PhD school: what am I looking for?

It was not always on my mind that I want to go for a doctorate degree. I think the idea started to build up when I was on the last year of my bachelor degree. I met Prof. Asep Saefuddin who was my thesis supervisor, also the one who inspired me to pursue my study in Biostatistics. One time, he gathered all the students he does and did supervise. Among them was Mbak Risti Permani. A smart woman, who at the time was a post-doctoral fellow in economics at Adelaide University, Australia. She shared with us her research experiences and gave us a general overview of what she was doing.

It amazed me when I learned that she finished her doctorate study before the age of 30. I looked her in an awe and I told myself if she is able to do that, then I would be too. I came home and made a plan in two A4 papers of what I have to do in order to do that, in five years and in ten years. What do I want to be and what am I supposed to do in order to achieve that. I put that papers on the wall in my bedroom so that everyday I woke up, I would look at it and see where I was on my plan.

I kept moving on everyday aiming that I will have my doctorate degree before the age of 30. But I forgot to answer the most important question: why do I want to do that? What am I looking for in a doctorate school?

After I finished my master study, I applied for some PhD positions in Europe. After receiving tons of rejections, one university hospital in Germany accepted me as their PhD candidate even before I could show them my final master thesis. But then some weeks later, a company in Belgium also decided to hire me as a biostatistician. I talked to some people what should I choose?

Most reaction I received was: “Just take the job of course. What are you looking for? Isn’t that the reason you go for a PhD so that you could get the job easily?”. At the time I heard that, it makes me realizes that even though I haven’t figured out yet why I want to go for a doctorate degree, at least I know ‘to-easily-find-a-job’ is not in one of them.

I grew up in the culture where generally women get married at the age of 24-25 after they finish their study in the big cities like Jakarta, or even lower when it’s in the smaller cities. The people are always skeptical with a woman who wants to study more. The first reason is they believe that women have some kind of expiry date. A man couldn’t wait forever for a woman to study further and further. Second, it’s part of a man’s ego to not have wife who has higher degree or earn more. Third, women will always end up in the kitchen with kids anyway, why should you bother to study high?

Thankfully, my parents are not in one of them. My mom told me that even though one day I might end up only staying at home and raising kids, see who’s going to be one of the luckiest kids to earn their first learning at home with a highly educated mom.

So, I moved forward. I decided to take the job offer for personal reason and when I joined the team, I talked to my boss. He has a research team doing statistical enhancement for microbiome data. I told him that before I joined the company, I was offered to do research on microbiome as well, I still feel interested in it. I asked him if I am allowed to join his microbiome team as well. Maybe not doing much just sitting and learning from the others.

About a month ago, he asked for an immediate meeting. He asked me if I’m still interested in having a PhD because he wants to open a new liaison with Hasselt University (where I studied for my master) and with the new project coming, I could do research and write some papers at the same time for my PhD.

Now, only when I really face the offer I start to think about the questions that I haven’t answered. I talked to Mas H. He was about to finish his PhD this year. I know how much he has struggled along the way for it. I told him about the situation and I asked him: I still have no idea what I’m looking for by pursuing a PhD. I just know that I always want it. And I think it will be a place for me to disciplining myself. But, is it enough to keep me survive when I do my PhD?

I’m not just looking for the title. I’m looking for a chance to educate myself more. To forge my analytical thinking, my research attitude, forming and forging me to be a better version of myself.

I have heard some friends couldn’t finish their doctorate study because the road to it is really a difficult one. Problems from supervisor, topics that they were working on, to personal issues are the common reason.

I don’t know whether my reason to pursue it will be enough. I don’t know as well if I’m going to be able to make it. From time to time I have my own doubt if I’m the right person to do this, if I’m good enough.

So, (especially) for the women out there who’s still thinking to pursue higher education, go for it! Going for higher education has nothing to do with where you will end up later. You might end up deciding to have kids or being a full time housewives. Or you might also end up not having it. Either way, you will not only educating yourself but you will influence and bring significance to all other people around you, or maybe empowering other women as well.

“If you want to mire a nation in backwardness, manacle your daughters.” – Nicholas Kristof in What’s so scary about smart girls? (The New York Times, Sunday Review, May 10, 2014)


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