The most valuable thing I learned during my PhD

The most valuable thing I learned during my PhD - My Science Career Rebooted! blog - Heather Fireman JacksonI always knew my PhD would represent a rite of passage, but not for the reasons you might think.

I wasn’t all that bothered about gaining 3 letters after my name or 2 letters before it. I wasn’t dreaming about all those professor jobs I would be eligible to apply for. I wasn’t longing to know the secret handshake of some noble fraternity of scholars. OK, I was kind of looking forward to wearing a floppy hat and wizard cloak for one afternoon.

More than anything, I wanted to gain the confidence to be able to say, “I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and can you please explain it to me?”

Let me explain. For the longest time, I would get such anxiety when my colleagues would throw around terms I didn’t know or that I’d learned but forgotten. I would tell myself, “I really should know that. I suck for not knowing that. I must look it up as soon as possible.” Or if I had a question during a meeting or a presentation, more likely than not, I’d keep it to myself in case it was a dumb question. It didn’t help that any brain farts around my family always prompted somebody to say, “Are you sure you went to MIT? I think they’re gonna come repossess your diploma/1600.”

Somewhere along the way, something about me changed. Or maybe I discovered something about other people I hadn’t noticed before. I was young (I still am) – I assumed that other people had to know more than me, especially people ahead of me in their careers. But then I realized that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes I knew more than a professor about a given topic, for example my PhD project. When you own a piece of research, no one else is studying it as closely as you are, not even your advisor. Eventually, you start teaching things to the scientific community – the flow of information starts to go both ways.

Increasingly, I started to trust my own judgment. No longer is my first assumption, “If I don’t get it, I must be thick.” If I think of a question during a meeting or presentation, chances are, others in the room have the same question. They’ll breathe a sigh of relief when someone else brings it up. If I’m having trouble following a presenter’s line of reasoning, any other sensible person also might not understand, and the speaker probably needs to explain their point better.

I think the PhD research experience is pretty effective at changing your attitude here. As a new researcher, you’re accepting everything you read as the gospel truth. But to effectively do your job, you need to be able to question the authority of existing scientific knowledge, to challenge other people’s claims, and to back up your own claims when your logic is challenged. You need to value your own opinion if you expect anyone else to.

There are many reasons to undertake a PhD. Maybe it’s a credential that the job you want (or think you want) requires. Maybe you have a deep curiosity about a field, and you think it would be awesome to investigate that subject intensely and in intricate detail for many years. Maybe grad school seemed like a solid bet in an uncertain job market. Whatever the case, you’d better have a good answer to, “Why did I decide to do this?!” because you’ll be asking yourself the question all the time.

After a PhD, you may continue along a traditional academic career path, or you may go in a completely different direction. Like a diploma, the confidence and self-respect you gain during a PhD can never be taken away from you. Sure, self-confidence is a work in progress. It’s not like you’ll never doubt yourself again. But you will have forever changed the invisible script running in your head from

“I suck for not knowing enough!”


“Nobody expects me to know everything”


“If I don’t know, odds are I’m not the only one”


“If I don’t know the answer, I certainly have the tools to find it”

And that’s probably the most valuable thing I gained from doing a PhD – a subtle but distinct attitude change.


One response to “The most valuable thing I learned during my PhD

  1. Pingback: Why taking the FE/EIT exam years after graduation will give you the Impostor Syndrome | My science career…rebooted!·

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