During my PhD program, I learned more about myself than about the brain

by Natalia Bielczyk, PhD


I dreamt of becoming a neuroscientist for many years before I entered graduate school. I was fascinated by the subject and I felt that investigating the links between human biology and the human mind is a topic I could spend my professional life on. I could go to any length to make this dream come true. I could even leave all my family and friends and move to another country — which I did.

Surprisingly to myself, during these long years spent in active research, I didn’t learn much about the human brain though. The point is: once you enter graduate school, you start specializing very quickly. After all, you need to come to the frontiers of human knowledge in a certain area and become a leader in some narrow discipline to publish your papers and successfully graduate. In the first year of graduate school, I was taking general courses on neuroscience and I was attending all kinds of guest lectures and seminars. However, the more time I was spending in grad school, the more I felt the pressure to publish. In the end, I stopped broadening my general knowledge in neuroscience, and I focused on becoming an expert in “methods for causal discovery in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” the narrow discipline around my PhD project. At the same time, I stopped tracking the general progress in neuroscience, and I didn’t learn anything new about the human mind in the process.

My PhD was a long and bumpy road — as it is for most PhD candidates. I got an extremely hard research topic which, as I discovered after one year, was mathematically ill-posed. I was isolated in my project, I wasn’t helped either substantively not mentally, and I was crushing under pressure — cognitive neuroscience is an extremely competitive discipline, and if you don’t have a very good start topic-wise and publication-wise, you will have a hard time trying to land a tenure track position later on.

While dealing with my everyday struggles, I learned a lot about myself though. For instance, I learned that I’m a generalist. Namely, no matter how ambitious the project is, it will never be a source of satisfaction to me if it doesn’t have a direct impact on society and if there are only a few people who benefit from it. This is the way I am, and this is how my motivation is structured. Perhaps this is a by-side effect of being a Millenial, yet still, I cannot help the fact.

I also learned in the process that I’m hardwired for a model of labor different from the typical employer-employee relationship. I never felt well under the scrutiny of any superiors who could decide about my to-be or not-to-be. I always felt that this was a limiting factor to me that was killing all my enthusiasm and creativity. I feel much better in the provider-client model, in which every professional interaction is a transaction, and if you have a client, the client commits with their cash and you need to deliver a good service.

I also learned that at the end of the day, it’s better to focus on developing your genuine talents rather than on orienting yourself at the skills that are highly wanted in the job market at this very moment. At the end of my PhD, I had a dilemma whether I should go with what the job market currently appreciates the most and monetize on the hard skills obtained in my PhD, namely my knowledge in statistics and my ability to program or rather, I should go with my heart and focus on writing and teaching. I went with my heart and even though it hasn’t always been easy, I have no regrets so far.

Natalia Bielczyk, PhD
Blogger at https://nataliabielczyk.com
Author of “What Is out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks”
Owner at Welcome Solutions (https://welcome-solutions.com)
Director at Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling (stichting-solaris.github.io)