Dear new PhD student,
This is the second of two posts of wisdom shared for you by 16 old PhDers.
In the first post, mainly keeping the words of the contributors, I shared our 13 top tips for you.
In this one we are going to level with you: we are going to talk about the ups and downs.
Read this when the doubts and negative thoughts begin.
Or read it before that happens, so that you’re better prepared.
And above all, remember we’ve all been there.
The darker side of the PhD and some bright lights to chase the darkness
Getting a PhD is hard and it’s okay to have bad days. Sometimes you will hate your PhD (and even your topic) and that’s okay and most assuredly normal. There will be times when you will want to give up. Mental health is a frequent concern and there will be dark moments for many PhD students. A peer writes:
The PhD is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I periodically felt like I was being ripped apart and put back together (by myself and my supervisor) without always being sure whether I had become a better student/writer/person in the process. I wish someone had really rammed it into my head that it’s ok to let other people know about this, and that sharing these concerns with my colleagues isn’t any kind of admission of weakness. It’s an admission that we’re humans and not machines.
So here’s what we suggest to overcome these feelings and challenges:
- Remove the phrase ‘I’m so behind’ from your vocabulary and positively reinforce your progress.
- Look after yourself: your wellbeing is essential for your work. Enjoy your life: don’t neglect your health or the people you care about. Don’t equate your schoolwork and your self-worth.
- Stay close to people who aren’t in academia, and let them keep you grounded. And know that antidepressants and therapists are available and it’s ok to use them.
- Remind yourself that it is a marathon and not a sprint. Monitoring yourself can ensure that you don’t burn out and you enjoy the PhD when you can and crack the whip when you have to!
- Sometimes you won’t feel like you’re making progress, and that may feel frustrating at first. But it is actually very satisfying to pull yourself slowly towards a new idea. It is a privilege to be able to move slowly. Some ideas take a lot of baking. If you keep at it you may be surprised how much progress you were making even when it felt like nothing was happening at all.
- But also, know that it’s okay not to know the answers (now and always), as long as you’re working towards finding out the answers (to the right and relevant questions, which aren’t always the questions other people ask).
- Remember: success is just the result of a thousand false starts.
- The going can be tough, but getting there (wherever ‘there’ is – the end of the thesis, the end of an article, the end of that one difficult day) can be hugely satisfying. A peer writes:
When you are in the thick of your PhD you will probably feel quite a heavy sense of self-loathing that everything is taking twice as long as expected and you have reached several research dead-ends. Try to keep hold of the fact that when you finish the thesis all these knock-backs will have made you a stronger person, you will have overcome obstacles that others would find impossible and achieved things that pre-PhD you would have quaked in your boots just thinking about!
- Also, if you think about it, a thesis is a complicated piece of coursework. If you’re doing a PhD then you’re probably already great at coursework!
So yes, it is hard, and yes, it is challenging. But we are going to finish by reminding you how exciting it is:
What an amazing thing you’re doing!
This is your chance to indulge yourself, to spend a significant amount of time thinking about the thing you are most interested in, and to follow your own academic curiosity along a beautiful, winding path.
It’s a unique opportunity to develop yourself, to travel a bit and to make life lasting friends, not to mention friends you would never, ever have made otherwise.
Prepare for moments of extreme excitement: that breakthrough moment, anticipating your first results, succeeding at a new challenge…
You are lucky to have this chance; enjoy as much of it as you can.
Love yourself, love your work and embrace every opportunity that comes your way.
Get out there and stretch yourself.
You’ve got this.
From 16 old PhDers