In our new post Federica reflects on her first year as a PhD student and discusses the thin line between “doing” and “being” a PhD…

Is your PhD a very isolating experience? Don’t worry, you are not alone in feeling like this.

The recurring buzzword in University websites, academics’ blogs and “How to survive a PhD” handbooks is “challenging”. They all keep on repeating that the choice of undertaking a PhD should be taken very seriously, because it is so hard and demanding, it can be so isolating, and even feel completely meaningless, that it’s better to ask ourselves if it is actually worth it. When I started my PhD, last October, I soon find out that these guys were very right: a PhD is highly challenging. First of all, “doing a PhD” is incorrect. You don’t DO a PhD, you ARE a PhD. And this complicates things, because it means that you have to think like a researcher, it’s impossible to just act like one. It would be very nice if one could absorb the researcher mind-set from a book, become one by osmosis from a “to be” list or the advice of some academics, but, just like real life, the one of a PhD is a game with unwritten and unknown rules, that you have to find out yourself.

Secondly, since the very beginning of your first year, you have to study a bunch of things you had no idea existed. These are not only about your specific topic, but also about philosophy of science and methodology, words that sounded like a dragon roar to my ears. Of course you receive advice from your department, your supervisors and your fellow PhDs, but you have to navigate an immense ocean of literature on your own, because you are the only true expert of your study. Thirdly, you have to relate to new people. This might sound like a contradiction, but befriending your new colleagues whilst you are under the pressure of the impostor syndrome can be even more isolating than not talking to anybody at all. You tend to firstly show your strengths and achievements, and talk about your problems in a very mild way, instead of recognising that “guys, I’m lost, I need your help”, when this is the case.

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Image credits: Gary Lund / CC BY-NC 2.0

Again, since you cannot just DO a PhD, but actually have to BE a PhD, you tend to follow the social rules of the academia, at the expense of your own personal ways. Finally, isolation can derive from a detachment from your old friends who are not PhDs. On the one hand, they can’t stand you anymore because you’re always moaning about stuff. Obviously you need to get rid of the stress you get from the challenging experience you are undergoing, but people with different lives might not get your point, and your relationships will start losing sympathy. On the other hand, you might feel that you have less in common with them: being a PhD changed the ways you look at the world. You problematize life in a different way; TV shows, films and even novels now have to work harder to entertain you; a chat at the pub cannot be a cheap talk, you use technical rigidity in every word.

As a consequence of all this, you are alone in a harshly criticising world.

Why a PhD, then? The main answer is because we like it. And if you like being a PhD, then it’s worth to find ways to moderate the nightmare of isolation. To my mind, the rationale is to try to eliminate the gap between your academic self and you as a human being. If with your colleagues the problem is the annihilation of your true nature, bring it back. Be sincere about how you feel, share your sense of inadequacy, ask for their help on both personal and academic matters, discuss the flaws of your project with them, give up pride and ask them to teach you new things. Long story short: become their friend. They are probably feeling the same as you, take advantage of this to build a deep relationship. As for your old, non-PhD friends, bring your experience into your relationships. Tell them how you feel whilst explaining that they don’t have to take too seriously your moans, give them the tools to understand you. Also, try and abstract your problems from the context. Principles and concepts are transmittable, and you might find out that your friends can understand you more than you expected, and relate to similar feelings they have about other experiences. Finally, engage with them. If you don’t like junk TV anymore try and set new standards of entertainment, but keeping in mind the specific person in front of you. You’re doing something together, and if this time you are leading the thing, next time you’ll be the follower. Your identity as a PhD can be compatible with your previous self, you just need to find your own ways to create a healthy blend.

Federica de Pantz is a PhD in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick. Her research aims to understand how states with limited resources can actively participate in the globalised world, and investigates the foreign policies of South Korea and South Africa in global governance institutions. Before moving to the UK, she studied at the University of Bologna (Italy), where she earned a BA and an MA in International Relations.” I am still struggling to understand the boundary between generality and specificity in relation to my research. 

You can follow Federica on her Academia.edu profile.