when they start their PhD journey. It is important that they are given enough support and assigned someone who would take things slow and calmly explain things to them in the most simplified way. This is reassuring and let’s them know that everyone makes mistakes.

Mistakes compound your fear so the last thing they need is for supposed superiors to look down on them, talk to them condescendingly or assume that they have nothing important to offer. And this is where the abundance mentality comes in. An abundant thinker will be generous with his or her time and knowledge to help the newbie. Always remember that you were once a newbie like them so slow things down.

The newbie doesn’t need to hear you brag about your experiences or accolades. Switch the focus from yourself to them. Listening to your endless bragging will inadvertently make him or her more tense and scared about the journey ahead.

And to the newbie PhD student, I want you to know that this is just a phase and nothing is permanent. If you put in the effort, you’d grow in knowledge and become confident. Don’t be envious or jealous of others, those you think are ahead of you were once in your shoes so keep your head down and get to work.

PhD Chronicles: Part III

“Hello there! The angel from my nightmare”

It’s been a while since my last post. One has been busy with science and life – I sincerely apologise for this sojourn. Although, I am happy to say that whilst away, I made huge steps in my PhD program with interesting data.

I have also been opportune to present these data at a number of conferences as well however my first presentation is the one that sticks out for me. It was last year, to the MSc Biomedical Science cohort. One of the students asked me afterwards, Why did you decide to do a PhD? and what are your plans after the program?

These questions got me thinking about different things at the same time. Although I have always had a concrete plan about my life goals since I was 20, it took the preaching of a lecturer to convince me PhD was worth my time when I was at their stage as I’ve never seen myself going down the Professor route (but hey! never say never).

So when I was asked these questions, I was filled with some doubts about the whole process and I had to break my reverie to remind myself the reason(s) why I decided to plough this spiked road. These reasons are myriad that I can’t put them in words here.

However, if your aim of wanting a PhD is for family pride/honour, societal respect and gratification, and status symbol, I am here to tell you that it isn’t worth it. I must admit that in the “third world” like Africa, a PhD degree can propel you to greater heights and open doors for you especially if your aim is to be a powerhouse in politics or your chosen field. However, I believe that you can achieve great things without it.

This is not me trying to discourage anyone from getting a doctorate but letting you know that it will test you in different ways. For example, I am (naturally) an impatient person. I dream about things, plan them and hope everything goes according to any of the plans I’ve set in motion. However, things rarely go according to plan in the lab and life in general, and this can lead to frustration and depression.

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  1. As a result, this journey is not necessarily about intelligence nor hard work but patience, persistence and flexibility. It teaches you that patience is a virtue and impatience is not a vice but can be weharnessed in the right way.

PhD equips you with a lot of good transeferable skills that can help you in any sector you decide to go into. A colleague once said, “the good thing about science is that a scientist can work in any field.” I am getting to that stage where I have to repeatedly ask myself what I want to do next – politics, business, academia, industry, research?

Whatever I decide to do next, this phd journey has tremendously helped me to learn, re-learn and unlearn a lot of things about myself and life in general. Prior to now, I liked to tell people negative stories about myself than positive stories and this was for a reason. Sometimes, I even act dumb and naive.

The reason why I do these things is because being a naturally observant person, I found out at a young age that we are all narcissistic to some extent. People feel better when they think they are better than you so I found it easier to read and understand them this way. However, doing this phd exposed me to a lot of experiences that made me realise this was more detrimental to my mental health and sense of self.

Our minds are our gateway to success, happiness and sense of accomplishment. The way you see yourself regardless of external opinions, perceptions about problems or undesirable circumstances and reactions to things beyond your control have an ample effect on our end products.