The not-so-obvious choices

Postgraduate study is a lot more than the degree itself: it's also a chance to understand the universe, and yourself, in your own unique way, says UC postgrad student Dr Sriparna Saha.

Artwork by Dr Sriparna Saha

It is often said that pursuing a PhD is a matter of choice, and I couldn’t agree more. It has almost been a year since I started my second doctoral degree at the University of Canterbury. Whenever I have been asked how far along I am in my PhD journey and responded with 1st year of my second PhD, I have seen the look of incredulity on peoples’ faces ending with the same question each time, “Why.”

Why indeed?

It indeed is hard to justify choices to people when things are viewed from a lens of social norm, of things that one is expected to do, or career paths one is expected to follow. Even in academia, conformity lies in pursuing a postdoc as an independent researcher immediately after finishing up a postgrad, and keep at it till one lands a tenure track research position.

What, however, is not obvious is that there may be people who want to experiment and pursue careers that lie outside the spectrum of the obvious.

Academia is replete with stories of how the persistence to pursue a non-obvious career choice is seen as a sign of abandonment. But where amidst all this conformity is the space for the self, to bring in our other non-science passions and interests into the research we care so much about?

This is what I tell people.

While I loved cooking rocks in a highly prestigious experimental lab to understand how continents formed about 4 billion years ago, I felt restricted when I couldn’t bring my art, my interests in writing, storytelling and teaching to the lab.

It took me a while to realize that the postgraduate degree is a lot more than the degree itself. Of course you eventually become an expert in your field, but most importantly, it is an opportunity to understand the universe in your own way.

As with most other things in making life choices, the value of the postgrad degree is relative to what you want to do, and what it is that other people use to judge your version of success. It truly is about learning skills that inspire you each day to enquire and understand the world around you in different ways.

When I look back, I feel fortunate to have worked with people who have given me the space to make these not-so-obvious choices, and supported them no matter what.

At the end of the day, it is not about making it easy, but finding the niche, that space where every challenge can make you realize the value of pursuing your dreams.

Dr Sriparna Saha is a 2nd year postgraduate student in GeoEducation at the University of Canterbury, where she is using Digital Storytelling for Volcano Risk Literacy. She has a PhD (2019) in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences from Rice University (USA), where she used experiments to understand the origin of continents. She feels strongly for communicating science and art and is continuously looking for innovative ways to blend the two.

Come along to the Change Direction Postgraduate Expo (10-17 September) for a range of information sessions where you can find out more about postgraduate study options and pathways at UC. To learn more about Science postgraduate degrees, join us at the ‘Science and beyond‘ info session 15 September, 5pm at Beatrice Tinsley 111.

Check out the full expo timetable and register free for sessions of your choice, here.