Friday, September 16, 2016

No prize for finishing (or starting) your PhD first

The first time I came to Montréal was a couple of years ago. I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame and had the opportunity to attend the Genomes to/aux Biomes conference where I presented some research I was doing on speciation genomics of apple maggot flies out of Jeffrey Feder’s lab.

discovering the culinary delicacies of the north

It was a pleasant and sunny few days packed with science and poutine. For me, it was also a chance to explore the city and McGill University where I was to begin my Ph.D. in the fall and meet up with Rowan Barrett, my supervisor. I knew Rowan from years back when we were both working in Hopi Hoekstra’s lab and I had already gone out to the sandhills of Nebraska with him a few times to catch mice for the project that I would work on in my Ph.D. I had already been accepted to McGill and the funding was in place. The situation was ideal and everything was going according to plan. But sometimes life has other things in store.

corn thuggin with Rowan

Besides this Ph.D., the one thing I applied for was the MEME Erasmus Mundus Master Programme in Evolutionary Biology. It’s a joint 2-year master programme between four European universities (University of Groningen, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich, Uppsala University, and University of Montpellier) and had been somewhat of a dream of mine ever since I found out about it in my freshman year.

our logo is pretty lit

The programme is set up such that students choose to take courses in either Groningen, Netherlands or Uppsala, Sweden in the first semester. Students then go to either Munich, Germany or Montpellier, France for more courses and a half-semester research project. In the final year, students conduct two separate thesis projects in any of the four universities, Harvard University (a partner of the programme), or basically any university or research institution in the world so long as a professor from one of the four universities is willing to supervise the project. In the end, students earn double or even triple M.Sc. degrees and often come out with multiple publications. Having never been to Europe before in my life and having been awarded a full scholarship, MEME was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I could not refuse. So I decided to take a detour to my Ph.D. I figured, if it was meant to be, I would find my way back eventually. Thankfully, Rowan agreed. :)

What I can say is it was simply the best time of my life. We were 22 representing 17 countries, each bringing something different to the table from our diverse cultural and educational backgrounds. Our discussions ranged from Dawkins and The Selfish Gene to the insanity of dealing with French banks to which new country was going to be our next adventure. And I won’t lie, it was fun to see a Syrian doctor interested in evolutionary medicine and bacteriophages struggle on the mudflats of the northern Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog doing field work, wondering out loud why the entire field of evolutionary ecology exists in the first place.

flatness can be beautiful too

Travel became life and life fit in a backpack. MEME took me from the Netherlands to France to California to Sweden to China, all within a span of 24 months. Each new country came with its own set of challenges and trying to open and close entire chapters of your life within months wasn't easy. A Malaysian classmate of mine put it best as going through breakup after breakup, but with each new relationship, you learn and become more experienced. The projects I worked on were equally diverse from the genetics of starvation tolerance in European seabass with Bruno Guinand to genetic mark-recapture of giant pandas with Per Palsbøll, Matt Durnin, Katja Guschanski and Jacob Höglund and taxonomic assignment of metabarcoding data with Douglas Yu. It was an intense, crazy, unforgettable experience. A rollercoaster or a whirlwind... or a rollercoaster caught in a whirlwind. And don’t get me started on the parties. Oh the parties…

MEME graduation 2016 - Erken, Sweden

So a full 2 years later, I now have 3 M.Sc. degrees in evolutionary biology from 3 countries, 1 paper accepted, 1 submitted and more to come. I have a deeper understanding of what it really means to be a global citizen and greater personal and scientific maturity to start my new life and Ph.D. at McGill. So if you’re reading this and this all sounds pretty cool to you, the next application cycle opens soon on October 15, 2016. My advice to any undergrads out there is to take your time. In fact, I almost wish I had taken more. The academic road is a long one and there is no prize for who gets their Ph.D. first. Of course, its best to be productive by becoming a research assistant or doing a masters, especially if you want a career within academia, but if you're not sure about your next step, it wouldn't be the wisest idea to jump straight into a Ph.D. Or perhaps this is just the European culture rubbing off on me (which isn't so bad!). In part because I decided to do MEME before starting my Ph.D. at McGill, I successfully applied for the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship so it seems like I made the right decision after all. The next big challenge for me will be to settle myself in at McGill, get used to living in one place for more than 5 months, and sink my teeth into some long term projects, which I now gladly accept.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for wrote this! It is inspiring and make more exciting my decision to apply (and I am waiting for Oct 15th).
    My best wishes with the PhD!!


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