From Physicus Minimus to Physicus Maximus

Facebook surprised me this week with a reminder: seven years ago, I submitted my Bachelor’s thesis. Seven years – time flies! And almost exactly seven years later, I’ll be handing in my doctoral thesis. I’m in the absolute final sprint right now (keep your fingers crossed for me). I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for a little review: What has changed in the last seven years? What was the path like from the Bachelor’s degree, through the Master’s, into the doctoral studies, (almost) all the way to the Ph.D.? Am I really smarter now than seven years ago?

Level 1: Bachelor

I still remember my first semester very clearly. Fresh at the university, completely excited, I could hardly wait to plough through the lectures. And that for a whole three years, wow, such a long time! As a working-class kid, I had no idea how studying even worked and I stumbled into the first semester like that. However, physics has the advantage (for me as a clueless student, at least) that it is structured very thoroughly. There is a fairly fixed timetable and you don’t have to make your first decision until the third semester. By then, I had roughly understood studying and you couldn’t do much wrong. But being free to choose lectures was exciting. The first lab course was exciting. Giving my first talks was exciting. Leading exercise groups for the first time was exciting. In short, everything was exciting!

The crowning glory was the bachelor’s thesis. Reading real, scientific publications for the first time, in English (I am German, in case you did not know)! Talking about research with PhD students. Programming things myself and solving equations that no one has solved before. Doing new research, not just solving boring textbook exercises. Sitting at a table in the cafeteria with the “cool kids”. Belonging to a research group. Having an office space and being able to walk around the university without a backpack because you have an office where you can leave your stuff (I probably sound very much like a nerd, but honestly, what do you expect from someone who starts a physics blog in their spare time). At the end of my bachelor thesis, I was super proud of the results. I had written a whole 51 pages, full of new research, new physics!

Today, seven years later, I still don’t think my Bachelor’s thesis was too bad. Many fellow students laugh about their Bachelor’s thesis today, maybe even feel ashamed of it. Of course, the level – physically, linguistically and technically (quality of the illustrations, etc.) – is much lower than what I’m producing now in my doctoral thesis. But still: measured against the time I spent on my Bachelor’s thesis (a good three to four months full-time), I’m a tiny bit impressed with my former self. In fact, I have revisited my bachelor’s topic. It is now part of my doctoral thesis in a more evolved form and has been published in an academic journal.

Level 2: Master

After my Bachelor’s degree, it was out of the question for me whether I would do a Master’s degree or not. I didn’t even think about it. In physics, it’s absolutely standard to do a Master’s degree. In fact, I already knew in my Bachelor’s degree that I wanted to do my doctorate. I probably couldn’t say exactly why at the time. But I thought it was great to study what I found exciting, and I wanted to keep doing it “until the end”.

Everything was a little less exciting in the Master’s. While I was still proudly counting my semesters in the Bachelor’s degree, I had to think hard about how long I’ve been doing this for in the Master’s degree (don’t even ask me which semester I’m in right now… probably around 20, I don’t know). First, we had two semesters of lectures, then two semesters of research: the Master’s thesis! That was the first time I worked completely freely and without daily guidance. In the Bachelor’s thesis, I still had a supervisor who told me exactly what I had to do. That was no longer the case for the Master’s thesis. I thought for myself what to do next, I went to my first conferences, presented my research, discussed with experimentalists, visited them in Paris and learned what it means to work with them. Again: exciting, exciting, exciting!

Writing my Master’s thesis was then the first tough stress test (not that studying wasn’t stressful too, but this was a different kind of stress). I had written my Bachelor’s thesis in a week (I can’t even imagine now how I managed to do that). Then I thought: well, the Master’s thesis is longer, let’s say a month. In the end it was two. I handed it in just before the deadline and was basically all stress and caffeine. Some people always hand it in just before the deadline, but I’m usually not really like that. In the end, it was 99 pages (my professor told me to stay under 100: mission accomplished!) + 14 pages of appendices, on top of that in English.

Level 3: PhD

The transition from the Master’s to the PhD was even more uneventful than the one from Bachelor’s to Master’s. I liked my research, I wanted to see my results in real experiments, and for that I had to (and wanted to) continue in the same group. In research, they say you should get around as much as possible, change universities after your Master’s thesis at the latest in order to have the best possible chances later on. But that didn’t matter to me at that moment. I liked the city, the university, the working group, the topic – I saw absolutely no reason to go anywhere else. What’s more, my professor offered me a doctoral position straight away.

As in the Master’s programme, I never even considered not continuing. In conversations with others, I noticed that this was not natural. Many found the decision difficult and many decided against it, switching to industry or business instead, where you can simply earn a lot more money than at university. Many have had a hard time deciding where they want to do their doctorate. Which university, which subject, how promising is it, how will it help me in my career? I did what I wanted to do the most – what I had been doing since my Bachelor’s degree. Was that a good decision? I don’t know, I’m happy with the decision, but it is to be seen if it has a negative impact on me later.

In my doctorate, I basically did exactly the same thing as in my second Master’s year. Independent research. There was a short period where I found it exciting to say I was now a PhD student. I was now being paid to do research! But that died down pretty quickly. While everything was new and exciting in the Bachelor’s degree, I kind of slid into the PhD. I gave my first talks at conferences, later came the first invited talks (organisers approached me, me!, and invited me to give a talk!), gave my first lectures to Bachelor students, flew to the other side of the world to attend conferences, lived in Paris for a summer and supervised Bachelor students in their work. It all sounds more exciting than the experiences of an undergraduate, but somehow I took it all in much more naturally – I got used to it, the glamour of the new eventually disappeared.

The disenchantment

For the first three years or so of my PhD, I went into the office happy every day. Sure, there were exceptions; difficult phases where the code didn’t work and data just wouldn’t make sense. But on average, I had quite a lot of fun at work. Then it slowly went downhill. After about three and a half years – when my first projects were finished – things suddenly got pretty slow. Somehow I didn’t know where I was going, what I was doing, nothing seemed to work properly anymore. I had the feeling that I didn’t really understand anything any more. When I ask around, I think it’s the same for many people – at some point towards the end, you’re overcome by PhD fatigue. You feel dumber than ever, overwhelmed with everything, all you really want to do is finish and with every day that passes you become more panicky about whether you’ll ever finish. Yep, that’s my life right now.

Good news is: the end is in sight. I’m pretty sure I’ll finish very soon, but every day feels like an insurmountable hurdle at the moment. I need a holiday, I just want to finish so that I can finally think about something other than my doctoral thesis again.

You’ll most likely read about how exactly that went next month, in my blog post about the thesis. Wish me luck (and send coffee!)

Do you like what you read? Then you can buy me a coffee here! You might also like my other articles from the “How to PhD” series. And if you don’t want to miss any new posts, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog.

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