What I Wish I knew Before Starting my PhD
I defended my PhD in January 2018. During the four years of my research and writing up, certain things happened that were highly unexpected and unplanned for and these made life and my PhD experience particularly tough for me. The journey left me with five lessons that I keep applying in different areas of my life. My hope is that sharing them might give other intending-researchers a starting point, in answer to the often-asked question, “what should I know before starting a PhD?”
In no particular order, here are the five life lessons I learned from my PhD which I wish I’d known at the very start (CW: point 2 mentions mental distress; point 3 mentions death):
1.It is important to know your motives for embarking on your research (and a PhD programme in this context)
It became clear to me that my colleagues and I all had very different reasons why we’d all chosen to do a PhD, ranging from familial pressure to academic career aspiration, a case of the ‘next logical step’, and simply an opportunity to travel to a new country.
I think it’s highly necessary to be open and honest with yourself about what your motive is in signing up to projects. This doesn’t mean you owe it to anyone to tell them, or to explain yourself. However, knowing and owning your motive can actually empower you to focus or re-focus your energy appropriately whenever you hit a slump.
2. Mental health disclosures can protect your well-being
I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which have been quite debilitating to me. At the start of my PhD I just took it for granted that the way I’d self-managed and remained functional (which I now recognise was toxic) during two years of intense Master’s research, was the same way I’d carry on throughout my PhD process. I didn’t account for the normal stresses of the PhD taking its toll, and other personal issues muddying the already-murky waters.
Why does this matter now? Because perhaps the reasons for my difficulty in communicating across my struggles: the days when I was so anxious when all my experiments failed, and the times when I would leave early because I just couldn’t ‘take it’, would be better understood. Maybe more even because I sincerely believe I would have been much more at peace if things were transparent. I’d imagine there is a kind of power in declaring something in front of those who are meant to support you- as long as it is safe to do so. Most importantly, I could have already laid the foundation for a network of mental health support.
Even if the outcome of my PhD wouldn’t have changed (which probably, it wouldn’t have) I’d feel less anxious about already being anxious. I wish I had been transparent from the start, and not let things build up to the point I had to take a break due to mental burn out.
3. Unforseen and extenuating circumstances/situations can happen (TW: death)
So many delays happened during my PhD including a year-long wait for ethics approval, months awaiting reagents, and a slow process of patient/participant recruitment. If I could go back I would think about how I could maximise all the time I had during these ‘waiting’ periods: a lot of emphasis is usually placed on personal or career development but I want to stress the intentional allocation of time for rest and, yes, frivolous activity too! We need to hold space for ourselves to not always be productive and just be and live. That is ok. Not every part of your research and every minute you are registered as a PhD candidate needs to lead to output and I wish academics would ease up about this! This is an R&D process and my understanding years later is that creativity and a healthy working environment thrive when I am allowed the space to bring my whole self to the table, and I hold the same space for colleagues.
Sometimes however, unforseen circumstances can have a significant impact on our lives. Within the first two years of my PhD, I lost three friends in my circle. At the start of my third year my primary supervisor passed away after a year of being ill, and less than three months later my dad passed away quite unexpectedly. What could have helped me during that phase would have been to know where and how to access grief counselling, and who to turn to for support. My advice is for all of us to always have an awareness of contacts and resources that can be of help for our toughest moments.
4. Aquiring transferable skills can be a fun distraction
Gaining transferable skills during your PhD is a great way to keep yourself plugged into the wider work sector. A few years ago I wrote a blogpost about 10 ways to gain new skills and improve your CV. It might also be worth finding out if there is any department at your research institution dedicated to helping you gain these skills. Please note that taking up these opportunites might only be useful to you if you have the capacity to do so.
There may also be some opportunities to gain extra cash on the side from some of these activities, although I’d once again strongly advise that only you will know what the right balance is in taking this on. It goes without saying that not all hobbies have to become a side hustle.
Tutoring is something I loved doing part-time during my PhD. It helped me gain valuable experience for my CV, and served as a part-time paid job. Obviously my PhD was my primary focus, but my tutoring job gave me a break where I could be distracted in a positive way.
Is there any extra job you can take up on the side (which is manageable of course) which could help you out in any way? Is there a job shop at your research institution that can point you in the right direction? Could there be paid teaching roles within your department?
5. A support group will forever be invaluable
Whether support comes from your friends in or out of your research institution, place of worship or study group, you need a support system. You need people whom you can let lose with. A place where stories can be shared, be it moaning or asking for advice, confidentially. Friends can help you stay sane during the PhD process. I am not convinced I would have been able to make it through without the support and friendship of certain people in my life. Some are friends I met less than a decade ago, when I first moved to the UK. Others are friends I only see once a year, but whom I am in constant contact with. We all need a solid support system.
Most, if not all universities have some form of career service, health service, and counselling/chaplaincy services. Never hesitate to use the resources provided by your university to help yourself.
For further information, have a look at this book with accounts from 70 scholars reflecting on academia with regards to identities, struggles and triumphs.