I recently interviewed a Ph.D. candidate, and it brought back memories of my own graduate student days. In particular, it got me thinking about the times when I struggled to define exactly why getting my degree was important and what I was accomplishing.

Like most science students, I learned about the big, earthshattering developments in various fields while getting my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. It was exciting and inspiring to study key theories in physics and the critical advances that were made by people like Gauss, Newton, Feynman, Planck, Boltzmann and many others.

When I started my doctoral work, I was fresh-faced, eager and ready to make my own mark. I hoped to contribute something big to Science, with a capital S. I wanted to accomplish something like the achievements I had studied in class all those years, and add my name to the list of distinguished scientists taught in classrooms.

But as I proceeded with my research, things didn’t quite work out that way. Scientific accomplishment stopped seeming so simple. The work that you do when completing a Ph.D. is so narrow and focused that you begin to wonder where it fits into the big picture. What is the value of this small piece of work? How will it ever measure up against the really important developments written about in textbooks?

It takes time to realize that the advances we learned about were made over long periods of time and represent the work of many people. Science often advances in small increments, with lots of different discoveries added together to make a whole. Each scientist involved becomes a worthy contributor to the bigger picture. Some make larger contributions than others, and may become famous. That does not detract from the work of others, or the sheer joy that everyone can derive from research.

Once you come to terms with this and begin to understand where you fit in the larger scheme of things, it helps! At least it helped me find peace in my heart, pride in my work and the motivation to keep improving. Even though it may sometimes feel like it, your efforts are not useless. You are part of a larger scientific community, working together to make progress toward common goals.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.