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Advice and support for your academic journey.

This article explores the challenges, doubts and pressures faced during the pursuit of a PhD. It takes a close look at how PhD candidates are chosen, highlighting the need for looking into the scientific character of the candidate and their way of thinking rather than just focusing on academic achievements alone. The narrative also highlights coping strategies, advocating for resilience and self-reflection. Ultimately, it offers motivation to others, encouraging them to persevere in their pursuit of knowledge and passion in the face of adversity.

My name is Fadel Fakih, and I am a PhD student at the Institute of Parasitology in Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic. Since my youth, I have been passionate about becoming a scientist and exploring the natural world around me. To pursue this dream, I moved from my home country, Lebanon, in search of new opportunities. I began my journey with a Master’s program in ribonucleic nucleic acid (RNA) science in France. This period marked the realization of my dreams, a time when I truly felt them coming to fruition. It was during my 6-month research internship that the idea of pursuing a PhD and starting a career in science became firmly rooted in my mind. 
I undertook the quest for a PhD position with immense enthusiasm and determination. I set the bar high, aiming for a position in a reputable lab that aligned with my ambitions. Simultaneously, I remained selective, focusing on specific topics. Throughout the process, I reminded myself of the importance of finding a project that matched my interests, enabling me to enjoy the pursuit of science purely for the joy that it brings. This ‘hunt’ spanned a year after completing my Masters, leading me to the place where I wanted to be. 
During that year, I worked at a restaurant in France while relentlessly searching for a position. These times were incredibly stressful. My main source of pressure was the uncertainty about my future. Additionally, family and peer pressure added to the challenges. Despite these obstacles, I persevered. This experience had a profound impact on me, both negatively and positively. This is why I want to share the lessons I learned during my journey, hoping that they can assist others going through similar challenges in their pursuit of research. 

Choosing a Topic: Passion Over Desperation

What led me to pursue science instead of other careers is that I engage in scientific pursuits purely for the joy of discovery and curiosity. To sustain these feelings, it’s essential to focus on working in an area that captivates your interest. During my application process, I adopted a highly selective approach, aiming to secure a position that truly resonated with my aspirations. 

My primary and pivotal reason for taking this topic-specific search approach was the extended duration of four to five years in a PhD program. Enduring something you don’t enjoy for such a significant period of your life can be immensely challenging. Additionally, venturing too far from the topics you studied during your bachelors and master’s degrees can complicate matters further. I find this approach entirely rational. I understand, having been in this situation, that there comes a point when desperation sets in and you might be tempted to settle for anything to end your struggle. However, I firmly believe that these moments demand resilience and the ability to make the right choices.

In my case, while I was searching for a position, I came across an offer from the lab where I was already working, and it intrigued me. As mentioned earlier, I completed a master’s in RNA science and wanted to continue working on an RNA project. This specific project focused on RNA and extended the lab’s recent work published in a Nature paper. It offered a groundbreaking explanation for a long-standing problem. These reasons were sufficient for me to apply, and now, here I am. 

Therefore, I advocate for sticking to what truly excites you and what you love. I prefer not to sound overly motivational, as it’s not my style, but I consider this aspect to be crucial throughout your academic journey. 

Coping Strategies during Immense Pressure

Coping with pressure and stress during such periods is a crucial aspect of one’s journey. For me, simply pondering the next step in my life became incredibly challenging. While my determination to pursue science was unwavering, the immense pressure from my family, peers, and the world around me made me question every decision I made. This struggle proved to be inevitable for my progress. In handling pressure, it is essential to take a pause and reflect on your motivations. 
Surrounding yourself with friends who truly understand your struggle is invaluable. Another vital aspect is finding moments to free your mind from the pressures you’re dealing with. Personally, I rediscovered the joy of reading books. This not only provided a temporary escape from my problems but also helped me discover new interests. Taking a daily break from the challenges of life, whether through spending time with friends or getting lost in a good book, was immensely helpful for me. 
Another extremely important aspect is seeking help from others around you. Consulting fellow PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, and even your university professors can help pinpoint weaknesses in your applications or your overall approach. Therefore, establishing and nurturing connections with teachers and peers is crucial throughout the process. 

Rethinking our PhD Selection System

I had moments when I doubted myself. However, through my experiences, the stories I’ve heard, and the people I know, I observed a significant issue in our selection process for hiring PhD students. It’s evident that excelling in your studies is crucial to enter the field of science. Anyone aspiring to pursue a PhD should have a deep understanding of their chosen field, and this knowledge is reflected in their academic records. This is something every PhD hopeful should consider. 
Carl Sagan emphasized that science is more than just a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking. In my view, what are more important than high grades are critical thinking skills and a scientific mindset. Recruiters often seek individuals who excel academically rather than those with a scientific approach. This approach is not good because there are no exams for students with good grades to excel in. Recruiters should focus on selecting genuine young scientists. These individuals can navigate any challenge because they are driven by their passion for science. The repercussions of this issue in our selection system are evident through the high number of people quitting their PhD programs or leaving academia after completion. 

Starting my PhD: Do I Regret Anything?

As I just started my PhD, I am really enjoying my life as a junior scientist. Through resilience and determination, I was able to handle everything and manage the situation very well. Today I look back at my journey and I always think that I made the right choices sticking to the things that I like to do. I even think that this long and hard year was important for me reflect on my life and get ready to face the hardships in life. This helped me become a better person who could understand himself more deeply. I now have a better understanding of how to prioritize aspects of my life and when and where to push forward or not.  

Now, I am looking forward to my scientific career and I also started my own scientific blog to communicate scientific knowledge with the public. In writing this article, I want to motivate everyone out there to keep pushing for the things you want and don’t forget why you are doing it! 

Here is a link to Fadel’s blog, dedicated to exploring the fascinating world of RNA Science.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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