The Doctor's (not) in (yet): You’re not learning for your PhD, you’re learning for life


I’d like to start my first blog post of 2019 with the image of the PhD journey.

In pop culture, doing a PhD is often portrayed as a hell-like state with lots of work and minimal outcomes. You have to spend every free minute of your life in a lab or an office without windows and you're definitely not having a life anymore. You’re always broke so the only food you can afford are ramen noodles…

Well, yeah. Not really. It's a stereotype.

Don’t get me wrong, some scientific fields require more commitment than others and yes, doing a PhD can feel daunting at times: It’s always in the back of your mind, no matter whether you go into the pool or flying to Okinawa. So at the moment I am waiting for approval so I can continue with my data collection. This is totally beyond my control and yes, it does provide me with sleepless nights sometimes because I have booked all of my flights and accommodation already. Totally unsure whether it’s going to happen or not. But that’s not all of it. It’s part of it.

When you feel your PhD is just like jumping through hoops that are on fire and you feel an inner emptiness by just thinking about your research, it is time to make a change. Again, as long as these descriptions are phases…that’s totally normal. If this is a constant state for a year or more, you gotta change something because it’s not healthy anymore.

I’m worried because the doctoral years have such a negative underpinning in the World Wide Web. Yet so many people get themselves into this journey. Let’s get that straight, academia is far from being perfect. People struggle to find jobs and it’s often dominated by ego-driven people who think they’re the shit (where in fact most of them aren’t!). But at the same time doing a PhD is not the hardest part…you still have lots of freedom. And people are more forgiving because you’re still learning how to be a researcher. So it makes me cringe when I see posts that illustrate the PhD journey as a walk into Mordor. You spend at least 3 years of your time in this project, shouldn’t it be at least a little fun!?

Nope. PhDs are never easy peasy lemon squeezy, they’re always hard, hard and hard!

Pffft, yeah nah (using Kiwi slang here).

The other truth is, that many scholars out there actually enjoy their work. They’re in love with their topics, their supervisors (not literally, I hope, this may cause problems) and the experiences which contribute to make them better scientists. It is clear that many have other obligations besides their research. They may be (single) parents or suffer from financial hardship (or in worst case, both). It’s always easy to look at the downsides as whining about things and life in general is also part of pop culture (and I’m aware I’m doing the same right now by complaining about how PhDs are portrayed…). People should feel sorry because I’m a poor grad student. Well, that was your choice. No one forced you into this “mess”. You may always leave if you want to. It’s not like High School.

Speaking of…actually, for me High School was way harder. I had to deal with stuff (and people!) I wasn’t even slightly interested in and adolescence made it all worse. Compared to High School my PhD journey is like visiting a petting zoo! You may now think: Whoah, she really has her shit together! But no, unfortunately also this could not be further from the truth. I just learned how to fight my battles. More battles = more practice. And practice makes perfect.

So I would like to make a plea for more PhD-positivity. Sometimes your research sucks. And that’s okay. Sometimes your significant other or your best friend suck as well…also here, if it stays like this, you should walk away. No one needs toxic people or a general toxic work environment! Sometimes we don’t have to quit all together but rather making changes. Many people fear changes because they have a negative perception of them. In my opinion, changes are often times a good thing.

How I see it, the PhD is not only to conduct your very own study but to train you as a grown-ass scientist: You learn how to handle the framework of it. Meeting deadlines, preparing paperwork for permits, applying for funds, dealing with students and also how to deal with failure and rejection.

You’ll learn for life!


Happy Research!