This is a blog entry I actually wrote the majority of about a month ago, but then other things came along and bothered me, like work, and I never got round to posting it. I’m sure there’s some ironic witticism in the fact my PhD stopped me from writing about the experience of a PhD, but I’m sleep deprived and brain not work good.
Several weeks ago, I was speaking with someone who was approaching that odd limbo you find yourself in when you come to the end of a degree and have no idea what you’re going to do afterwards. She asked me what seemed like a fairly simple question: “Would you recommend doing a PhD?” I found myself at a loss for words, which rather surprised me. I felt as though I was somehow unqualified to answer that, despite being well into my second year. “Laura,” you might think, “that’s ridiculous. Who better to recommend a PhD than someone actually doing one?”
Well, the fact is a PhD is a very personal and individual journey, and I felt that recommending one solely off the experience of mine would be like recommending a band after only hearing one of their songs. I just don’t know how typical my experience is, and if any of the things I’ve felt or endured are particularly ubiquitous or unique. With that in mind, I decided in the end to ask people who are also battling their PhD (or have managed to conquer it, in one way or another) to find out what their experience has been like so I could compile them into one hopefully helpful place.
Without a doubt, the most overwhelming response was stressful. Not necessarily all the time, but everyone was willing to admit that stress is a big part of a PhD. I wrote a blog entry before about a PhD being like a parasite, that leaches away at your free time and is constantly making you feel guilty for not working on it. Indeed, the reason I’ve had to put off writing this blog is because I’ve been snowed under with work. One of my friends told me that the pressure from the PhD (but also pressure she puts on herself) makes some kind of “guilt-trip loop”, which drives her to work very long hours. Another friend told me that she’s found her PhD to challenge her not just academically, but personally as well. You will find out a lot about your stress limits on a PhD (good or bad…). As I’ve mentioned before, stress is most easily overcome by making sure you have a good bunch of PhD buddies who understand your very unique and somewhat self-inflicted pain.
Of course, stress is not just the realm of PhD students, so don’t let it be a defining factor in what you choose to do after your degree.
Another common answer was that a PhD makes you feel like an idiot. I have a lot of experience with that. I spent the whole of my first year convinced that I’d somehow tricked the panel in my interview into giving me a PhD, that I’d slipped through, and nervously awaited the moment they would suddenly turn on me and say, “Wait a minute… what are you doing here?” I very easily second guess myself, and end up convincing myself that I don’t know the answer to a very simple question. In most normal circumstances, if someone were to ask me something about my project, I would be able to give a confident, clear explanation. When I’m in a board meeting, or being quizzed by a supervisor or something, I suddenly doubt all that I know. Instead of a nice coherent string of sentences, I make odd, sometimes disturbing, noises. One of my friends told me that he had to give a presentation to one of their outside funders recently, and the things he talks about on a daily basis were suddenly just out of reach in his brain.
Someone on Twitter sent me a link to a very funny and very comforting article called The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. It makes the very good point that in research, you will of course feel stupid because you are trying to answer questions that no one really knows the answers to yet. That’s why you’re there. In the face of the infinite number of things we do not know as a species, your imagined stupidity seems to fade into nothingness. And, as one of my friends remarked the other week, “at least I’m getting better at sounding like I know what I’m doing.”
Many people also commented on how lonely a PhD can be. In a science PhD, it’s hard to physically be alone as you are constantly working in a lab surrounded by people. It’s the isolation of not knowing anyone else that can really help explain what you’re doing that can be scary. “You are ultimately the only one responsible for the success or failure of your project” is one of the replies I got on Twitter. That can seem incredibly daunting when you first come to realise that. However, I’ve learned how to turn that fear into motivation to drive myself towards success. Nothing will drive you more than the feeling of impending doom! Sometimes it’s the social isolation, whether that’s having to work late nights to finish the sampling from your experiment, or needing to hunker down in a small dark room to write a report. I have groups of friends I haven’t seen on a regular basis for years. Actually, you can sometimes feel isolated from other friends even when you’re around them, usually when you talk about work. Sometimes people ask me what I’m doing, and I’ll start brief but once I get on a roll, I tend to get more and more enthusiastic and keep talking. Eventually I can see their eyes have glazed over and they just periodically nod while fantasising about punching me in the face.
Okay, I’ve focused on a lot of negatives… what about the good parts? Well, a fair few people mentioned fieldwork, which is something I get to enjoy on my PhD. Not everyone will work in the field (and not everyone will want to), but it’s certainly been a fascinating experience for me. Fieldwork is one of those things that’s hard to explain to people who have never done it, because (in my experience) a lot of people assume you go off on holiday for a month or two. In actuality, field work involves long hours working under pressure (you are very aware that you only have a finite amount of time to collect everything you want) with very few days off. Don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not, I’m extremely lucky to have been able to work where I have and where I’m going to, and thoroughly enjoy myself (though, perhaps not 100% of the time…!). Travel in general is one of the perks of a PhD, whether through fieldwork, conferences, meetings, training exercises. You also get to meet people from many different places, which is a fascinating experience in itself.
The most positive things people said for their PhD was that despite all the negative bits, they still genuinely loved what they do. Most important was the subject, which I can vouch for. You need to really find your topic interesting, because that’s the only way you can keep yourself motivated to carry on when you feel like you just want to quit (and trust me, you will feel like that at some point, even if it’s just for half an hour). Honestly, it’s one of the things that excites me the most about my PhD. My job is to find out about stuff I genuinely love and find super interesting. That’s awesome! When I look through the comments I got about PhD experiences, people said things like “love my research topic”, “best job I’ve ever had” and ” can’t imagine a cooler more interesting project than what I’m doing”.
In summary, I have loved my PhD. I have also hated it at times, but my love of the topic makes sure the two of us kiss and make up. With than analogy in mind, I’ll leave you one of the most all-encompassing comments I received from my friend Julius.
Solitary, social, exciting, boring, stressful, relaxing, gives you highs, gives you lows, makes you feel smart and the next moment stupid, makes you feel you are going far and nowhere… whatever it gives you, I’ve never regretted and would choose it again and again (sounds like marriage…maybe it is a bit).