My PhD Journey: Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

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Experiment in Progress (from booking.design)

From setback to setback, in 2014, Nurul worked 2 jobs – spending on average 12 hours per day for work, enjoyed no weekend, and earned merely IDR 1.7 million, while concurrently having to repay her study loan and become the bread-winner of her family. Yet, she did not give up. In 2015, she managed to score a PhD and two scholarships. But life did not get easier for her. She tried 54 experiments and all failed. Not only she needed to recover the experiment, more importantly, she also had to recover herself. Again, she did not give up. What about now? Well, she is a doctoral candidate, a staff at New Zealand’s number one university, and a very happy wife! She has proven that resilience is crucial when life gets hard. Let’s check her beautiful article on how she got back on her feet despite the odds! We sure can learn a lot from her journey.

My point of departure was…

Beating the odds – so they say. I first dreamed of pursuing a PhD right in the middle of my financial hardship in a small rented room in Samarinda. I have worked as a lecturer since 2006, but it seems like I was still struggling to make a living. Not so long ago, it was July 2014. I recently returned to Indonesia after completing my master’s degree in India and put my feet back to teaching in campus. I quickly found myself owing a debt to the government, forcing me to set aside the biggest portion of my salary to pay them every month which at the end only left IDR 1.7 million in my pocket. This unfortunate financial situation coerced me to have two jobs; in addition to lecturing, I also worked in an English course to enable me to support myself, pay the bill, have food on the table and help my parents. Consequently, exhaustion is my only friend and I also frequently lost my voice because of teaching from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, including on weekends.

My rented room in Indonesia
My rented room in Indonesia

In the midst of that hectic routine, I had a crazy dream of starting my PhD journey. It was a sunny afternoon. I opened my laptop and tried to kill time by googling some keywords related to scholarships. It took me to the website of the University of Auckland. Just being silly, I tried to see their School of Chemical Science. I saw the first name on that page, Jonathan Sperry. I sent him an email telling about my research in India. Three minutes later he replied me, “What can I do to help you?”. Having this in my email inbox, I never knew that something huge was about to happen. That was the first step I took for a PhD opportunity, but I understand it was still a long way to go. I had neither a sponsor nor a scholarship; my master of science certificate and transcript were not even on my hand at that time. It was also not without struggle that I finally managed to obtain my master’s certificate from India.

The next day, when I taught one of my students, she mentioned a foreign word: ‘LPDP’. Later, I found out that it stands for Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan which provides scholarships for Indonesians. I thought, “Maybe I am not the one they are looking for. I am old.” But I still tried my luck and made an account on its website and filled out the personal information page. Other than that, I also prepared my application to NZAS and DIKTI.

I kept working hard to earn and learn. I still remember the nights I spent sitting down in the university lab to get a free Wi-Fi access to send emails or to upload the required documents for my scholarship applications. I did all of those after teaching long hours at the university and the English course. I think the adrenaline rush of preparing a PhD became the antidote to my tired body, mind, and soul. It distracted me from the financial hardship and psychological distress. I believed, if this is my destiny, it will happen. Long story short, I scored TWO scholarships, LPDP and NZAS. After careful consideration, I chose LPDP and flew to Auckland on 30 September 2015. I arrived at Auckland International Airport on the following day, 1 October 2015. I still had no idea of the huge things about to happen in my life.

Remember, after every higher jump, prepare to fall a little harder…

Depression (from http://drdanielleforshee.com)
Depression (from http://drdanielleforshee.com)

I began my PhD at the University of Auckland’s School of Chemical Science. I had tried 54 experiments to synthesize a compound to cure cancer. All FAILED! My PhD in science was OFF and I thought, “I am so done. I will never get a PhD. Pack up your bags, go home.” Then, another monster hit me. I experienced severe depression! I could hardly wake up. I kept vomiting. I got over exhausted all day everyday.  I was unable to walk. Believe it or not, I once had suicidal thoughts. I almost killed myself. I heard a delusional voice in my mind telling me to either grab the knife or jumped over the window.

I was particularly lucky to get help from a counsellor and a doctor who intensively worked with me to overcome my depression. Dear friends, overcoming depression is neither quick nor easy, but it’s not impossible. If you are now in the same position like I used to be, please make a step to reach out, to stay connected with people, to get help. I knew it’s difficult to make this step when you are depressed. But, you have to! It’s never too late to improve your support network. So, please.

I would also like to thank Jonathan Sperry and my depression class. I could cope with my severe depression and get up. I finally could make peace with my failed experiments and let them go. I decided to bend my PhD in science to the Faculty of Education as I also had another master in education. I wrote a piece of proposal, attended an interview with three potential supervisors. All three accepted me. On the same day I got the LoA from the Faculty of Education of the University of Auckland, I also got a casual job offer from the university. Thank God, my scholarship donor also approved the change of my study plan while the New Zealand Immigration also did not cancel my four-year student visa so I had no difficulty at all in terms of immigration status.

Believe! Our suffering is temporary!

The best in my life was yet to come. When I flew to Auckland, I only brought very limited money with me. This money came from a small saving I had and also from selling my laptop and motorcycle which was also not much. I had to survive only with a few dollars left after I paid my hostel rent. I was craving of having chicken that I could not afford in my meal. I prayed, “God, as you are the ALMIGHTY, please give me chicken.” The next day, I met a man in the communal kitchen. He invited me for dinner and served chicken. A halal chicken as he is a Moslem Kiwi (Kiwi is how we call a New Zealander). That same man proposed to me at the top of Sky Tower when I was still struggling with my depression in 2016. On 22 March 2018, he became my husband and gave me his last name, CHURCH.

The marriage proposal at the top of Sky Tower, Auckland
The marriage proposal at the top of Sky Tower, Auckland
My wedding attended by workmates and friends in Auckland
My wedding attended by workmates and friends in Auckland

Now here I am, I managed to pass the first year of my PhD in Education. I am now working on my data analysis. I also got a contract from the University of Auckland (for the second year now). From a depressed patient and a poor woman, I am now a doctoral candidate, one of the staffs at the number one university in New Zealand, and of course, a very happy wife. No matter how hard your life gets or how much you think there is no hope and let your depression take over your body, you must dig yourself out of that dark deep hole! Hang in there, my friends. Every cloud has a silver lining.

We all can beat the odds!

Do not give up just yet.

Photos provided by the author, booking.design, and drdanielleforshee.com