It’s been rather slow these past few days, so I’ve been thinking a lot. Mostly about the prospect of starting my PhD studies. I’m working towards a Master’s degree right now; I’m graduating next summer. It seems quite a long time, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it, right?
There are, obviously, a load of factors to consider, and quite a few of those will probably ultimately boil down to be determined by “whichever place accepts me”, but I decided that I should at least determine what sort of topic / area / field / whatever I’m most passionate about and would like to devote 3 or 4 years of my life for.
Because, the thing is, I had never made an entirely conscious decision to choosing a research project. Let me explain. I first started looking for research opportunities when I was a freshman at university because I was bored out of my mind and because doing research was what I wanted to do, but being freshman I didn’t really know what I could do and how to find a lab and stuff. So, I simply went to my study programme’s supervisor and was, like: “Um, I want to do research, can you help me?” He asked me what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know, so we determined that using a simple process of elimination, and I ended up deciding that I’d like to work with small things (like cell cultures and stuff), and he helped me set up a few meetings. After a couple of misses and some more help from other people, I ended up at a cancer research lab which was fascinated with Nanoscience applications in cancer detection and treatment. I worked there for a couple of years and a series of baffling and unreproducible results (but I had an excellent supervisor and learnt loads). Then I found out about a summer science internship program which came with a stipend. I applied for a number of bio/chem/phys field internships that sounded interesting (a lot of them sounded interesting). Funnily enough, the only internship I ended up accepted for was one I almost didn’t apply for because the description sounded rather intimidating. And here I am, two years later, continuing and expanding on the project for my Master’s thesis, making stuff with laser light. It would seem that this slightly random process has been rather lucky for me. But I don’t know if I want to trust that same process with my PhD; I think that I should have at least some sort of sense of direction.
Thus, I come to my problem – I find the whole frigging world fascinating. Nice problem to have, when you come to think of it, isn’t it? Well, at this point I probably won’t head into Geology or Astrophysics. But the part of Nature that replicates is still rather wide open. Though I can narrow that a bit further because I don’t fancy field work much, I prefer the controlled environment of the lab bench or even laminar-flow hood for cell cultures (which, after 6 weeks of internship I hardly ever find annoying anymore). But where to go from there? Do I try to decide what problem I find most pressing in the world? That would be climate change, I guess, but that’s largely a political problem too and I just get frustrated by that sort of thing very easily. I don’t know if I’d like it to be my job. And at this point it occurs to me that perhaps the advice to not do a PhD until you’ve figured out what you’re most passionate about is not so bad (even though I actually decided that I didn’t want to wait, though I reserved the right to change my mind). At the very least, it gives you time to explore (maybe I’d find that environmental science or solar panel development is actually something I’d like to do). But what if several years from now I still won’t have found THE area? Because I know one thing right now – I know that I love doing research, I love learning, I love exploring how Nature works, be it in the form of a bundle of cells growing in a flask, or tiny balls of atoms glowing in the dark. And, ultimately, I want to share it with other students, and I pretty much need a PhD for that (or at least be in the process of getting one), so why wait? Perhaps THE area isn’t so important because I’m fascinated by so many things? I also must consider the fact that if I narrow in too much*, I won’t have much choice and the chances of not finding a position increase. And it’s not like I’ll be stuck with whatever I do my PhD in for the rest of my life, right? Perhaps I should just trust that the slightly random process that led me here, will continue bringing me to cool places? Are there any options I haven’t considered?
Lost in thought,
P.S. Yes, I realise that I started the post with the decision that I should determine an area of interest, but ended up thinking that it’s not so important after all. That’s how my thought process works sometimes – I’ve just been turning this around in my head for a while now and wanted to get it out there (and hopefully get some feedback), so I can move on.
*And I don’t want to narrow in too much at all – I chose to major in Biophysics (partly) because it covered the widest range of subjects in the first place.