To some, a graduate degree is seen as being awarded on a stage and that is all. To others, a graduate degree is seen as the end of a tumultuous journey that is travelled over many years involving very difficult work. The emotions during graduate studies, for the candidate and for the immediate loved ones, are numerous, some high and some low (or very low). The relationship between the candidate and his/her peers, including academic advisors, can be amiable or rocky because different people can face very different expectations of one another at different times. This is the story of my specific journey as a PhD candidate.


   Jane and I had moved to Kingston in September 2011 so that I could begin graduate school at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC). My original intent was to earn a Masters of Science (MSc) degree (in physics and space science) and then search for work in the area of astronomy, space science, space surveillance or physics in general. Two years (and a lot of hard work) later, I had graduated with an MSc in physics and space science on May 16, 2013. At that time we had to make another difficult decision: PhD or not PhD?

   My performance at the RMCC graduate school during my Masters was exemplary. I had an average course mark of over 90% and my Master's thesis was accepted by the Department of Physics. Up to that time, earning a PhD in physics had rarely entered my mind and when it did, I had dismissed it as fantasy. After May 2013, the possibility was no longer fantasy but very real. The reality was that I would be committing myself to another four years (at least) of very hard work, but in a subject that I had known for 15 years. This time, I had to produce some new research for the scientific community; possibly involving something that nobody had ever done before.

   During my Masters, I had committed two years of my life to taking four graduate courses and writing a thesis. My Master's thesis was mainly based on determining the most likely contributing force that caused the spin periods of several inactive box-wing geosynchronous satellites to vary over time.  Sometimes, it seemed like I was trying to achieve something that was over my head and that maybe it was better to stop rather than hurting myself emotionally and physically. The end of the Masters was the worst part. I was spending many hours a day trying to finish a thesis that ended up being 250 pages long. I had begun to formally write the thesis in December 2012 and finished it by April 2013 (just four months). Jane was extremely helpful with editing the many words that I would write, especially since I was frantically trying to finish the thesis in what seemed a record time. The time required to send the thesis back and forth to my academic advisor was highly stressful and it amazes me to this day that the thesis was finished, defended and accepted in only one month.

   May 16, 2013 was a glorious day for me because I had achieved a significant milestone in my life. I had actually earned a Masters degree in physics and space science. However, many might not know that such a milestone comes with a bittersweet feeling. Yes, an MSc is a great achievement, but every time I thought about the happiness of that achievement, I also thought about what I went through to earn such an academic degree. It was not easy. I had to think almost every single day of the thesis; from December 2011 to April 2013. My observation schedule can only be described as brutal. I was observing 4 satellites, many times for an entire night, on every clear night for nearly 1 1/2 years. The photometric data that I had collected on the four satellites was more than anyone had ever collected. I was seeing spin period variations with characteristics that were never observed before. I had developed my own software, specifically designed to analyze all of the images, extract all of the photometric data and automatically determine the spin periods, day by day, of all four satellites. All of this was accomplished in under 1 1/2 years. In short, I was happy to accomplish so much, yet that happiness was subdued by how that work strained my emotional (and possibly physical) well-being. These thoughts are still with me.

   A potential PhD thesis would have to be more revolutionary than the Master's thesis was. I had decided to continue my observations of the initial sample of box-wing geosynchronous satellites and add a number of satellites to increase the sample size. The PhD thesis would have to begin where the Masters thesis ended. This thought terrified me because of what I went through to earn my Masters. A PhD would mean four more graduate courses and a thesis, this time taking four years or longer. The decision was difficult for both of us, but I had decided to go ahead with the PhD. Besides, I had done so well in the Masters that I just had to know how far I could go in the academic world.


   The PhD began in the same year the Masters ended: 2013. I began with four graduate courses: two in the fall and two in the winter. The first two were Space Weather and Space Surveillance. The final two courses were a Space Weather project and Air and Space Law. However, I was able to attend a conference and visit a place that I had not been to in 14 years. In September 1999, I had visited Maui, Hawaii to present my first conference paper in space surveillance. Fourteen years later, I would go back to Maui as an observer and talk with other space science professionals. I had considered such a visit an honour, as I had thought that I would never be able to visit Hawaii again. However, while in Hawaii, I couldn't help thinking that I would eventually have to return to Kingston to face the remainder of my PhD. Hawaii was a very brief time in paradise before being cast back into the uncertainties of being a doctoral candidate.

   I had continued my satellite observations throughout 2013-14. I have no idea how either of us survived that first year of the PhD. Jane had to deal with her ill mother and stay in London, Ontario for several consecutive months. Both of us survived one of the most brutal winters in our living memories. Observing was brutal, sometimes involving setting up telescopic equipment in -30C temperatures for many days on end. Shovelling snow nearly every day was especially difficult. I still vividly remember the date of Wednesday, February 5, 2014. I was out all day at RMCC performing some teaching assistant work in the laboratory. When I returned home, tired and hungry, I saw over 3 feet of snow in the driveway. I couldn't even get my car into the driveway without getting stuck. I had to shovel a car-wide trench from the end of the driveway to the garage just to get my car parked. For a graduate student facing courses, a thesis and a spouse several hundred kilometres away, a snowstorm seemed like the last straw. I am sure that many graduate students have stories very similar to mine; hopefully not worse. Somehow, we both survived the horribly vicious winter of 2013-2014, but we were both terribly weakened. I had been already weakened by the Masters just a year before and Jane was weakened by her family battles.

   In April 2013, near the end of the Masters, I had received my amateur radio license (call sign VE3HEO). Within a span of one month, I had not only earned a Masters degree but also earned the right to transmit with an amateur radio. This might not seem very important to some, but this accomplishment led to something that I will never forget.

   The RMC physics department had been working with an amateur satellite communications station (call sign of VE3RMC) consisting of a high-end VHF/UHF transceiver and a 14-foot directional (in azimuth and elevation) VHF/UHF Yagi antenna. Since early 2012, I had been using it to listen to cubesat transmissions. After I had received my amateur radio license, I was able to transmit to some of these cubesats. From the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015, the building the RMC physics department was housed in underwent significant renovations. This meant that the amateur radio station would not be used for at least a year and would probably be put into deep storage for that time. I thought that placing such equipment into storage for such a long time would be a shame. As a doctoral candidate, I thought that I could propose that I can borrow the VE3RMC station equipment and transfer the station to my (then) home in Sandhurst Shores. After a few tries, I finally got the approval and it took me three trips to bring the station's parts to my home.

   The VE3RMC station might have been the one peripheral project that saved my sanity. When dealing with a very high stress situation (as the PhD certainly was) a significant distraction is sometimes good to keep a person's mind off of that stress for at least a few hours a day. Over the fall of 2014, I worked on the VE3RMC station part time, mainly cleaning, repairing and maintaining the station. I also made the station semi-autonomous, using a software to automatically track cubesats and to correct for Doppler shift in both receive and transit modes. Once locked on a cubesat, the station could be used nearly hands-free for a full pass duration. The VE3RMC station was a joy to use and experiment with because I was the caretaker and I could advertise the RMC name to other amateur radio enthusiasts all over North America, as well as part of Europe. Although an unpaid job, my pay was retaining my sanity.

   The most exciting time I had with the VE3RMC station involved the Oscar-7 (AO-07) amateur radio satellite. I was able to use a 40-year old piece of technology to communicate with an amateur radio enthusiast in Belgium; across the Atlantic Ocean! I essentially used a satellite that was launched one year before I began Kindergarten, while a doctoral candidate. I don't think it gets more exciting than that! I had some great times with that station when it was fully functional. One year later, in the summer of 2015, the renovations of the physics department had ended. I was also feeling by that time that the station was beginning to distract me from my real purpose; to work on the PhD thesis.

   The latter half of 2014 would be a better than the first half, but another major test was waiting for the PhD and for both of us. Over the summer months, I was eagerly preparing for my first space science conference (in which I would be presenting), for nearly 15 years. The 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) was being held in Toronto, Ontario in 2014. This was a great chance for me to show what I had accomplished in several years. That week in October 2014 was a wonderful time that I will never forget. The end of the conference was even more memorable, but then became highly distressing shortly thereafter.

   Since September 2011 (the beginning of the Masters), Jane and I were renting a lovely home in Sandhurst Shores, west of Kingston, Ontario. On the day that I returned from the IAC in Toronto, Jane broke the news that the owners of the home were planning to move back in, therefore we would have to find another place to live. The euphoria of the IAC left me at that very second. We would have to move a second time. We did eventually find a home in Kingston but moving there from Sandhurst would be another major test of our resolve, especially since my Comprehensive Exam was planned for the first week of December, the same week we had to move out of our Sandhurst home.  

   I don't know how I accomplished it, but I had managed to do much of the heavy lifting during our move (including moving the borrowed VE3RMC station components), write my Comprehensive Exam (describing what my PhD thesis would accomplish and how it would serve the scientific community) and design the slides for my oral examination all in three days in the first week of December. At that time, I thought that my life might come to an end, just by the physical stresses I had endured over those three days. Again, somehow, we both survived. My Comprehensive Exam went ahead, all went well, and we sojourned on once again.


   I consider January 2015 as being my lowest emotional point during my PhD. I was emotionally and physically devastated from the stresses we had endured during the move and during my Comprehensive Examination. I continued to observe the box-wing geosynchronous satellites, but this time I had to cut back on the schedule. I observed only once per week since I had observations stretching back to March 2012, nearly three years. I have to admit that I did not do very much during that month, since I had very little energy. Fortunately, we had moved into our new (rented) home and our lives were trying to get back to normal.

   The winter of 2014-15 in Kingston was a direct contradiction to the previous year's winter. We had a green Christmas and we did not have much snow. It was still colder than usual though. I had begun the first (of three) PhD thesis papers. The first paper discussed the observations of the 11 box-wing geosynchronous satellites that I had made since March 2012, including the original four observed during my Masters. The four courses were finished by May 2014, which meant that the tuition fees would be much lower in the future, which was a relief to us. I had over 90% in most of the courses, which was similar to the marks in the Masters courses.

   A very interesting fact about my time in graduate school is that I had the highest course marks that I ever had in any of the previous years. Not bad for a guy who was not really in love with school for much of his life. Regardless, passing the PhD courses and successfully completing the Comprehensive Examination were my first major milestones as a PhD candidate. However, I had significantly suffered for those marks in ways that only Jane and myself can truly understand. It was at this time (early 2015) that I began to remove myself from all non-essentials, such as volunteer work, any unnecessary meetings and otherwise peripheral obligations. I worked on the thesis papers and the VE3RMC station for much of that year.

   The year 2015 also had its trials and tribulations. What I remember most vividly about those months involved bi-weekly meetings in which the graduate students discussed their progress in space science. In my opinion, I had found that these meetings were more stressful than helpful because this was the time when I felt that I was "butting heads" with the establishment.

   The year 2015 marked four years as a graduate student at RMC. In the past, I had found that my relationships with institutions (more specifically, the people within them), start out very peaceful and wondrous. However, as I get more confident and independent within the institution, an animosity begins to grow between myself and the people around me. My trust then begins to wane. After about four years, I either leave the institution altogether (no matter what) or I simply find another institution as an excuse to leave the previous one. In either event, I leave at a low point. Four years in as a graduate student, I began to worry about what these space science meetings would do to my reputation, my accomplishments and especially my weakened emotional state.

   I remember two specific space science meetings, one in February and the other in July 2015. Both involved what I would call "civil arguments" between myself and several other meeting attendees. After both events, I thought that my time as a graduate student was coming to an end, similar to what I had experienced before near the 4th year. It seemed to me that the space science meetings were in place to enrich someone else's ego; at the expense of mine. This is especially why the VE3RMC station was so important at this time. I would regularly bring recordings of communications I had with cubesats with the renovated VE3RMC station just to keep myself "relevant" to the meetings. I had figured that communicating with cubesats with RMC's own satellite communications station was just as relevant as what the other graduate students were doing at the time.

   In the summer of 2015, I made two very important decisions. Although the VE3RMC amateur communications station had been very important to my mental health over 2014-15, I felt that it was beginning to distract me from the real goal; to finish my PhD. The first important decision was to return the station in better shape than when I first borrowed it. I made several final videos of me using the station at its best before disassembling it and returning the entire station to RMC in August 2015. By then, through my efforts, VE3RMC had successfully detected 79 cubesats and had contacted a myriad of amateur radio enthusiasts all over North America using three of these cubesats, including Oscar-7. I had used my amateur radio license to the fullest.

