An Honest PhD – A Flower In the Desert

This spotlight article highlights the grit and endurance of a PhD and includes great insights from a PhD.

By: Thomas R Coughlin, PhD

Velvet Mesquite in the Agua Caliente under Gila Mountains in Arizona
Photo courtesy of Karel Bergmann

There is a flower in the Sonoran Desert that is constantly fighting, waiting, and grinding through days and days of seemingly endless dry heat. The velvet mesquite (prosopis velutina) is a species of plant that has adapted to survive in the roughest of climates. But before it is its beautiful full-grown flowering bush, annually flowering self it must survive from a seed. 

Upon a rainstorm, the dormant mesquite seedling awakes and sends down its roots to harbor into the desert soil. Due to the lack of water in the desert, the mesquite’s roots continually navigate and dig through the soil. Dry spell after dry spell, the mesquite weaves and pushes deep into the soil with its roots. Over time it reaches down as far as 50 meters (164 feet) into the soil.

Fighting against difficult odds and arid conditions, the velvet mesquite reaches down and stretches tall in the Sonoran Desert sun. After years of effort and waiting, it shows its first flower of the spring. The only flower for miles.

Sometimes we must all endure difficult times to have our eventual moment of clarity and seeing the forest through the trees.

The following is a story from a graduated PhD, currently working in the pharmaceutical industry.

Velvet Mesquite flowering in the Agua Caliente under Gila Mountains in Arizona
Photo courtesy of Karel Bergmann

“I was told in graduate school that 75% of students in the graduate school will visit the counseling center. That it was normal

Yet, sitting there in my graduate counseling office, I felt embarrassed.

I was ashamed of needing help to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I couldn’t see it. Looking back, I was probably like a man with a flash light in a long dark tunnel with enough light to only see the steps in front of me. 

I dwelled over things like, how can I support myself in the real world, will I got a professor job, do I have enough, how will I carve out an independent niche? 

At that time, I had no certainty of a job and didn’t know where things would land. 

I only knew that I had to keep going and trying to get headway with my research. But with so much uncertainty and frankly, it was hard to give any certainty to some one else, particularly my loved ones.

How was I to see I was growing and becoming a better person, without any contrast? It was the lab, the experiments, and didn’t know life outside my bubble. My bubble was comfortable.

Looking back I should have been more sure, but I did take action. I read a lot of books and sought wisdom from people with my experience than me. 

Velvet Mesquite flower close-up in the Agua Caliente under Gila Mountains in Arizona
Photo courtesy of Karel Bergmann

To empower myself, I learned about finances and careers outside of academics. These things helped me get perspective on the PhD and also helped me get through the doldrums, like the weeks in the basement of a building with a confocal microscope.

I empowered myself with knowledge about careers and learned how the PhD would help my career. I started to learn that yes sometimes, I was doing some pretty repetitive tasks, but by being in academics I was where all the discoveries happen. That those moments were necessary to society and those days in the library or with the confocal were contributing to something way bigger than me. Perspective helped.

I also learned that the transferrable skills I was learning would be invaluable in industry. This helped a lot.

The books I read about money were helpful. I started a Roth during my degree. I read about proactivity, and careers in non-academic jobs.

Some of the books I read were 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Rich Dad Poor Dad, and Next Gen PhD.

Now with the PhD a while back. And Not to sound cliche, but getting through the PhD reminds me that you can accomplish anything once you set your mind to it. “

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A great thank you to the person that this story highlights.

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