A counterbalance post about the first year of my PhD
If you work in a lab you’ll know the occasional necessity for zoning out in tissue culture when you’re doing mundane tasks, and then you’ll probably also know the horror of kneeling down to get something out of the fridge, your trailing wire getting caught and ripping your earphones right out of your head. Ouch.
So, I bought a set of wireless headphones for the lab to avoid this disaster in the future because I’m always plugged in. Recently I was listening to a podcast called Stuff Mom Never Told You, which discusses “the business of being women from every imaginable angle” and they have an episode about not living a ‘Pinterest-Perfect life’ which made me think about my online presence. While I rarely post on Twitter and mostly post shots of my dog on Facebook, it occurred to me that perhaps people interested in doing a PhD, particularly those for the Tissue Repair programme, might end up reading some of this blog in the hope of finding more about my experiences and whether they would want to end up doing one too. I write generally all the cool stuff and am generally pretty upbeat but, as a counterbalance, here are some potentially brutal things about PhD life.
It’s often thankless. Getting a PhD is competitive, (even though once you’re in academia it seems like everyone has one) so to get there you need to have had a fair amount of successes. However, science can be a cruel mistress as anyone who’s worked in it would agree. Experiments don’t work and you’re not always sure why, you have very little measure of your achievements and it can often feel unrewarding. Nature recently conducted a survey and found that mental health distress is more likely for PhD students than other highly educated individuals. I’ve been thinking about this and on top of all the usual reasons cited (long hours, pressures, lack of support systems) I reckon that when you take high achieving people and put them in an environment where a lot of stuff just literally does not work they will inevitably experience issues.
It’s isolating. I don’t really tell anyone what I’ve done all day. One of the coolest and most terrifying things about a PhD is that you are in charge of what you do day-to-day. This means you have to be self-motivated to get things done but it also means you sort of report to no-one. My husband asks about my day but he’s not working in science so the details of my hilarious escapades and resounding failures at the bench don’t make a lot of sense. I tell my supervisor the overview pretty regularly but not the boring details and certainly not every day. The people that I work with probably bear the brunt of it (you know who you are) but even then I spend a lot of time in my own head. Maybe the headphones don’t help with this!
It’s consuming. The hours can be long, you can work weekends – this is what everyone tells you. What they don’t really mention is that it’s not the hours you are at work that are the problem, it’s the hours that you’re not, but you feel that you should be. I have woken up in the night with the words siRNA swimming around in my head or spent an evening out worrying about whether the cells I seeded would survive the night. Talking about this with a friend we agreed that it’s not necessarily about how much work you have, it’s about where you put your work in your life – do you put it all in the office and stay ‘til late or do you put it on a Sunday afternoon so you can leave a bit early another day… There’s always, always, work to be done so you just have to figure out where to put it in your week.
It’s actually a lot of fun. Okay so that has all sounded super negative and like I’m having a terrible time – I’m not. I wouldn’t change the fact that I’m doing a PhD, I wouldn’t change where I’m doing it and I wouldn’t change who I work alongside. My first year has been a massive learning curve in lots of ways and I wanted to be up front about the negatives. In the past when I’ve written about all the good stuff I’ve been doing, that’s been totally honest. I just think we should all be honest about the bad stuff too and not worry so much about showing off that Pinterest-perfect life.