Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Making The Most of Your PhD

Making the most of a PhD

‘You have to be in it to win it’.

This might be a clichéd phrase, but it’s one I’ve tried to live by since starting my PhD. Like a lot of inexperienced twenty-somethings, I have a phobia of ‘putting myself out there’. The thought of public speaking makes me break out in a nervous sweat. What if somebody asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, and the impostor syndrome that you’ve been suppressing deep down is suddenly validated? Everybody fears rejection, and it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone. By not applying for opportunities and competitions, you’re choosing not to go, not to win, and be told that you’re not good enough. It’s a self-defense mechanism that limits your opportunities.

Breaking out of my cozy shell, I decided to apply for the 2016 SciFinder Future Leaders program. Writing a short essay on how SciFinder is valuable to your work seems like a daunting task. How can you make it stand out from all of the other applications? Unbelievably, I was selected, and embarked upon my journey to Columbus, Ohio. During the week, there were activities to really push us to the limits of our comfort zone. On only the second day, we underwent a challenge to design a scientific product with a group of other participants in the program we’d just met. At the end of the session, we had to pitch our idea in front of a panel of judges with a video camera pointing right at us. However, working with such a friendly group of scientists was incredible, and what initially seemed like the scariest part of the week ended up being one of the most fun!

Since taking part in the program, my confidence has blossomed, both personally and professionally. A fun and useful poster session at CAS was great motivation to apply for other opportunities, both in my department and externally. Several poster sessions later, and I’ve received some really great advice from fellow chemists and made some connections to help with the rest of my PhD. Part of the program also involved trying out CAS products and providing feedback. Having someone genuinely interested in what you have to say, and making you feel like your opinion is worthwhile, was encouraging enough to completely cancel out the initial doubt and worry of being rejected in the first place.

So what happens when you apply and don’t get accepted? A few weeks ago, I received a rejection from a scholarship I’d applied for. After the initial period of self-doubt, you accept the situation, move on, and get ready to embrace new challenges. You can look for positive aspects of the experience, such as having an updated résumé and project summaries ready for the next application. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be accepted next time. You just need to put yourself out there and keep trying!

Emma Durham is currently a third year PhD student in the University of Cambridge studying organocatalysis, and was a SciFinder Future Leader (2016). As well as a love of scientific communication and popular science, in her rare time away from the lab she enjoys food tourism and cats. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaDurhamChem.