Madhuwanthi Buddhadasa graduated in 2018 with a PhD in Chemical Engineering specialised in plasma chemical processing. Currently, she works as a postdoctoral researcher in Belgium.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I had an open mind when I was finishing my undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering. I had applied for a few jobs in industry. However, during my last semester, when I was doing my research internship for my undergraduate program at the Indian Institute of Science, I realized that I really liked my project. I knew that I wanted to continue studying and continue doing research, and so I applied for master’s programs. Fortunately, I got accepted to McGill to do a direct PhD, so I didn’t have to do a master’s. When I saw from my acceptance email that I could do a direct PhD, I was thrilled—I remember running to my parents and showing them the email.
Q: What do you value most about your time in graduate school?
The people that I worked with. They were very intelligent and impressive: the students, postdocs and professors. What I appreciated the most was that everybody was dedicated, and they were serious with what they were doing. They were hard-working and I think that’s what I valued the most: the people, the standards, and the quality.
Q: Who would you say were your most important mentors during the PhD?
It was my first supervisor in terms of my PhD mentoring. He was an easy person to work with. He was easy to talk to and was the kind of supervisor who knew how to give advice at the right time, in the simplest way possible. All the feedback I received from him made sense to me, and I appreciated that he would always try to get the answer out of me rather than telling me what to do. So instead of giving me the answer directly, he would ask questions in a way that I would be able to figure out the issue myself.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges for you in finishing your PhD?
The biggest challenge I would say was the project itself. It changed over the course of my PhD. It started off having certain goals; by the end of the PhD, it had different goals. At some points, I was kind of feeling lost. I found it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and that was the most difficult part.
Part of my PhD initially was planned to involve some biological experiments; however, I didn’t have the expertise in this area, nor did my supervisor. So, I had some challenges trying to find people who could help me. I tried my best, but it didn’t work out, so I think that was the most challenging time.
Q: What helped you overcome those challenges?
I had to make some clear decisions. I had to let go of that bio part completely, which required the use of animal blood which I had difficulties getting access to. So I had to let go of a bunch of results involving animal blood which I worked hard to get. It’s not easy to get access to such biological fluids, especially if you are not part of a bio lab. So that was a big challenge. At some point I realized that you have to pick your battles, which is what I did, and then it was okay. After that, I focused on what was easily accessible to me, which is when I slowly started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and things started to fall into place bit by bit.
Q: What was your path like after the PhD?
After my PhD, I wanted to take a break. I’m from Sri Lanka, so I wanted to go back and spend some quality time with my family and get some rest. In the meantime, I was also trying to apply for permanent residency in Quebec as there aren’t suitable job opportunities for me in Sri Lanka. I took a one-year long break during which I came back to Canada and tried other things. I started a job in a completely different field. It was a research associate position, but in neuroscience. I have no background in neuroscience, but I was very interested in the topic. Not long after I started working, I realised that it was not easy to continue in that path without having to learn everything from scratch. It was a good experience but I sure did start to miss my own field of research which is plasma. About the same time, my permanent residency was also not working out the way I expected. Due to limited academic job opportunities in plasma in Canada, I started looking into other countries. I then found a position which I liked and I moved to Belgium to do a postdoc in plasma.
Q: What connections are there between your PhD research and the work you do now?
There is a very close connection. My PhD research was in plasma surface engineering and my current postdoctoral research has a plasma surface engineering component to it, but it also involves plasma-assisted gas conversion. So it has a very good balance of what I had already done in the past and what I can learn.
Q: What was the hiring process like for your current position?
I found this position through networking. I was talking to many researchers in my field that I knew and it was one of them who suggested that I contact this professor who is my current supervisor. I sent him an email and sure enough, he found my profile interesting. After a couple of email exchanges followed by a discussion on Skype, it seemed like a good match—I found the project very interesting. After a couple of more email exchanges, I was officially offered a position which I then accepted.
Q: What kind of work-life balance do you have in your current job?
My current job is more or less a nine to five job. It’s a research position in academia, so it’s highly flexible, however, we do have some rules. It is not like at McGill, where you can go to the lab 24/7 whenever you want and do experiments alone. In my current lab, there are different rules. You cannot be the only person doing experiments in the lab, so generally everyone sticks to the normal working hours. But it is quite flexible. You can always work from home if you need to. But usually, it’s a nine to five job.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting your PhD?
There was a point during my PhD that I thought I wished I had done a master’s. It’s not that I regret doing a PhD, not at all. It’s just that I would have had more experience and maturity. When I started my PhD, I was quite young, and I had to learn a lot of things by myself in a short period of time and it was very stressful. But now when I look back, I’m happy that I finished my PhD at 26. I saved two years of master’s! I’m not sure if it’s something that I would go back and change.
One thing that I would like to share–from my experience and the experience of some of my colleagues—is that if you’re considering doing a PhD, it is important to have that excitement and motivation to begin with, like, “yes, I want to do a PhD!”. If you have a doubt about it, then you’re probably going to have a hard time making it till the end, if you are lucky enough to make it that far. You absolutely have to want to do a PhD because it is a tough goal. If you don’t have that energy to begin with, you might not have enough energy to push yourself till the end. So that initial energy and motivation are very important.
Many thanks to Madhuwanthi for sharing her PhD narrative with us! You can find her on LinkedIn and on Researchgate.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.