   The second important decision was to begin to seriously pour over all the tumbling satellite data that I had amassed for over three years. Over the months of August to December 2015, I carefully looked over all of my data with a fine-tooth comb looking for anything that might seem interesting, including spin period relationships. I wanted to figure out how to determine the spin axis orientation of one or more of them. Nobody else had published any similar findings for these types of satellites, so I had figured that my PhD can stand on such original research. My observations were already better than most or all of what I had read in published papers, so I decided to make my research and final results just as good, if not better.

   Although the space science meetings at RMC had continued to the end of 2015, I did not experience any more of the tumultuous and stressful experiences at the meetings. At the time, I had felt that I had successfully navigated through the most dangerous path of my PhD. I was able to keep a (relatively) cool head and was able to continue my PhD thesis in a positive manner.


   I have heard some stories about the alienation that graduate students feel. My experience was no exception, especially in 2015. I still remember attending meetings feeling like I was all alone and that everyone one else at those meetings were somehow against me, no matter what I said or did. I consider 2015 as being the worst year in the PhD, with 2016 being a very close second. However, a very small light appeared at the end of the dark tunnel. The light would approach and recede many times over the remainder of my PhD thesis, but it was always there, urging me forward.

   From September 2013 to January 2016, I had successfully completed four additional graduate courses, shovelled my way out of the most vicious winter in memory, renovated and improved a satellite communications station, moved from one house to another, successfully completed my Comprehensive Exams, presented my first space surveillance conference paper in nearly 14 years, published my first peer-reviewed journal article, sorted through all of my observations of spinning satellites, attended space science meetings that were mediocre at best, and, most importantly, kept my sanity.

   The year 2016 was both very bright and very dark. The space science meetings were still being held but I was beginning to gain the upper hand because of all the analysis I had performed at the latter half of 2015. My reports about the VE3RMC station were being replaced with reports about Euler coordinate transformations and light curve simulations, which were more relevant to my PhD thesis. It was at one of these meetings where I had heard about the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) conference that was being held in April. I had presented a paper at CASI in 2000; the last space surveillance paper I would present until the IAC in 2014. The space science meeting attendees would be presenting one paper each. I decided to break with my own tradition and present two separate space surveillance papers at the single CASI conference. The first paper would be about my tumbling satellite observations made for the PhD thesis. However, the second paper would be about something I had always wanted to present. The second paper would be one that was strictly for fun; about an initial orbit determination (OD) method that I had derived myself. This OD method could be used by anyone with a high school understanding of algebra.

   I had decided that my attendance at the 2016 CASI conference would be strictly for fun, unlike the last CASI conference that I had attended in 2000. I would not care about what anyone thought of me or how I would compose myself. I would simply put on a show (two shows actually) for them and talk with other conference attendees as I wished. This time, I was not searching for anyone to help me with my thesis or gather any satellite specifications. As far as I was concerned, my own observations were all the data I needed and I did not need any more. This was a time to relax and reflect on my space surveillance career. I was beginning to think that the 2016 CASI conference might be the final space surveillance conference that I would attend.

   Preparing for the 2016 CASI conference was fun because I wrote the papers (especially the second one) exactly how I wanted them to be written. The second (initial OD) paper was especially fun because all of it was mine, from a time before the Masters, and I finally had a venue to present my methods and my findings. The conference was thoroughly enjoyable and I remember with pride that I had presented my best two papers to date. I remembered a lot of questions after both presentations which told me that some people were interested. However at that time, I really was not concerned about that.

   After the end of the CASI conference, I began to write the first of three manuscripts that would become my PhD thesis. The first manuscript concerned the observations of the spinning geosynchronous satellites and the initial analysis of these observations. The exact contents of the second and third manuscripts were still unknown in May 2016. The first thesis manuscript was sent to the Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets in June 2016. I would not hear anything from the reviewers until late August.

   At the beginning of 2016, I had decided that my observations had to come to an end. In fact, all observations of anything astronomical would have to be suspended until after the PhD thesis had been completed. At that time, I still had no idea how long the "observation ban" would have to be in effect. For someone who had been observing nearly non stop since 1988, the thought of totally suspending observations was quite a shock to me. However, it had to be done in order to fully concentrate on writing the PhD thesis.

