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THE UK: Before you leave

What PhD Taught Me

Fazlin in Cambridge University

Fazlin, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge shares her account on surviving the grueling demands of a PhD and offers advice to like-minded students.

Two years ago I started my PhD at the Department of Chemistry, University of Cambridge where I am specialising in the field of Chemoinformatics. It has been a natural progression for me, doing my PhD.

I initially studied Pharmacy at Curtin University, Australia and it was in my third year while doing an assignment where I had to write something similar to a literature search – which in the PhD world, that would be your introduction to your thesis /publication – that I realized that research is my forte. After completing my BSc, I then went on to do my MSc(Res) in Chemoinformatics at the University of Sheffield and here I am now in my final year of PhD.

I’m sure a lot of you are wondering what is Cheminformatics? Well, in a nutshell, Chemoinformatics deals with data – chemical, biological, phenotypic etc. Through the use of computational algorithms, we transform the data into information which will help make better decision in drug discovery i.e. which group of chemicals are active against a protein target and consequently could be developed as a treatment for a disease?

The past two years have been a very rewarding experience and hence I would like to share with you three of the biggest lessons that I have learned while doing my PhD. To quote Oprah, “Aren’t you glad it’s three, not ten?” So here goes.

Lesson #1: Be creative

In the very first episode of Suits, Rachel told Mike that research is as much art as it is science. I’m sure some of you are baffled by how I can even say creative and science in the same sentence - it just doesn’t makes sense! Believe me, it does and it can make a big difference.

Whenever I am writing or making a presentation, I have to put my creative cap on. How do I make this interesting so that first and most importantly, people understand what I am saying? Not just people in my field but others as well – it’s important to reach to people beyond your field and expand.

Secondly, how can I keep their attention until the end of my article or presentation? Doing research is one thing but you also have to present it, which is often overlooked. I find creating a story and making things simple works best.

Recently I had to present in front of the whole Informatics group and I sought for Steve Jobs for inspiration which boils down to less text and more images. The response was overwhelmingly positive, they appreciated the simplicity of my explanation and the images which were eye pleasing.

Also, when publishing in some journals, you will be asked to submit a table of content – create an image that best represents your research. Again, I had to really be creative and come up with something that catches people’s eye and make them want to read my article. I did just that although at first I was a bit nervous presenting it to my supervisor as I told him it’s a bit unconventional. He said unconventional is good, it makes people pay attention – and they did, big time.

Fazlin's creation

My table of content was picked to be the cover of the Journal of Chemical Information and Modeling for the issue that my paper was published and we garnered a lot of attention (not just because of the cover page, but also the content, I assure you). My paper is the most downloaded paper for the past one month and number 3 for the past 12 months. Research is nothing if no one is interested so you have to be creative to generate positive interest.

Lesson #2: No man’s an island

I can say with utmost confidence that I would not have been able to survive my PhD if I didn’t have good people around me. I am very blessed to have a group of people around me who supports me and are honest enough with me to tell me if I’m in the wrongs. Even though my family and friends are all over the world (mostly in Malaysia, of course!) they are always within reach if I needed to vent out, in need of some advice, to be told to get on with it and/or to remind me to just enjoy.

I don’t take them for granted. Although I must admit sometimes I forget that I am more than my PhD; I am someone’s daughter, sister or friend. I can get too preoccupied with some deadlines but we all do try our best and take care of each other.

I am also blessed to be working with amazing people who makes coming to the office bearable and fun every day. The best thing about my group is that we are very multi-cultural. There’s representation from India, Italy, German, Curacao (I have never even heard of this country before!), Spain, Iceland, Mexico and many, many more. We all have something to bring to the table - and not only during intercultural lunch.

Another PhD student once said to me, PhD is about going to war everyday with yourself and the friends that you make during your PhD are friends for life. So take care of the people around you, be kind to them, pick someone up when they are down and appreciate their existence. The very least you can do is smile - you might just brighten up someone’s day. No man’s an island - you can’t do it on your own.

Tip #3: Be true to who you are

American poet, E.E Cummings once said, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

We live in a world where lists are made that dictates what we should or should not be. Luckily for me, I have never been one for social convention and it pays off in my PhD. I am comfortable being who I am – an introvert who is a woman of thought instead of woman of words. That’s my definition of introvert so you may or may not quote me on this.

Being comfortable with who you are means you go through life without the need to prove yourself to anybody and knowing that you are enough. People appreciate authenticity and it helps when you are presenting because the message of your research does not have to compete with you. I am comfortable with my presentation style – cool, calm, collected and letting my passion lead the way.

Knowing who you are also helps you be more productive. If you’re the type of person who is a morning person like me, do your “heavy” work in the morning. I usually get a lot of questioning looks when I say I sleep at 9.30 and wake up at 5am. That’s how I am and I usually add that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook also goes to bed early!

Cambridge university grounds

Knowing who you are helps make better decision and ensures a happier life. If you don’t know already who you are, find out now because it is easy to get lost in this world if you don’t and you tend to settle for less than what you actually deserve when you don’t know who you are. Most importantly, be proud of who you are.

So there you go, three of the biggest lessons that I picked up while doing my PhD. I hope that at the very least you were entertained by my article. This is just me relating my own journey, and this is NOT a manual on surviving PhD. We all have our own journey hence I’m sure we each have a different story to tell.

“Success is loving life and daring to live it” – Maya Angelou

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