Dominika Bijoś recently received her PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology. She studied smooth muscle contraction and examined how other cell types influence it in bladder tissue and in the whole organ. Initially, she used molecular and cell biology techniques, but spent last year watching and analysing moving bladders and the conclusion was – they dance the samba!
Whether you are at the beginning of your PhD journey or finishing up, remember: never be JUST a PhD student. I’m speaking from experience. Throughout my PhD journey I hated that pitiful statement: “oh, you are just a PhD student”. Out of this frustration two things came out: I became MORE than a PhD student and I realized you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student.
Let me explain.
The “just a PhD student” can come from two sources:
The general public still think you are a student
First are friends and family, who attribute the word STUDENT to a NON-REAL profession. I had to explain that I work usually more than 35h a week, sometimes during the weekends and I am a real member of the workforce. I convinced friends that my job is to research how and why X works and why it is important for real life application. To make sure you are taken seriously by the general public might be the easier task of the two.
Fellow scholars might overlook you at times
The second group who will call you JUST a PhD student (in my experience) are SOME fellow scholars. They might not realize it or (rarely) do they do it on purpose, but some will treat you as a lower level worker due to your lack of experience. Without PhD students, research would have gone nowhere. Sometimes being JUST a PhD student means that your problems are considered less important. I have asked my share of questions that showed I lack the deep understanding of the subject, but also a share which were dismissed just because I asked them. The philosophy doctorate doesn’t write itself on OLD stuff. You need new discovery and discussion to get it. And I suspect that at times, more experienced members of scholar family might JUST not remember that. NEVER get discouraged by that.
Drop the JUST – you are the expert now
It might sneak up on you that you become an expert as colleagues ask your opinion more and more, but for me it was a breakthrough. I visited a group in Canada (like Rebecca, I escaped MY lab). In Toronto, my task was to teach a technique my PhD was based on. I soon realized that for them I was never JUST a PhD student. I was the expert of the technique. On top of that, I was a new but experienced perspective, so they asked my opinion on everything from how I design an experiment to how I present the results. It was my experiment so I knew what I was talking about, just the confidence part was new. I designed the experiment, conducted it, taught other researchers, analysed the data etc. It was a breakthrough in my perception of my PhD life. I definitely became more than JUST a PhD student.
Just a PhD? – never!
On top of science and technical know-how, this experience made me realize you should never let yourself be JUST a PhD student. In the process of your PhD you will become the expert scholar on the topic, but you should challenge yourself to be a good researcher and do all things that come with it: communicate, write, network…explore all the unexpected benefits of the PhD life.
Get better at what you do
You can call it enhancement of your transferable skills, the continuous professional development or whatever you want, but identify where you can improve and act. Whatever your passion or inclination do other good in the world outside of your research topic: be a leader of a hockey team, play cello, organize a conference for your fellows, write a blog, start a journal club, start sewing, learn Spanish, pursue a project outside the lab and improve there.
What I did? Well, first I got totally down with being JUST a PhD student. And on top, I felt guilty for always not doing enough research (sounds familiar?). But then I realized that I had founded a society for those in my field, advocate for open access publishing, and mentor others. I took part in the 3MT Bristol Competition (great fun, do it!). All not quite strictly research, but all making me a bit more than just a PhD student.
Why it matters? Because after a PhD is said and done, in (like Richard) or outside of academic research, you want this experience to make you more than just a PhD student. Passion, excellence, self improvement and constant growth is what makes you more than just a student. It gives you the PhD.