Doing a PhD, from impossible to reality

When I started my undergraduate studies in biosciences back in 2011 at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, I never had the intention of doing a PhD. Honestly, I had no clue what a PhD student did, nor what it meant to work in science. Growing up in a small village in central Germany, science was something mysterious to me that involves DNA and viruses and takes place in closed high-security labs – so my view was basically shaped by the worst Hollywood stereotypes out there. How exactly one could start a career in science was even more nebulous for me back then. I was convinced that doing a PhD must be something for the absolute elite, but not for someone who grew up in a place called Willershausen. So, I was aiming much lower for myself. I had just finished my mandatory civilian service after graduating from high school the year before, and my career plans were pretty simple, if not naïve. I was convinced that I would start working directly after the 3-year bachelors program – after all, wasn’t that the sole purpose of a bachelor program?

Reality hit me hard towards the end of my bachelor program. Now what? I got a broad overview of different fields in biology, worked on different projects in various labs and even spent 6 months abroad doing a project at the Hobert lab, Columbia University in New York City on gene regulatory programs that build nervous systems in Caenorhabditis elegans. I had more questions than ever. How can I address all these open questions and who is going to pay me later for finding the answers? Without knowing where the path may lead me, I started a Master program at the Ruprecht-Karls-University in Heidelberg and specialized in developmental and stem cell biology. Getting more hands-on training in several labs (including the Yuan lab), and inspired by fascinating lectures I dug myself deeper and deeper into the world of science, without even noticing. I got a first idea of what it means to work in science and all of a sudden, a PhD didn’t seem completely impossible anymore.

Driven by the possibility to contribute to science on my own, I finished my Master’s degree and once again I was humbled to realized how little I still knew. Already familiar with that feeling, I took a leap of faith and started a PhD program in the Yuan lab and the Research School in Stem Cell Biology at Lund University. Starting a PhD is exciting and scary at the same time. It is a big challenge, that comes with stress, deadlines, and a lot of work. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to discover something new and to work on the things you are passionate about. It feels like being a part of something meaningful. It’s definitely no 9 to 5 job and comes with a lot of uncertainties, but that’s what makes it so exciting and fun. You will never know where the next experiment will lead. I officially started a couple of months ago and my project has changed and evolved already a lot since then. I am excited to see where it will take me. And by the way, it is extremely satisfying to work with scientific facts in a world full of fake news.

Niklas en route to his first conference as a PhD student.