The PhD experience is a series of wild oscillations between feeling gloriously competent and wildly out of your depth. These oscillations occur on a semi-hourly basis when you begin, lengthen out to months somewhere in the middle, then rapidly shrink back to hourly, if not half-hourly, as you reach the end.

Doing a PhD is hard.

I have a very healthy work/life balance. A little too healthy, if you were to ask my supervisor. I do a lot of exercise, training acrobatics or trapeze (you know, regular gym activities). I regularly go for dinner and drinks with my boyfriend, friends, and colleagues. I spend my spare “non-activity” evenings chilling out in front of Netflix with my flatmates. I have a network of friends and family who are all incredibly supportive. I don’t have any pre-existing medical or mental health issues. I don’t have children or dependents. My PhD is still hard.

Really hard.

A PhD is like Tough Mudder, a 12 mile obstacle course through mud, ice, and barbed wire. You start out fresh faced and ready to go. You’re looking forward to the challenge, and your team is with you. There’s banter as you jog along, and the first few obstacles aren’t so tricky. But then you come to a big one. Arctic Enema, a.k.a. the ice-bucket challenge on steroids, a.k.a. your first-year viva. You hesitate, it seems scary and unpleasant, but your teammates psych you up, you force yourself through it, and you realise it wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought.

You’re feeling pretty good, refreshed by the ice-water. There are obstacles ahead, including some bloody massive ones, but they seem less threatening, more manageable…

But then they just keep coming, and coming, and coming. You start to get really tired. Everything becomes more difficult with each (metaphorical) hurdle.

Your knees hurt and you just want to lie down with a G&T.

I have a healthy work/life balance, but doing PhD still encroaches on my personal life. I returned from a mini-break to Ireland recently, landing at midnight on Sunday, and I had to rush off to the lab to prepare some samples for the next (same?) day. Luckily, I have a wonderful partner who is at the same stage of PhD as me, so he understands. But when you stop and think about it, those moments all add up. I can count on three hands the number of times I’ve had my weekend plans interrupted by “ooh I’ve just got to pop into the lab”.

No matter where you are, in the back of your mind the PhD is always crouched, whispering sweet nothings to you, and making you feel guilty for not being at work.

The worst part is, I keep telling myself it should be easy. All I have to do is go into the lab, do a few experiments, and then write down my results! So easy!

So why then, when crunch time comes, I can’t do it?

Instead of going into the lab, I sit at my desk thinking about going into the lab. Instead of writing up, I think about writing. I am periodically fluctuating between I’ve got this! My results are good! I am an awesome PhD student! and everything is awful, my results are terrible, I should just quit now.  

Sometimes I have a result but can’t work out what the hell it means. In conferences, I often feel like an imposter when I don’t seem to feel as wildly enthusiastic about research as everyone else. During research presentations, I find it incredibly difficult to focus, let alone come up with questions.

Doing a PhD is hard, and all of those things are just the less hard bits.

The whole time you are doing a PhD, you are dreading the final obstacle (we’re back to Tough Mudder imagery). Electroshock Therapy, a.k.a. running through wires charged with 10,000 volts of electricity, a.k.a. your Thesis.

You finally reach the edge. You stand there, thinking, there is no way I can do this. How do I even build up the courage to start?? Meanwhile, you watch your friends and colleagues go through and it looks awful. They suffer, and you think, why on earth am I about to put myself through this?? This is madness. But then you see them come out the other side, and they look so happy, so relieved, and you think, maybe it is worth it, and you take a step… and immediately get shocked in the leg.

Everybody knows that PhDs are hard. There is a reason why it’s the highest level of academic qualification you can get. What I am coming to realise, as I reach the end of mine, is that it is hard no matter what. The internet is full of tips and tricks on how to manage stress, maintain a work/life balance, etc., but there is a lack of reassurance that even if you do all of these things, it is still hard. That’s why I am writing this.

Your PhD was always going to be hard, and that’s okay.

Sometimes I get a bit disheartened thinking about how my PhD hasn’t yielded the world-changing results a small part of me hoped it would. But then I remember that while yes, the final thesis is a large part of doing a PhD, it is not the main aim (ignore your supervisor). When I think back to when I first started, I realise I have gained so many skills. I am more confident (those who know me will say that’s an impressive feat). I feel more secure in myself as a person. I’ve gained organisational skills, diplomacy skills, people skills, teaching skills, writing skills, reading skills. I’ve gained the ability to get through a meeting while giving the illusion that I understand what’s going on.

A PhD is about building yourself as a person.

So yes, doing a PhD is hard (did I mention that..?). And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure if it will all be worth it. But if I had the chance to start it all over again, I would (probably) still do it.

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ErrantScience in May – ErrantScience · May 22, 2019 at 13:00

[…] we’ve had a cracking guest post from Emily Sparkes, comparing the PhD journey to that of a Tough Mud-Dr (geddit?) race; Matthew wrote a lovely letter to all the sales people that have approached him over […]

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