My name is Marco. I am 26 years old and a first-year PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University. I am not going to lie, at first being rejected from Harvard was devastating; however, this rejection was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. In this article, I will share my journey in applying to PhD programs in the US as a Brazilian student.
Let’s begin with a little bit of context. First, I majored in Food Engineering at the Federal University of Viçosa, Brazil, and during this time, I also studied Biotechnology in France. I did one year of courses, and an internship, at the University of Lorraine, where I finished at the top of my class, and I was approved for three fully funded master’s programs. After that, I decided to pursue a masters in Genetics and Molecular Biology at the State University of Campinas, Brazil. However, despite studying at top universities and having +5 years of research experience, and five published articles at the time, I was still rejected from Harvard University.
I shall warn you now that this will be personal and it might not be useful to a general audience; but hey, we all think we are going through something unique when many of us are actually going through the same experiences, so who knows!
My PhD journey started out at the Indian Institute of Roorkee in 2018 under Dr. Partha Pratim Roy. I was happy that I would get to work on an EEG (a device capable of reading electrical signals generated by our brain), as I have always wanted to work in AI and build Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), and starting with the brain looked promising.
I started my PhD just four months ago at the University of Leeds. I’m an architect from Mexico City, and as you can imagine, it was a hard decision to move to the UK. One of the things that I noticed after I arrived here was the writing on the pavement reminding people to “look right” or “look left”. At first, I thought it all seemed very unnecessary. Now that some time has passed, I bless those signs every day. I realised how complicated it was for someone from Latin America to arrive in a country where everything is on the opposite side from what we’re used to.
In many respects, moving to Leeds has been much easier. I live in the city centre, and so it only takes 15 minutes for me to get to uni. Back in Mexico walking from my house to university took 45 minutes, so I am lucky that I live so close to campus.
Leeds moves slowly in comparison to my city. This has taken some getting used to as I am used to a faster pace, although it has been an important change in my PhD life so far. In Mexico City, everything goes so fast, a lot of people start their day at 5am and everybody is in a rush. Life in Mexico is more about surviving rather than living, and this is still the way I am in Leeds today. I’m the person who is always running everywhere, even though I’m not in a hurry.
Did that title confuse you? Most of you are probably wondering how in the world pursuing a PhD in a research field is anything like launching a start-up. After all, academia is not exactly known for being entrepreneurial: it’s slower, more bureaucratic, and a lot more risk averse. It is likely you are pursuing a PhD to conduct research rather than starting a business but for me I worked in a start-up business before beginning my PhD in a research-intensive psychology program and have found there are overlapping skills and mindsets between being successful in a PhD and in launching a start-up.
I share these in the hope that they help other students find their own “success”, whatever that may look like and perhaps prepare future students for some of the unexpected challenges they may face when starting a PhD.
If you had told me when I was growing up that one day, I’d have a PhD, I would have told you that was not my goal at all. I had other plans: I wanted to be a deejay. Today, that’s not unusual; there are many female deejays on the radio and an equal number of female announcers on TV. But when I was growing up in the 1950s, society still had not changed, and gender roles in the media were very traditional. That meant the announcers and deejays were men, usually white, and preferably with deep voices, and women were either receptionists or secretaries or switchboard operators (yes, switchboards were still a thing), or they hosted a so-called “women’s show,” where they discussed food, family, and fashion. I never wanted to do a women’s show. I wanted to play the hits and cheer people up, which is what my favorite deejays did for me.
I never realized the lack of female deejays was because we weren’t welcome in that role; I thought women just hadn’t applied, and I decided to rectify that by joining my college radio station. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when the program director told me that girls couldn’t be on the air. (Evidently, girls didn’t sound good. Or so he said, even though no girls had ever been allowed on the air.) To make a long story short, it took me four years before I was given the opportunity I had long sought: in my senior year, I finally became the first female deejay in the station’s history.
To-Do: Write A Thesis - Reflecting On My PhD Experience So Far & Advice For New PhD Students By Gemma Rides
On my first day as a PhD student, I grabbed my favourite coffee from Starbucks, sat down in my office, grabbed my new notepad and pen, and wrote…
To-do: Write a thesis
Now, for someone that thrives off colour coding, planning, and ticking off to-do lists, the realisation that I could not cross this task off my list for the next 4 years was more than daunting. Slightly worried, I decided to read and re-read every single handbook, document and book that had been given to me for my PhD induction, hoping for some insight into what I needed to actually do. After a week of reading, I was even more confused than when I started. What do you mean I need to ‘upgrade’ from an MPhil to a PhD? I need to consider ethics, recruitment, training and annual reviews? And what was this terrifying viva?
I started my PhD, very unceremoniously on a random Tuesday, March 1st to be exact. However, I have just started the next 4 years of my life.
Beginning a PhD seems daunting at the best of times and during the (hopefully) last leg of a pandemic is even scarier, but this is what I had planned and worked towards for years. Achieving both a BA and MA in Archaeology, graduating from both during varying lockdown restrictions, I purposefully looked to see this passion through to the very end, but I had almost no idea what to do. A little fish in a limitless ocean. I was aware of my research project; I had a good proposal to continue my exploration of the archaeological analysis of human sacrifice that I had begun in my Undergraduate dissertation. While I knew what to do with my topic, I had no idea how a PhD worked daily. Meetings with supervisors and school directors over zoom revealed that my day-to-day tasks were writing the thesis and improving myself as a professional.
Recently, I was asked to reflect on what life had to offer after PhD for a not so young, yet still an Early Career Researcher. I have to say, in all honesty, that this was certainly not the avenue I presumed. Although I had done the PhD for my personal benefit, I thought I would fall effortlessly into a position within my home university, with my own office space. Well, how misguided those thoughts were! I came to realise that I was living in the past, when having a PhD automatically secured you a post. Just to clarify, I am a historian of Ancient Greece and Rome and dead languages, and the not so ancient, the long nineteenth-century, need I say more.
After a few forays into the academic job market such as the very, very short-term research post and extremely fixed-term lecturing post, I began to look elsewhere. A fellow PhD’er who knew I was looking for a new challenge invited me to a presentation that was being given by The Brilliant Club. Her exact words were, ‘Why not come along, you may be pleasantly surprised, there are opportunities for someone just like you, brilliant, enthusiastic’. I must say that I had never heard of this club, but my colleague was enthusing profusely over them. Now, suitably intrigued, I thought I would go along and see what it was all about. To be fair, I had nothing to lose, and who knew, The Brilliant Club may be just what I was seeking. My colleague was correct, and let’s just say the rest is history.
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