(Photo above courtesy of Dr. Axelrod: "The view from the roof of the main building of the Desert Research Institute. I spent a lot of time up here over five years, all four seasons. It’s that nice.")
by Dr. Kevin Axelrod
So, it’s been a pretty crazy 12 months. In January of 2023 (one calendar year before this blog is being posted), I was lying on the couch for two straight weeks in my shared house in Reno, Nevada, recovering from leg surgery, high on hydrocodone, and needing my housemates to get food from the kitchen for me (thanks, Heather and Brie). Not appearing in the lab at the Desert Research Institute for two full weeks, I still had not completed the experimentation for my second publication of my Ph.D. research at the University of Nevada at Reno. I still did not have a set date for when I would defend my dissertation and graduate from school, and quite frankly I did not yet know where my life was going. And, believe it or not, I had never heard of York University.
I had spent the last year and a half worrying about where my research was headed and how it was going to help me take the next step in life after graduation (if I even graduated). At this point, I was supposed to be in “the crunch” - the last year of a Ph.D. tenure in which a student is supposed to devote their life, body, mind, spirit, overall being, consciousness, life-force, qi, etc. to their research and nothing else. Instead, for two weeks, I watched Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime (not sponsored, by the way) while eating chocolate pudding. Not exactly the demeanor of someone who had spent the last 4.5 years of their life in graduate school and was now supposed to be in the crunch. Of course, I could not walk and thus could not come into lab to work on my experiments, and I struggled to write anything because most of the time, I could not even sit up. I felt stuck – I was seriously questioning whether I could graduate in August of 2023, which was a date delayed from a previous goal of May 2023, which was a date delayed from my original goal of December 2022 that I laid out in my prospectus defense.
This was just 12 months ago. And now, I am writing a blog for the Planetary Volatiles Laboratory, supervised by Dr. John Moores, at YorkU in Ontario. Back in January, I would not have guessed that I would be here now.
So, this blog is not about how cool my Ph.D. research is, a summary of an important meeting or event, or a case study of a planetary atmosphere. This blog is about Ph.D. students in “the crunch”, who are anxious, unsure of their future, feeling consistently unprepared or inadequate, and always being very busy while still feeling like they get nothing done.
Hopefully, that is not the case for most Ph.D. students who read this. Hopefully, most Ph.D. students are constantly ecstatic about their research, enjoying all the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that they had dreamed about since childhood when they first watched Bill Nye the Science Guy or Mythbusters. That was not me, however, and I know I am not the only one. I had been working on this one singular project (bioaerosol chemistry, and more specifically pollen chemistry) for 4.5 years, and though it came with a lot of intrigue and enjoyment, I had also made many mistakes, suffered setbacks, and was disappointed with what I viewed to be a low level of progress. As a result, I was feeling very stressed and burned out – I just wanted to finally complete it and move onto new things.
After I got to the point where I could walk again, I returned to the lab with a new motivation - to get my life together. And that involved two tasks: finishing my research on the volatility of bioaerosol constituents in the atmosphere, and also looking past my Ph.D. and finding a place where I could continue my passion for scientific research on a new project which would allow me to expand my knowledge further. And I ended up finding such an opportunity with the PVL via a flyer that Dr. Moores posted on the American Geophysical Union website’s career listings.
Upon my first interview with Dr. Moores, I knew right away that I wanted to join the lab – I was completely overwhelmed when he extended the offer to join. I accepted. It would be an exciting change of pace - a new project on the development of a functioning methane spectrometer for the Martian atmosphere (and so far, it has been a very exciting change of pace). But, in March 2023 when I first interviewed, in the back (and front) of my head was a lingering doubt – would I actually be able to finish my Ph.D. research in time to move to Toronto and start research at YorkU in September 2023?
One thing was for certain – the pressure was on like never before. Pressure not just to produce manuscripts, but to start a new chapter in life. To self-improve, if you will. In my opinion, that was the subject of my dissertation writing, even though self-improvement is never mentioned in it.
And, for the most part, that pressure was good for me. It made me more focused and motivated towards my bioaerosol research. And as my leg improved, so did the state of my dissertation. By the end of March, I completed the experimentation for my second publication and was busy writing the manuscript for it, while simultaneously taking care of in-lab work for my third research chapter in my dissertation. By May, I had finished the writing of the publication and was wrapping up the in-lab research. And by July 10, I was holding my dissertation defense.
Granted, the defense was far from perfect (almost nothing ever is in academia). The night before was my most disturbed night of “sleep” ever. The morning of, I woke up at 4:30 AM and was instantly wide awake – something that had only happened one other time in my life, which was the morning of my prospectus defense two years earlier. I held off on coffee that morning because it would have had no effect. My jitteriness was already at a maximum due to the nervous energy surging through me.
I was in a state of extreme anxiety. But, I took solace in the fact that I had given the past year, “the crunch”, my best effort – motivated by my desire to make it to my postdoctoral fellowship. And if my best effort was not enough, then oh well.
The defense was an absolute fever dream – I don’t even remember most of it. But it went well, and after two and a half hours I walked out of the presentation room with the blessings of my committee. After living in Reno for five years, I was finally going to start a new chapter in life. Provided, of course, that I take care of a few other things before I left, such as updating some of my writing and attempting to gather some results via a secondary analysis of some of my aerosol samples because one of my previous experiments failed.
But before any of that, I had another immediate task: attending my first in-person conference as a graduate student (no thanks to you, COVID), at the International Conference for Carbonaceous Particles in the Atmosphere (ICCPA) in Berkeley, California. After my defense, my next task was to drive for four hours (on two hours of sleep) to California. Though I was driving at night and did not arrive at the conference hotel until 2AM, it was one of the most euphoric drives of my life.
The next day, I finally got to enjoy an in-person conference, as a reward for passing the defense. It was a great time – I presented a poster on my research, sat in on an absurd number of exciting platform presentation sessions, met several new people and research groups, and certainly did not skimp on the catered wine. By all estimates, it was one of the most enjoyable excursions of my time as a graduate student.
And one month later, I stuffed all my belongings into my sedan and left Reno, driving them back to my parents’ house before jumping onto a plane two weeks later.
I will miss Reno. I will miss the incredible natural landscapes around Lake Tahoe. I will miss the excitement that I had back when I first moved there in 2018 as a grad student, realizing that I was about to take part in cutting-edge research for the first time. And I will also miss a lot of the time I spent in lab over those 5 years. I am forever grateful that I had a great advisor, a great program director, and great co-researchers and classmates, without all of whom I would not have graduated. I will forever cherish the research topics that I was able to take part in while at the Desert Research Institute. But there were certainly things that I will not miss: the many times that I made mistakes in my experimentation, the many re-do’s that needed to be done, the eternal frustration of trial and error, followed by finally obtaining a set of results that I thought were interesting enough to be published (and then writing about them for several months), only to have the manuscript murdered by some very truculent reviewers. This cycle of frustration made it feel like I was stagnating – that I was not moving forward in research or in life. It made bioaerosol research, a topic that I intrinsically enjoy, into something that stressed me out. It’s the part of the scientific method that they do not show on Mythbusters.
So, to any current Ph.D. student who feels the same way right now, I would say: try to think about what you want to do after your graduation, even though it can be difficult to think about. A visualization of your “next chapter” will get you over the hump. Scientific research has both excitement and disappointment. A Ph.D. may sometimes seem like it has more disappointment than excitement. But after completion, you will feel just like the Mythbusters right after they blow something up: total ecstasy. And that feeling will fuel my motivation for further research here at YorkU - hopefully I can keep it going for a while.