I’m in the final few months of my Ph.D., which means that I’ve been at this nearly four years. If you count the two years for my M.Sc. Before that, it’s a total of six years as a postgraduate student. Being a student is, in many ways, a fairly straight-forward affair. You (should!) have a clearly defined role, a sense of where you fit in the hierarchy. As a modeller in a lab of empiricists I’ve worked on my own a fair bit, but I’ve also been the go-to for a couple of collaborations now; however, whether I was setting my own project or working on someone else’s, the goals were fairly clear and the work was well-delineated. I got to work hard on something I loved, and I did most of the work myself. It was great: I produced the work, we talked about it, I helped write the paper, my supervisor approved it, we shipped it out the door. Rinse, repeat.
In the past couple of months, though, I’ve noticed a shift which has left me a little off-balance. It started with a side-project with my M.Sc. advisor, where I ended up pitching in on a paper that he was working on with a student of his. For various reasons, I ended up in something of a liaison position, where I spent time working with his student before we took what we had to the big kahuna. It was hardly a major shift – I’ve collaborated before – but there was a faintly different air about the whole thing. It’s not that I was in charge, but because I’d done previous work with my advisor on this topic and we were revisiting it to an extent, I ended up in an advisory position while my advisor’s student did most of the heavy-lifting that I would normally have had to do. Similarly, I’ve just started a new side-project in my current lab in which, for reasons including a time crunch, I’ve had to similarly hand-off a large part of the work to a new Ph.D. student in the lab.
Before you say it, I know that this isn’t exactly a ground-breaking revelation. In fact, in many labs I know that it’s a regular part of daily life; there are plenty of labs out there with a much more rigid hierarchy and levels of responsibility that start at the advisor and flow downwards by seniority. But both my master’s and doctorate labs have been fairly egalitarian, and it’s not something I’ve really experienced before. Combined with the impending end of my own degree, it was an interesting bucket of cold water that reminded me that – hopefully! – I’ll be a postdoc soon, and as I continue upwards in academia, I’ll be faced with ever-growing responsibility. If things go according to plan, I’ll have students of my own to guide in the coming years, a lab to run, duties to those looking upwards like I am now. And as my supervisor said the other day: nothing in the Ph.D., which is supposed to be all about how to do science as a faculty member somewhere, actually teaches you how to do any of those things. It’s a scary feeling.
What makes the feeling even more scary is that I hardly feel like I know what I’m doing yet, myself. I can’t be graduating, surely! I’m still so ignorant! But the truth is: I’ll never know enough, and yet I have to keep moving forward. I’ve been hiding under the mantle of student for long enough – it’s time for me to get out there and make my contribution while the candle is still burning. I just hope that I can be as helpful to my future students as my advisors were to me. It’s a hell of a thing to have to live up to.
(Anyone with similar experiences is welcome to share their stories in the comments!)