This UF Physics student profile is part of the “Humans of Physics” series established by the Physics Graduate Community (PGC). Alex Schachtner, founder of the PGC and recent PhD graduate, is featured.
What’s the biggest challenge you faced during your PhD? How did you overcome it?
Aside from adjusting to the wild, drawn out uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest challenge for me was when our lab lost funding for a period of time. I was having a hard time making progress on my project when that happened, and it led to me seriously questioning whether I should stay in the group or even finish my PhD at all. I had a meeting with a physics mentor outside of my group and she helped me talk through my thoughts, feelings, and options. Ultimately I decided to stick it out on the rollercoaster and finish what I started. The funding came through due to no small amount of work by my advisor and colleagues. I stayed in the group and finished my project (along with some new ones). The experience taught me a ton, and I owe a lot to my mentor whom was so generous with her time.
What advice would you give to new grad students?
I’m just gonna rattle off a ton of helpful things that I learned at one time or another: Good test scores and good grades do not automatically make a good scientist; that’s a whole other skill set you get to learn from your advisor and colleagues. Maintain a healthy work-life balance as much as possible. Being well rested, well fed, and mentally healthy will pay huge dividends. I can’t say enough about how much this helped me. Maintain control over your experience; choose a research group and project you like with colleagues you like and respect. If you don’t find that, switch, it’s perfectly acceptable and actively encouraged. If things start to get difficult at any time, don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, colleagues, people in the department, or professionals for help. Grad school is incredibly challenging and absolutely everyone struggles at multiple points. It OK, you’re not alone. Imposter syndrome is real; it’s self-deception. You deserve to be here and most people around you have no idea what they’re doing either.
What are you most proud of?
Graduating. Doing a PhD in Physics is one of the most difficult academic pursuits there is, and between the long time investment, low pay, the difficulties associated with moving to an unfamiliar place, starting a new life with new friends, the difficult nature of the work, and the global pandemic, finishing felt impossible at times. It was an incredible challenge and I’m proud of completing it.
What are your plans after graduation?
Finding a career that lives at the crossroads of intellectually challenging and curiosity stimulating that fits my skill set, while aligning with my ethics and morals. It’s either that or move to a small island somewhere to begin my life as an artist. They feel equally possible right now.