When I first read Salma’s post on PhD challenges, I was nodding and mm-hmming at the screen with a crooked smile on face. Like all of us in the PhD boat, I have quickly become very familiar with these challenges. The fixer (and chatterbox) got the instant urge to reflect (i.e. write). This is by no means an attempt to diminish the severity of mental health conditions many people in academia suffer from, but to consider possible ways of mitigating the negative effects of PhD on our wellbeing in general.
So here are my cents (or another currencies’ equivalents, as long as they jingle…).
1) A PhD is a lonely experience. It is, but many things in life are. Yes, you will be the one who will have type up that thesis and sit in front of your examiners, no arguing about that. You alone will do your analysis, run your experiments. Nonetheless, there are people, from your supervisor, family and friends to random Twitter eggs, who can make the experience much less daunting and turn around your day, just when you need it the most. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
2) You will probably be lost for a good while, with no idea where you are heading. True, and as terrible as it might feel sometimes, this is necessary for your project to develop. Like brewing tea, if you wish, your needs to sit in your metaphorical cup for a while. After all, if we were to start our PhD knowing everything, well, what would be the point in doing it?
3) You will end up doing work and writing pages that will not contribute to your PhD. They won’t contribute in terms of word count, but surely, writing is a skill developed through practice and drafts are arenas of ideas, only the fittest ones will survive. Remember, “crap” is not waste.
4) You will not know for certain how well or not you are doing until you either publish or more likely when your PhD viva takes places, three or four years from when you start your PhD. It is so hard to know if you’re making (enough) progress, as this is very project- and person- specific, but sometimes, even crossing things off the list, or removing post-its from the board can help you feel like you’re going somewhere. Not exactly the fast lane, but moving, nonetheless.
5) Your supervisors are just there to steer you. True, after so many years of following, it is hard to lead. No worries, there is still plenty of structure when it comes to how you will do your project, and once you overcome the initial confusion, you will likely find the lack of micro-managing to be a good thing. At the end of the day, this is your project. Battered and shaken, perhaps, but yours.
6) Your work will be criticised and it’ll be difficult not to take it personally. This is a tricky one if you’re inherently insecure and impressionable, and I’m not sure if receiving feedback will ever be a walk in the park for me. However, in my first year, I’ve printed a highly personalised reference letter my supervisor wrote to support my never-ending funding quest. I often skim over it when dealing with negative comments. That is me, and this, this is just a paragraph I wrote in hurry.
7) The supervisory experience and relationship can be challenging for some. I might struggle in some other matters (cue funding lamentations), but I’ve hit the jackpot with this one. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have to adapt to make the most out of my supervision. I strongly believe in changing things which can be better, especially when it comes to PhD. Do explore the support mechanisms at department and graduate school.
8 & 9) Some things will be out of your control and they’ll be little you can do about it. The PhD plan continuously evolves; you have to be flexible and open to the idea of change. Very much like on a 12-step programme, we need to find the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (And the strength to write it all up.)
10) And finally, a PhD is a test of perseverance. It sure is, but there is no reward at the end (unless you were aiming for a ‘Dr’ on your utility bills), only new challenges, in academia or elsewhere. Perhaps it would make more sense to regard it as a journey then; yes, there are difficult moments, packing is stressful, trains are late, you might get a food poisoning or break your camera. Still, you will see and learn so many new things, spend happy moments with some new people and, unquestionably, be richer for an invaluable experience.
Towards the end of the post, Salma gave a brilliant piece of advice, one I believe should be printed in every PhD student’s handbook, at every university in the world:
Don’t take your PhD too seriously.
At the end of the day, it is just a degree, and there’s a whole wide world outside of it, so don’t let your PhD define you, no matter how (un)successful you feel it is or has been.
And how do you challenge the PhD challenges? Let us know in the comments. 🙂