   Jane and I had been living in the second house since December 2014. In June 2016, just a few months after the CASI conference, we were informed that the owners would be putting the house up for sale. We were being kicked out a second time. I think that this is why many graduate students feel alienated. They know they are trying to accomplish something truly great but the rest of society does not seem to care about the journey at all. If you graduate, they are all smiles, but during the journey, they don't really care about you. The owners of the house were no exception. They did not have one single thought about what we would do, especially since my PhD was still in progress and still up in the air. The light at the end of the tunnel was receding.

   August 2016 was one of those months that really tested our resolve. The first week was fine because we had stayed with relatives in Ottawa for a week. Over that week, my PhD advisor had asked me to come back to Kingston to present my PhD findings to a visiting professor. I had first turned it down, stating that I needed a much-needed break. However, my advisor insisted that I do this. I did eventually decide to go, but not without preparing a stellar presentation that would blow this visiting professor out of the water. The professor did not really know what to say because he was faced with observations and data that he had not seen before (and probably has not seen since). That day in August was the day that I was finally convinced that I could successfully present my PhD thesis.

   The final test of our resolve during the PhD came on a day in the third week of August. We were all ready to move into a temporary bed and breakfast establishment where we would live until my graduation. However, only after one day there we found that the environment was not conducive to quiet study and contemplation. We decided to leave there literally one day after arriving. However, we were, in all intents and purposes, homeless. I remember that day when we visited Fort Henry near RMC, deciding what to do next. I was very down and particularly bitter about how we had been treated over the nearly 5 years of my graduate studies. I had invested a considerable amount of time and effort in bettering myself and all that society could do was to toss us from house to house without a single prospect for employment. This had really hurt, especially after everything I had done for the Canadian space surveillance effort over the years. I think this really shows the very dark reality of our society (or at least the space surveillance community) today.

   We did manage to find another place to live. We moved all of our possessions from the "failed" bed and breakfast to the new abode on the same day. After that dark time, I made myself a promise that I would finish my PhD within one year, preferably before the May 18th or June 21st Convocations. We settled in very well in our new space over September.

   Over the months of July to September, amongst the angst and bitterness over having to move yet again, I managed to write the second manuscript paper, or at least the first draft of it. The paper presented a method of determining the spin axis orientation of the Echostar-2 box-wing design geosynchronous satellite using the observations of the satellite that I had amassed from March 2012 to November 2015.


   In October 2016, I had submitted my second paper of the manuscript thesis to my academic advisor for review. He had several interesting questions about the nearly 30-page manuscript. As I was going through the advisor's comments, I read my paper through and decided that it was at best all wrong. I did not like what I was reading and decided to scrap the entire manuscript and write it again, this time paying very close attention to the details without caring about the length. The months of October to December 2017 were the months that saved my PhD. I brought myself back to the time when I derived equations without caring what others thought of them (in the 1990's) and channelled that person rather than the one who was concerned with what advisors and peer-reviewers thought. I thought that it was better to do my own independent work and face the music afterward than to try to write a paper by focus group. Besides, isn't that what a PhD is meant to test; independent thinking and research?

   The second manuscript of the PhD ended up being about 55 pages long; much too long for a journal article. I then decided that the manuscript thesis path was likely not the best one; however, it was too late to turn back since I wanted to graduate in 2017. I decided to submit the thesis in three major parts. The fist part would deal with the observations and the interesting new findings that the analysis had suggested. The second manuscript would focus on the spin axis orientation of the Echostar-2 inactive box-wing satellite. The third manuscript (which would be written in early 2017) would focus on how the solar radiation pressure affected the Echostar-2 satellite and would present the simulated spin period variation curves based on the solar physics.

   By December 2017, I had had enough of the journal I was dealing with. They had wanted me to reduce the first manuscript I had submitted to them in July to a technical note (about 7 pages). Both myself and my academic advisor had rejected this suggestion; however, I had decided to try a technical note anyway, since it took only 4 days to reduce the 29-page first manuscript to seven pages. The journal asked the same ridiculous questions they asked for the full-size manuscript, so I decided to withdraw the submission, thinking that they would never accept the manuscript's findings. I pressed on with the second and third manuscripts.

