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Comment: My life as a PhD student

Every choice I make, shapes my future. This is really frightening but, at the same time, an important experience to gain, writes Linda Jørgensen, doing her PhD in marine biology

One month in the quiet, ice-covered Arctic Ocean with stunningly beautiful nature. Five weeks inside a huge freezer, that simulates an artificial Arctic environment. Several months struggling with an uncooperative instrument.

Life as a PhD student is as fascinating as it is frustrating. It combines adventures with the exciting and educational life of a student and the challenging work life of a researcher, all in one package.

I started my PhD studies full of excitement and curiosity – it was my first real job. I was curious to experience all the different aspects of the work and, at the same time, I was concerned whether I could live up to the expectations of my two supervisors and myself.

Here is what I thought: being a PhD student is serious, and if you really want to take it somewhere you not only need to work hard, you also need talent. When I started I did not know what I wanted to do after the PhD. I just knew I needed to do a good job in order to keep as many future opportunities open as possible. So I knew that it would be hard work, but I was also hoping to be able to continue spending time with family and friends, traveling and pursuing my hobbies.

Finding a balance

Fortunately, I was positively surprised. I definitely work more than 40 hours a week on average, often in the evening and on weekends. However, the working hours are flexible, and I still find time to do things in my spare time. The amount of traveling that comes with the job provides a great opportunity to take time off and explore new places. I have been snorkeling in the Caribbean after a conference, I have been hiking in Svalbard before a research cruise, and I have been on a city vacation in Hamburg prior to a month of field work. Just to mention a few.

One of the really great things about being a PhD student is that no two days are the same. It is hard to describe a normal day since the job offers a wide variety of tasks, including field work, teaching, planning of experiments, data processing and writing. Looking back on the first two years of my time as a PhD student, I realize that I have spent about half of the time in front of the computer and the other half in the field or in the laboratory. In fact, I have spent almost three months working in Arctic environments – real or artificial.

Some say a PhD position is a lonely job. Personally, I think it has the perfect balance between independent work and collaboration. I spend most of my time working alone which is something I really enjoy. At the same time, supervisor meetings, conferences, teaching and taking courses give me the human contact and stimulation that I need. Generally, I manage my own working hours, which is a huge advantage because it allows me to balance different tasks in the way that I prefer. That said, I have a research goal and certain deadlines I must meet, and these sometimes determine how I spend my time.

The other side of the coin

Being a PhD student is not always a walk in the park. It can be stressful at times, especially around deadlines or when I am starting up a new experiment. At those times, my working hours tend to increase drastically. In particular, I remember one experiment where I had to get up around 5 am and go to bed around 1 am – every day – for an entire week. It was challenging at the time, though I can now look back with amusement at the times I showed up at the institute exhausted every morning, wearing old, relaxed clothes, sporting my morning hair.

With a PhD position comes responsibility – the kind of responsibility that I was unused to as a student, when educational goals, curriculums and deadlines were predetermined. I was never an irresponsible student, but taking responsibility for my career is completely different. Every choice I make, shapes my future. This is really frightening but, at the same time, an important experience to gain.

I am sure all PhD students witness periods with doubts, frustrations or stress. Having fellow PhD students to talk to is important, but my supervisors have played a major role in helping me overcome the tough periods I have experienced so far. Fortunately, these periods have been short, and in general I enjoy being a PhD student, with all that this entails.

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