Reflections on the PhD Journey

Photo: UNSW Newsroom


Wei Hua Chen, PhD Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, University of NSW


I submitted my PhD in September last year, and have been asked to reflect a little on my journey the last few years. Perhaps my journey isn't the typical PhD experience. In general, I didn't get bored or bogged down with the topic, and oftentimes when others thought sympathy was in order, I was still enjoying writing or experimenting or whatever I was doing. But in the academic spirit, here are a few of the insights I gained:


1. Make the most of the social opportunities


I was fortunate to join a fairly large research group that actively encouraged us to get to know one another and support one another. Lunch was a set time each day. At about 12:30 pm each day, whoever was free (including my supervisor when he was around) would stop working and have lunch together. Lunch was a wonderful time to make connections with those sitting around me, and understand these people who I wouldn't normally get to talk to if not for the fact that we were doing PhDs together. We would chat about all kinds of stuff - weather, sport, food, culture, relationships, politics, religion. It was a time where I could share my life and be curious about those around me. In my experience, fellow PhD students are generally quite open to sharing and exploring others' ideas. I felt free to occasionally put bits and pieces of my worldview on the table as appropriate, and enjoyed considering and discussing issues in a logical manner. Group lunches was one of the things I most enjoyed about my PhD days. It is definitely not the norm, but who's to say culture can't be changed?


2. Christian relationships are invaluable


I enjoyed being a part of the staff and postgrad bible studies at UNSW, and occasionally coming to Simeon Network events. Connecting with those who share not only similar circumstances and struggles but also the Christian journey was a welcome break from the pressures and influence of the academic world. Since researchers tend to like thinking and analysing, connecting with a wider network of Christian academics sparked good conversations about a wide variety of areas. There is always more to learn when you meet people who don't have the same background as you, but who are as keen as you to learn and share knowledge.


3. The research path is rarely straight


Yes, the PhD is a large project, and I don't think I could have finished the thing if I didn't learn to plan and follow plans. I definitely had no idea where I would end up when I started. The thesis I ended up with was not the thesis that I proposed in a hurry to meet scholarship deadlines. I even changed the title of my thesis - I think on the day I completed the final draft - because I decided that the title I'd been using for 4 years didn't quite describe what I'd achieved. But that's ok -- it's like life, right? You gotta start out going somewhere, but each part of the journey gives you further hints about where you'd best go next, until it's time to wrap up all the exploring and finish all that needs to be finished to have something coherent at the end. 


As one who likes exploring and learning, I would say doing a PhD was right up my alley of things I would enjoy in the first place. That's not to say I never struggled. Parts of my experimental rig were rendered unusable when someone pointed out safety issues which had to be fixed before the rig could be used again. I think I waited for months hoping a company would fix their drivers, which never happened, and I had to hook up a second PC to use old versions of the drivers which did work. I'm sure one who does their PhD in a different area would just butt their head against different types of challenges -- in general it's not about paving a straight path, just a path going somewhere, hopefully somewhere useful, and in that process, learning. Aside from more personal issues, perhaps one decision I regard as poor was agreeing to co-author a book. That was a larger commitment than I had anticipated, for, in my eyes, not much value (perhaps a lesson learned in weighing up the cost before committing to things). 


4. And finally, some tips on writing!


  • I knew I would become sick of writing if I forced myself to write for 6 months straight. I simply don't focus like that. 
  • I am prone to forgetting details if I don't write them down. I look at code I wrote 6 months ago as if it is foreign. 
  • Every time I had ideas, I wrote a few pages. Every time I did an experiment, I wrote a few pages. I found that sometimes I would write, and it would all flow and seemingly make sense. I'd look at the same writing a week later, and suddenly be able to see grammatical errors and where I've used too many words. I'd edit them out, so my thesis document was basically an updated version of my progress to date. Each time I finished a subsection like this, I'd send it to my supervisors so they were informed too.
  • I improved in writing speed with time, along with other skills such as being able to discern when terms need to be explained.
  • I think I spent just over 2 weeks editing the thesis as a whole, after having finished writing my results chapter. This consisted mostly of reading it, cutting out everything that didn't contribute to the story line and adding things like conclusions and structural pointers. (I think I deleted something like 70 pages, but nothing wrong with this -- those ideas developed into something more useful and concise, much easier to read...)


Anyway, here's just my thoughts and experience from PhD. Still not a success story, as I'm still awaiting results, but maybe some of these thoughts may be helpful to some.