Monday, 5 August 2013

This is a PSA: Pursuing a PhD can be bad for your health (part 1).

“You know,” said the counsellor, “a PhD shouldn’t occupy ninety per cent of your time”.

I still can’t quite believe that, even though he’d also been through one and is probably right. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Two and a half years ago, here’s a snapshot of me getting off the plane in Sydney: I was confident, outgoing, and healthy in mind, body and relationships. I had rarely had to work very hard to achieve anything, so I never worked hard.  Fast forward two years and most of that was going backwards fast – though luckily my relationships remained supportive. I was gaining weight, losing fitness, felt totally incompetent and worthless, and worrying about being kicked out.

How did I get there? On March 16th 2011, I left my family, friends and Ash (my partner) in Perth to pursue a PhD in Sydney. Fascinated by microbes, I had completed my BSci (Honours) about three years earlier, and then contracted as a graduate microbiologist for a (now-defunct) mining technology startup and taken six months to travel with Ash. On returning, I half-heartedly looked for research assistant jobs while filling the time waiting tables, working for SciTech as a science communicator and at rock climbing gyms and camping stores. I eventually got a research assistant position in cancer research, but after the three-month probation my permanent employment was not confirmed (i.e. I got the boot) because I had not met the high standards set by the PI. My self-confidence took a serious beating and I was scared off research for a while, staying in my un-demanding part time positions despite my dissatisfaction.

I re-entered the world of research through holes in the ground. While travelling, Ash and I had visited the Grotte di Frasassi, the largest cave system in Europe. The effect on me was indescribable. I was spellbound, bewildered, disoriented, fascinated and charmed. There were entire ecosystems that had as their foundations not the energy of the sun, but chemo-thermal energy from sulphur-rich waters welling up from deep in the hot crust, feeding a bizarre microbial community which in turn supported diverse larger forms of life. For a kid who had to be dragged away from the microscope in high school, obsessed with the miniature, vibrant and complex world of pond water, this was like a whole new planet to explore. Having decided years before that microbiology research was at the top of my career list, a further certainty filled me, then and there, that caves were the most fascinating topic of study.

Back in Australia, while working at the camping store, I met someone who belonged to a caving club and joined up. Being underground was amazing, though it’s difficult to explain why, especially to people who don’t feel the same. The tight corners occasionally gave me reason to be nervous (I am six foot two in my socks) and I had yet to master the art of comfortable camping, but for some reason it was like a spiritual revelation to know we were a few metres below the surface, yet in such a different place. I felt like an explorer on a beautiful, strange alien planet. I had been searching for researchers in Australia (not wanting to move overseas) with whom I might do a PhD on cave microbiology. As you can imagine, I had little luck. Eventually, I gave up and enrolled in a diploma of education – I’d always wanted to be a high school science teacher after a research career, but it looked like I might have to skip that first part. The DipEd was fantastic, but a few months in I got an email from a researcher in Sydney who had heard there was someone asking around about cave microbiology PhDs. He had a project in the obviously related field of groundwater and there might be scope for some cave work as well. I applied, was accepted, and moved over, completely naïve of what I was in for.