One Year On

Full Disclosure: It is now the third week of the new semester, so this reflection is not exactly one year since starting my PhD, but the sentiment stands.

Many things happened at once when our program began a year ago. Our orientation week was cut short and we missed the first week of classes due to Hurricane Harvey. After that, getting into the classroom mentality took a while because the storm had lasting effects on many of my classmates and professors. While my material possessions fared better, I had survivor’s guilt both during and after the storm because I had gotten through it relatively unscathed while so many others lost everything.

Walking into my PhD program, I knew that I wanted to specialize in Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Coming from an engineering background, I was nervous about taking on such a new curriculum. I was, and still am, intimidated by the level of knowledge and experience that my colleagues have over me. While I know I have learned so much new science in the past year, thinking about how much I have left to learn stresses me out immensely.

I have been able to complete the majority of my required coursework already, with great academic success. Unfortunately, my Impostor’s Syndrome makes it impossible for my grades to feel well-deserved. In my head, my lack of knowledge in certain subjects taught in class will become very apparent during my candidacy/qualifying exam when the committee will have the opportunity to question my knowledge and project for 2+ hours. I hope that what I have learned will be sufficient to pass the exam.

I am proud of the progress that I’ve made in my PhD project, by I certainly finished my 1st year in a place very different from where I’d anticipated. I started the year convinced that I’d spend my PhD working in tissue engineering (stem cells on scaffolds), but have ended up working in stem cell biology (intracellular signals and systems). I am surprised by how happy I am with my project and my lab considering how different they are from what I’d intended.

I am incredibly fortunate to have met, gotten to know, and been able to work with an exceptional group of faculty and students at my institution. Their kindness, generosity, intelligence, humor, and love for their science inspires me every day and reaffirms my confidence the next three generations of medical therapies.

There are certain aspects of my personal and professional development that I know have improved over the past year. While there is still room to grow, my skills and comfort with networking and meeting new people have improved greatly. In addition, I take on more opportunities to push myself out of my comfort zone both socially and professionally. I feel better able to address and manage conflict, and I feel better prepared to manage my own mental health through the trying times ahead.

While I cannot see it yet, I know that there is a light at the end of this PhD tunnel, and I am going towards it as fast as I can. I now have a much better idea of the career paths that interest me and know what I need to do to get there.

There is still work to be done in finding the healthiest balance for my time inside and outside the lab. I still struggle to feel productive from week to week and lose patience in the time required for me to understand new concepts.

For this next year, I want to work on seeing my classmates more often and keeping better in touch with my friends, because we will need each other’s support. I aim to be a PhD candidate by this time next year. I aim to take a vacation and time off whenever possible, so I can keep a clear head. I want to continue to improve at receiving and addressing constructive criticism, because I know I will be hearing a lot of it.

More than anything, I want to continue to love my science and my work because if I lose that, what is the point of doing everything else?

Sam Waterston Cheers
Farewell to my 1st year and best wishes to my 2nd.

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