In October 2010, I got an email, advertising for a PhD scholarship in Solar Radiation & Energy with an organisation called CSIRO, at a place called The Australian National University, in a city called Canberra. To be honest - I'd never heard of any of these things before. But, having just made big progress on my M.S. thesis, focusing on solar energy, and not seeing any options in the U.S. in my field - I decided to a take a big chance, and apply for the position.
Several months, countless drafts of applications, and multiple scholarship awards later, I found myself with all my belongings narrowed down to 8 suitcases, and my (now fiancé), Teddi at my side, boarding a Qantas flight for Sydney. It was June 2011, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I dropped like a bomb into an Intellectual Property (IP) argument, where CSIRO wanted me to sign over all my rights, IP & future profits, with no research license, and The ANU was telling me and them, that was a rotten deal. So by September, after plenty debate and conversations with lawyers, I found myself saying 'see ya' to CSIRO - and all those hard earned scholarship dollars, plunging myself into a black hole, devoid of financing, supervisors and a PhD project to undertake. But looking back, man, that was a very good decision
"I dropped like a bomb into an Intellectual Property (IP) argument..."
But, at the time, I sure did I feel like I was in big, BIG trouble. I had no scholarship money, $30k of tuition per year to pay, and I was thousands of miles from friends and family - not to mention I'd just dropped $4k to get my dog here!
But The ANU looked out for me. I was awarded an APA and IPRS scholarship in October 2011, and I was back on my feet. My supervisor, Frank Mills, was able to help me patch my first semester of fees together, and get me a living allowance to hold me over (thanks Steve Dovers!). From these new scholarships, I was set for the next 3-4 years, to figure this PhD thing out.
So yeah, about this PhD thing - now I have no project, no data, no supervisory panel and no clue what the hell I'm doing in Australia.
But shortly after these scholarships appeared, so did new opportunities. I met two inspiring senior scientists - who recognised my potential and respected my ideas from the very beginning: Professor Andrew Blakers (ANU) and Professor Bob Williamson (NICTA). Together, we pioneered a new project, successfully obtaining funding from the Australian Solar Institute (now ARENA), for a two year project developing machine learning based distributed solar forecasting. So from the ground up, I built my PhD project research team, its data, and all the analysis tools I needed. It was a heck of a lot of work and it challenged me in many ways, but it quickly became clear that the falling out with CSIRO, allowed something even better to evolve. I was also empowered by people like Andrew, Bob and Frank - who gave me their respect and believed in my ideas, as we moved our new project forward. Upon reflection, I think that those two things are the best a young scientist could ask for.
So things were looking up! But I just couldn't help myself....
So, as if being a PI on a $850k grant project and doing my PhD wasn't enough, I decided to apply for a job opening for a lecturer at The ANU Fenner School of Environment & Society (my host institution). It was early 2013, and I was bold & naive, with no idea what I was getting myself into. I went up against people with CVs many pages long, boasting of 10 years more experience in the field. But I fought hard, sold myself well, and played the youthful energetic kid with big ideas and a promising future angle. And, well, somehow, I pulled it off, landed the job, and found myself lecturing & convening for two courses with 70-100 students each.
"And, well, somehow, I pulled it off, landed the job, and found myself lecturing & convening for two courses with 70-100 students each."
Surely I was mad. A full-time teaching position & a big time grant project - when's the PhD going to be the focal point? Could I really pull this off? I was courageous enough to think that I could, and I strategised my way forward, quite successfully. Things were actually shaping up nicely!
But just as I was starting to piece it all together, and get my first PhD related publications sorted, and the first round of experiments for our project underway, life threw me the biggest freaking curveball it could think of. In a tragic turn of events, along with the birth of our son, came a scary and rare cancer diagnosis for my beautiful wife.
We were gutted. Overwhelmed. And the PhD quickly became the least of my worries.
Over the next 6 months, while teaching, PhDing and grant-doing - I had to fight, scream and campaign to get her to the top of the waitlist for a peritonectomy surgery. From there, in March 2014, she underwent the 12 hour operation, and then spent 5 weeks in the hospital, recovering from the brutal battering her body had taken. Once we came back home, it was a few months before she was back to 90% (do you ever make it to 100% after something like that?).
Wow, what ride! But both happy to be alive
So, cancer beaten! Then, and maybe then, it was time to focus on the PhD? But alas, I'd picked up another course to convene, in first semester, called The Blue Planet. Now I was without a semester off from teaching, was seriously behind on everything, and I was feeling pretty wiped out from it all!
What had I gotten myself into? Teacher/Researcher/PhD-er/Family-Man - what a load to carry!
But you know what? After you battle your way through something as crazy as cancer, where you face your biggest fears - you actually come out on the other side with a different perspective. I realised, that after that ordeal - I wasn't actually afraid of failure like I had been before. A PhD thesis, convening two courses and running a research project, it all was much less intimidating. There was no more need to fear some distant failure, some imagined rejection, or any manufactured worries. I'd been through the darkest period imagineable - and that perspective, really put me in a position of strength: I wasn't afraid to dream big, take on large responsibility and slug it out one day at a time. In fact, I began to see it as kinda fun. A new freedom emerged - one where I wasn't held back by doubt, but was emboldened by believing in myself and a recognition of my own mortality. The time to go big, or go home, was now or never!
So abandoning my philosophical promulgation, we can fast forward through 2014 and early 2015, and somehow, by April 2015, I was giving my final seminar. I had multiple publications under my belt, and it was time to do the dirty work - writing up my intro, conclusion and linking text. My "PhD by compilation" was taking shape, and all I needed to do was put in the hours, and keep up that confident approach in the process.
But, of course, life wasn't content to let me sail through though! I was constantly distracted by my efforts to get permanent residency (skills verification, english tests, medical exams, etc), my computer died in the final month of writing, and then my son decided to give our family the worst week-long gastro episode in existence. And on top of that a new funding round emerged from ARENA which was far too good to pass up. So instead of happily writing my PhD thesis in May-July 2015, I instead found myself preparing a grant application with multiple industry partners and a bit more of that bold, crazy thinking. But nevertheless, I pulled it off, and here I am, just a few hours from submitting.
Upon reflection, I think that I've learned to tread carefully on the lines between (in)sanity!
So, in conclusion, when I submit that 200 page beast of epic proportions this afternoon at 3PM - I'll do it with my cancer-punching wife by my side, ready to dream bigger than ever, with a resounding "Hell yeah! I did it!" in my heart. And if I can, amidst all that has happened. You can too!
Thanks PhD, for the adventure of a lifetime!
Oh, and good riddance too! :-)