First Year PhD Review: The Apprenticeship Phase
Getting a PhD is all about making mistakes; failing fast and forward and the cross-fertilization of knowledge. You must get comfortable with wasting time.
Life is a soap bubble. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell the color you see. Other times, you may see blue or red. When I began my PhD studies in 2021, I was betwixt and between. Although my motivation was deep and primal, I had so many unanswered questions and I still do. The future became uncertain and I lost my ability to see through things. I remember the first thing I did when I began my PhD and landed in the United States was to get a whiteboard. I quickly doodled, in marker: “What can I do to cure blindness?” Perhaps this is why I wake up with the brio to be more and do more.
A few days ago, I completed Mastery by Robert Greene. I remember the first time I was exposed to this book during my undergraduate years. Robert Greene, in his characteristic way of weaving through the experiences of others, provided a foolproof blueprint for thin-air success. I remember how fascinated I was; the sheer brilliance of his writing; the anecdotes he put on display that left me flummoxed, thinking, he is the biblical King Solomon in human form; practical examples of versatile and historical luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, while exuding the attributes and ironclad principles that made them masters. The advice from the book was self-defeating to me because of its fiefdom of relevance; the culture of learning as an undergraduate mostly involved passive absorption and book learning which limited the jurisdiction of a life of self-fulfillment. Reading the book for the second time, again, made me realize the curse of knowledge and reminded me, in the words of Spinoza: all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare. One way of living a life of self-fulfillment is by enrolling in a graduate school. With the latitude of experiential learning, you are provided with the opportunity to access untrammeled mind transformation and establish your own unique learning path.
Charles Darwin, the scientist who revolutionized evolutionary biology, wrote to the captain of the Beagle: “My second life will then commence, and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life”. It was an opportunity for Charles to be free from his wealthy father bearing down on him — the high hopes, the unrealistic expectations, the legacy to protect. And so Charles was very excited when he got the invitation to join the HMS Beagle as ship’s naturalist for five years, which was pivotal in his influence on modern thought. With a huge smile plastered on my face, my excitement was evident when I began my PhD studies, commencing my own second life.
With my motivation, nothing else mattered to me. I cared less about sleep or eating right. Mamba’s tendentious ‘nobody can outwork me’ mentality was my vade mecum. Who doesn’t like Kobe Bryant? His grit. His ability to delay gratification. He is Mamba. I like, though, that he imbibes the principle of intestinal fortitude to the letter, with no temptation to be nice to yourself. Then, I created a list of quixotic fantasies which I dubbed: PhD declarations. I had read a lot of biographies of high achievers so coming up with the items on the list was no-brainer. I was also a meticulous record keeper. On Notion, I saved different names of people that inspire me, in some way, in a column. The other column, I tersely put down how I feel about them. For instance, I have Maithra Raghu in a column. The other column: senior research scientist at Google; Forbes 30U30; started her PhD at Cornell 2014; published her first paper 2016; interned at Google 2015; became a student researcher 2016; research associate in 2018 before finally becoming a senior research scientist 2019; finished her PhD at Cornell 2020; feeling stuck with your PhD, read article here. When I am alone, and overwhelmed with research, I set up online meetings with the names I saved on Notion. I like how my colleagues in the lab refer to these meetings. I am so grateful that they exist. They have now become my best friends. They call it: “Tobi and his business meetings”
I have the most unrealistic doctoral dream, I know you are tempted to, but please, do not ask me how many papers I have published at this moment. I know the maths do not add up now, and perceptibly so — may be the same in future. Please do not ask me if I plan to go into academia or industry because at this time, I am an apprentice in development, like the chrysalis of a butterfly. An apprentice goal is not money, a good position, a title or a diploma but rather the transformation of mind and character.
I am reviewing a paper that I have repeatedly had to check the internet for the meaning of many academic lingo, foreign to my cochlea. Sometimes, I wonder: When will I be able to review a paper without consulting the internet too frequently? We live in a culture that generally values intellect and reasoning with words. In acquiring any new skill — especially when getting a PhD, the natural learning process coincides with our brain. This is referred to as tacit knowledge — a feeling where what you do is easy to demonstrate but hard to put into words. I have experienced numerous aha moments while reading papers: And so this is what the authors really mean! Why do they express themselves using complex lingo? Why cell motility not cell movement?
Getting a PhD is all about making mistakes; failing fast and forward and the cross-fertilization of knowledge. You must get comfortable with wasting time. I like how Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg puts it: It is very hard to know which problems are important. Hence, you must get comfortable in wasting time. My first year was full of naivety, misconceptions about this new world and many insecurities. In the end, as I move towards resistance and pain with repeated exposure to frustration, that I find where I fit, my tribe, and do good science and research.
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