The Path to a PhD: A Long, Steady and Enriching Research Life

In order to understand the life of PhD candidates in PKUSZ, we tried connecting with the most senior, experienced and busiest PhD students on our campus. Now we have the chance to show what their daily life is like on their path to earning a PhD.

We interviewed Wang Qian (WQ, 王前) and Wang Tianyu (WT, 王天宇) from the School of Environment and Energy (SEE) and School of Chemical Biology and Biotechnology (SCBB), respectively. They have been at PKUSZ for several years and will both graduate next year. Apart from sciences and research, we got the “secret” information behind working in the lab.

Q: What is your research interest and how did it become your main focus?

WQ: My research is focusing on the effect of incineration bootom ash co-disposed with municipal solid waste (MSW) in landfills. As we know, incineration is becoming an important treatment way for MSW. However, incineration also produces a lot of by-products, including bottom ash and fly ash. Bottom ash is regarded as the main by-product. The main treatment way for bottom ash is co-disposed with the MSW. The effect of co-disposal to the landfills remains unclear.

Wang Qian and her self-designed reactors

WT: I am researching in the field of neuroscience and focusing on fear and its neural circuitry. I want to understand how fear is generated and interpret the biological basis of it. The human brain is an intriguing organ that still has numerous mysteries needing to be uncovered; thus, I would like to know how our brain functioned making us scared in some specific conditions.

Q: Where are your pressures from and what motivates you to conquer them?

WQ: First of all, I thought my pressure came from my direction of project. PhD is very different from master’s, I have to figure out what I really want to investigate and design a relatively new and valuable project. Because my field is quite interdisciplinary, mainly focusing on the combination of materials and microorganisms, it really demanded the processes of self-exploration. I sometimes faced the situation of experiment failure, which is something outside of my hypotheses and expectations, and then I needed to reconsider every detail to solve the problems occurred.

Also, during the paper submission period, I found that it is very easy to depress one’s spirit, especially after I had been rejected 6 times for submitting one manuscript. Because of the particularity of my direction, reviewers who rejected my draft deemed that my submitted paper is out of the scope of their journal, but fortunately, it has been accepted by a journal that praised it as an interesting topic.

As you can see, my motivation came from the good results of solving problems even though the processes of it were harsh and difficult. I always encourage myself to maintain a good mood and a positive mind when coping with unexpected questions.

WT: I did not realize many great pressures acting on me during my PhD study. I have some, but I think “research” is quite friendly for us because everyone does have the curiosity to investigate an unknown subject. However, “doing research” is not that easy and you will face problems, even experimental failure during the process. I think the pressure comes from the imbalance of human curiosity and research practice. When experiments cannot fulfill your expectations or contradict each other, keep seeking the results. This is the key to opening the door for relieving your stress during difficult times. Luckily, I have sufficient interest in it to continuously investigate the answers I want to know.

Wang Tianyu doing an experiment

Scientific questions are really interesting. Just like the very classic question: a chicken comes first, or the egg comes first? I thought I have figured it out and I should be the first one who explained this question in a genetical way but one professor said that he also thought in this way too. I was very upset that time but I know that there are still uncountable fascinating questions waiting for me to solve. So, don’t be stressed if you were facing some problems. Just keep focus and you will be fine.

Q: How do you balance your working and leisure time?

WQ: The balancing of time is actually served my good mood. When I was under great pressure from research, I would like to find a way to release my stress and good time management allows me to have time for relaxation. I liked going to the gym and yoga before, but this year I have enjoyed boxing because I can get good sleep after punching every pressure out into the sandbag. Also, I think sleeping with enough time and good quality provides me the energy to focus on works while having a high efficiency, this is better than using a lot of time without focus. Exercising and sleeping are very crucial, especially to keeping healthy, no matter physical or psychological, during the research life.

WT: In fact, I am a typical example of an “unbalanced” PhD student. My working time and sleeping time are not as healthy as others but this is my living style that can provide me a good performance for working. Exercising is my daily routine to keep the fitness of my body in order to support my lab works. I like jogging or go to the gym 3-4 times a week. Sometimes, when I was writing my thesis, I would drink a can of beer that would really help my brain think faster.

Q: What do you think about your future?

WQ: I am considering looking for a teaching or research position, it depends on the opportunities. I will try to keep doing research in the future if I can. However, it is not that easy for a girl to continue this kind of long-term career due to some stereotypical issues towards physical strength or pregnancy. Gender preferences still exist in our society, even though these problems have been trying to be solved in recent years. I hope that a female-friendly research environment can be encouraged; then, more and more excellent researchers will stay and keep contributing to this field.

WT: I just started to consider this question indeed. I think I will try to find the position of a post-doctoral fellow in Beijing. The pandemic is still severe and it is unrealistic to go to American or Europe for post-doctoral training. I do not worry a lot about the future, and I think I will keep on this path if I am still interested in the field of neuroscience.

Overall, studying as a PhD student seems like running a marathon. You have to know your own interest, pace, ability, and objective, etc. Otherwise, it is easy to fall down. Having a lifestyle that supports your well-being and keeping a positive outlook will make you enjoy your challenging PhD life.

At last, Four Golden Lessons by Steven Weinberg for all of you who just stepped into a PhD:

Written by Fong Tsz Hei

Photos by Fong Tsz Hei, Wang Qian, Wang Tianyu


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