Completing a PhD is a test of character, not intellect

Dr Isabelle Kingsley, Research Associate for the Women in STEM Ambassador, recently completed her PhD evaluating the impacts of science communication and education on public perceptions of science.

Isabelle’s PhD journey began six years ago when she worked at the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, Sydney. She was running STEM education programs and coordinating science festivals and was curious about what people were learning. 

“These programs were fun, but I wanted to know if they were changing people’s understanding of science, and not just science being about facts, but how science is done and the nature of science.

“So I decided to find out if what I was doing was working,” says Isabelle.

To evaluate the impacts of these programs on public perceptions of science, Isabelle surveyed students in years 7 to 9 and adults as well, using the same survey to create a standardised evaluation tool.

Isabelle 2560 x 1707

“When you get all the data from the surveys, you can look at it in many different ways.

“You can look at the numbers, read the responses to find common themes, or use sophisticated software that psychoanalyses the language.

“So I used all of these methods to evaluate how effective my programs were, but also to examine how different methods can bring different insights.”

Biggest Challenges

Isabelle openly shares the most demanding challenges she experienced during her PhD and says they were far different from what she thought they would be.

One of the biggest challenges was the emotional toll the work took on her relationships and her mental well-being. 

She worked full-time throughout her doctorate, so her nights and weekends were spent working on her PhD. 

“It’s like having a child, it takes over your life completely, and it is your only priority because it has to be,” muses Isabelle.

Another challenge she had to overcome was the reviewing and critiquing process, which would often see large chunks of work returned to her, requiring a complete re-write.

“You work so hard, and then five months of work comes back, ripped apart, and you have to start again. So that was a big challenge, and one that I didn’t think would be so difficult.”

Isabelle recounts a particularly tough round of reviews where she was ready to give it all up but was convinced to keep persevering by a close friend.

“We came up with a strategy where I would spend just an hour on it each day, so I would just put the timer on, and that is how I kept going, just breaking it into manageable chunks.”

The final challenge was learning to be kinder to herself and managing her own expectations. 

Early during her PhD journey, Isabelle set multiple deadlines, and if she didn’t meet them, she would be disappointed in herself. 

“My supervisor was very good at bringing this up and telling me that I needed to calm down and be kind to myself and just take the time it takes,” recalls Isabelle.

It wasn’t until about four or five years into the process that Dr Kingsley began to understand and accept this advice.

“It’s a life skill, and I’m much better at that now,” she adds.

A Few Surprises

Research is never straightforward, there are always surprises, and Kingsley says her PhD journey delivered some unexpected moments.


“I thought it would be a journey of demonstrating my intellect, and it wasn’t.”

Dr Kingsley says completing a PhD is all about character.

“It’s a demonstration of pure determination and perseverance, and going through the highs and lows of the PhD journey requires so much stubbornness and grit.”

Isabelle’s determination helped her overcome another surprise: the number of revisions she had to do when her thesis came back from the examiner.

The final surprise was in the results of Isabelle’s data analysis. At first glance, people’s understanding of how science is done had decreased after participating in a program or event.

Thinking she had made a mistake, Isabelle reanalysed the data, and the same results came back.

“I was like, wait, what? People’s scores are worse? So that was a surprise; you never know what you’re going to find with research,” she laughs.

Best Moments

Even though it was a complete surprise, Isabelle says seeing her results for the first time was one of her top three moments because it was so interesting.

“It was the whole curiosity thing, like, why did people’s scores go down and then trying to figure that out.”

When she psychoanalysed the written responses, Isabelle found something fascinating.

“The words that they used and how they responded to the questions displayed evidence of cognitive conflict, so what they thought they knew about science going into the programs and events didn’t match what they had learnt coming out.”

Attendees had gone from thinking that science was 100% about facts and certainty to learning that science is a little bit uncertain and more about evidence than facts. The programs and events had triggered some ‘ah-hah’ moments.

Another top moment was in late May 2022, when Isabelle received a phone call from her supervisor saying, ‘Congratulations Dr Kingsley, you’re done’.

“That was the biggest high ever, and it was funny because even though it was the biggest high, I cried my eyes out because it was just such a relief. Finally, this big weight on my shoulders for years had been lifted,” says Isabelle.

The Value of Research

When Isabelle applied for the Research Associate for the Women in STEM Ambassador role, she didn’t have much knowledge about gender equity but says her background in evaluation and research secured her the position.

“I had never done gender equity research before, but when you know how to research, you can apply those skills to pretty much any subject,” advises Isabelle.

“The skills learnt from doing research equip you with the best skills for the workplace.”

What Next?

In her role with the Australian Government’s Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Isabelle investigates effective ways to smash gender inequities in the workplace.

She has developed the National Evaluation Guide for STEM Gender Equity Programs, a free guide to support workplaces running gender equity programs to assess their effectiveness in removing barriers to girls’ and women’s participating in STEM.

Isabelle is also heading up the development of a standardised online evaluation tool, the STEM Equity Evaluation Portal, due to be launched later this year.

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