Just a few weeks ago, my little brother defended his Ph.D. thesis (OK, so he is not so little and technically he is not my brother). I wanted to write him a note with some words of wisdom, but decided to actually share that letter with all of you, who perhaps might find value in the learnings of a big sister.
Dear Dr. “Brand New Ph.D.” (It feels great to hear the title Doctor, doesn’t it?)
CONGRATULATIONS!!! Today you find yourself at the end of a long, painful road. You have spent the last X years of your life as a poor graduate student, working day and night, thinking, eating, and dreaming your thesis work. You finally found the light at the end of the tunnel and you may think that this is the end of the journey.
I want to tell you that this is just the beginning of a great adventure: the rest of your career. Hopefully, from now on you will search and find opportunities to put your skills to good use to advance science, knowledge, and understanding to make a better world and love every minute of it. Unfortunately, you will also face challenges in the way, but you have been equipped with the skills to solve them. Think about it, after so many years of Ph.D. work, trouble shooting day in and day out, nothing will prove more challenging than getting your degree (except raising children, but that’s out of scope for this letter).
When I first got my degree, I always found it funny that it was called “Doctor in Philosophy.” Philosophy is defined as the rational investigation of questions about existence, knowledge and ethics. While you may say you got a Ph.D. in ____ (Immunology, Psychology, epidemiology, fill in the blank), and you may be somewhat of an expert in that particular field now, the most important learning was that of a methodology for thinking, solving problems, and developing knowledge that you acquired during the training.
It took me a while to figure that out as I focused only on WHAT I had learned, not realizing that the biggest value was in HOW I learned it. When you accept that you have a degree in thinking, a problem then becomes a welcome challenge because you have the tools to solve it. Now that you know how to methodically learn, you should not be afraid of the unknown. When you look for the next job/challenge/opportunity, do not look at what you already know, but what you will be able to learn.
There was a second lesson that took me a while to grasp. I hope I can share this with you so you don’t struggle as I did. When thinking of the skills you acquired, think broadly. We frequently focus on the tangible stuff or hard skills: the lab techniques, the statistical tools, the subject matters we studied, and the certificates we obtained. Nonetheless, when out in the real world, you will be asked about your soft skills: communication skills, writing skills, interpersonal skills, and organizational skills.
Take a hard look at what you have learned during your graduate school years. Were you the one who got along with everybody and planned the lab outings? You got good interpersonal skills. Did you help set up the lab supplies ordering system or were you put in charge of the lab move? You have organizational skills. Are you the one who reviewed everyone’s manuscripts? You got writing skills, my friend. Now think about everything you have done in the past and appreciate really how much you have learned. It was actually a lot more than you think.
Finally, I want to tell you that one-day you will look back and reminisce about the good ole days of graduate school. Hopefully, you will then realize that graduate school was just the first step to the wonderful career you’ll find yourself building. I hope that like me, you’ll love every step of the way and, most importantly, you will have a lot of fun.
I’m very proud of you,
Dr. “Big Sister”