   The months of October to December 2017 were the greatest in my PhD (other than the graduation) because I had derived many new equations that could analytically determine the spin axis orientation of the Echostar-2 satellite. The earlier version of the paper had no such analytical method. Now, the second manuscript had both an analytical and simulated method of determining the spin axis orientation of the Echostar-2 satellite. I regard the second manuscript paper as the best I have ever written (even better than both CASI papers). The only complaint from some was the length but I had to stand my ground because if they wanted detailed analysis, they can't turn around and complain that the detailed analysis is too long.

   The third and final manuscript of the PhD thesis began in February 2017 and was finished in March. I already derived had most of the equations earlier so all I had to do was to place them in the manuscript and write a coherent argument around them. I was able to simulate the observed spin period variations of the Echostar-2 satellite quite well. I was actually surprised at how well the simulations worked, despite all of the variables I did not know. I had no complaints though!

   Unfortunately, I could not finish and submit the completed thesis in time for a May 18th, 2017 graduation. However, the next opportunity was only one month later, on June 21st, 2017. I decided to shoot for that. My advisor said that it would be quite a tough squeeze, but it was possible. Over April, we haggled over the three papers in a marathon session. Back and forth the thesis went. At the same time, I formatted the entire thesis according to the RMC Thesis Guidelines. I would have to submit the thesis by the week of April 16th in order to make the deadline for the defence in May in order to graduate in the June 21st convocation.

   Needless to say, I submitted the thesis on time, but only with a few hours to spare. I was then able to prepare my thesis presentation and to read over all of my material for the defence. It would be a very stressful three weeks; however, it was already a very stressful five years. I practiced my presentation two to three times a day, with Jane looking on and offering her expert presentation advice.

   The day of the defence was May 10, 2017 beginning at 10 a.m. Jane was present at the first part of the defence; the presentation to the general audience. This was to last about 30 minutes, including questions. I think I handled it quite well, but that is from the perspective of someone who was too close to the action. I remember stumbling over my words only once. Jane had mainly words of praise after it was done.

   The second part of the thesis defence would take place in the physics department's conference room. Only myself, my academic advisors and the examination committee were present this time. I was grilled (the only word I could possibly use) for exactly two hours. It is tough to describe the feelings that I had during the examination process. I was trying to explain something that took me four years to accomplish in only two hours. It seems strange to look back on that experience nearly three months after the fact. All of that work and struggle was distilled down to a few fleeting hours in front of a few people. My future title, and future, would be in the hands of those examiners.

   After the defence ended, I exited the conference room and entered the lunch room where Jane and a good friend of mine were sitting. We talked about the experience, but I have to admit I was happy that it was over. I felt that I had talked about it enough and that I had finally done all I could with respect that subject. I also felt that my space surveillance career was likely drawing to a close, since I had done everything I could possibly do in the 20 years I was constantly working at it. A humble amateur astronomer had risen to a position a few step away from a doctorate in physics and space science. This is something that I had never imagined would happen.

   After about 15 minutes, I was called back in to the conference room and was congratulated by the examination committee. At that second, my title had instantly changed from "Mister" to "Doctor". Like my Masters before, I didn't know what to feel at the moment. Jane was crying and hugging me very tightly, saying over and over again, "You did it!", but I remember very little after that.

   15 minutes after that, I went outside to have my picture taken with the faculty in the departmental photo. I beamed as the shutter opened because I knew I had done something amazing that I would never forget. Most of the department wanted to shake my hand that day. It was good to get some praise from my peers, even for a fleeting moment. After that, everyone returned to their offices and life went on as usual.

   The day of the graduation was on June 21st, 2017. The image on the home page really says everything about it. I was the only PhD, as well as the only civilian, to graduate on that day at the Canadian Forces College. When I heard the words, "The Doctoral candidate will now rise.", I suddenly realized that those words were for me and only me. It was at this time when I finally realized that I had actually made it to a PhD in physics and space science.

   The image on the home page only shows the final triumph and does not show the trials, tribulations and very difficult times that a graduate student goes through. The recollection shared in this article is but a very small fraction of what actually happened; however, it gives a much better idea of what a graduate student can go through over 4 to 6 years (or more).

   The journey was full of snakes, landmines and mud, but in the end it led to a promised land of possibilities.


Dr. Michael A. Earl





Michael A. Earl - BSc, MSc, PhD - A Crowning Achievement Was Last Modified On July 29, 2017