A message from the end of a PhD

Pursuing a scientific career almost inevitably means moving and leaving the ones you love for at least a certain amount of time. In my case, this decision started during college when I moved from my hometown near São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. Since I made this decision 10 years ago, staying far from my loved ones has become part of a life style. For a student from a simple upbringing in Brazil, like myself, having the opportunity of studying abroad is the utmost privilege. I have been given the chance to perform a good part of my academic formation in prestigious research institutes in Europe under the supervision of brilliant advisors. This trajectory has come with many challenges and, nowadays, as I look back in time, I realize how empathy and kindness have been essential during this process.

I wrote a first draft for a PhD scholarship project one week after my mother passed away. By the time, working on this application was a way to cope with the mourning process and to know that life would move forward. However, I was stressed about it as I wanted to send a good project to my future advisor. Although the application was submitted in time, the project was not accepted, and I pursued my PhD under the supervision of another advisor. Less than a year later, I moved to France to start my PhD.

While choosing my host laboratory, I opted for a laboratory where I would work in a field and question that deeply interested me. Moving to France was not about its culture or its language; it was about choosing a scientific path. This decision came at a price and, without realizing, I left behind part of my ability to communicate when I got into the airplane from São Paulo to Paris on December 13, 2016. Moving to a country without speaking the native language or having a profound knowledge of its culture made me realize how shared references and language are essential in our daily communication. I cannot count how many times I misunderstood part of an experimental procedure protocol or a concept because of language barriers. However, as time went by, I started to learn a new language and to appreciate the Parisian lifestyle. It made me really proud when I started having my personal meetings with my advisors in French. I have no doubt that without the empathy and kindness from my colleagues in the laboratory this process would have been much harder.

Every graduate student meets their own challenges. Some lost loved ones or got physically ill; while others might have psychological or financial problems. In addition to these inherent life issues, the PhD itself is a continuous life challenge. Although extraordinarily gratifying at times, a PhD withholds the constant pressure of production, deadlines, presentations and evaluations. At times, the constant pressure may become too much to bear. This would be the perfect time to count on the support of advisors and colleagues; however it is extremely common to hear from more experienced researchers that challenges are “part of the job”. Students need to “deal with it”. Although deadlines and challenges follow scientists in every step of their career, this kind of discourse normalizes students’ distress and inhibits the development of better working conditions.

Every one of us in the scientific community has had personal and professional challenges. We live at a time when psychological issues associated with working in science are evident – and only increasing. Merely requiring of young scholars to be ‘tough’ or ‘resilient’ will not solve this problem. When I look ahead in my career, I hope to remember these lessons from my graduate years. I hope that I can help create a new culture in which kindness and empathy are the building blocks of the resilience we need to endure the always existing challenges of the academic career.

By Gabriel E. Matos Rodrigues, PhD at the Université Paris-Saclay (France), currently a post-doctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (USA).

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