There tend to be two types of advice posts about PhD life. The first describes the positives – learning, adventure, excitement and maintaining a happy work-life balance etc. The second, and possibly more common type, is the horror story, with advice along the lines of ‘don’t expect to enjoy your PhD’ or ‘just hang in there, your suffering will be over soon’. My blog belongs squarely to the former, and I’m just one of the people preaching the positives (just a few examples here, here and here).
This split between positive and negative posts might give the impression that there are just two types of PhD experiences. There are carefree students who cruise through their very easy PhD’s, taking holidays and sipping cocktails in a world full of puppies and sunshine. Or, there’s everyone else, struggling, suffering and regretting taking on a PhD to begin with. This is a problem because people who identify with the latter, might feel unable to take the advice of the former. For example, I’ve had a few comments from students who love the idea of a better work-life balance, but aren’t sure it could ever apply to their own situation.
To shed the notion that you either struggle or you don’t, here are my confessions:
– I am not always very good at taking my own advice
– I am not immune to PhD related freak-outs
– sometimes I really, really struggle to make any kind of progress
– and when I struggle, I can get a bit negative
Now, negative can be fun. You get to lie around feeling sorry for yourself and watch a 30 Rock marathon. You might shed a few tears into a glass of wine, or eat a whole block of cooking chocolate because there was no normal chocolate left in the house. Or you can just stomp around in a foul mood because everything is horrible and so terribly, terribly unfair. You know, general drama-queen shenanigans.
Based on the strangely specific description above, you’ll realise I hit a bit of a rough patch recently. I don’t think there was any one reason, I was just having a bad day (or several).
At some point though, you have to stop being upset and get back to work. Otherwise you fall further behind, get even more stressed, then fall further behind and are sucked into a nasty vortex of despair (from which you may never return!) So while I was very tempted to spend another day wallowing, I scrambled out of my comfy, chocolate-lined misery pit and returned to my laptop. I looked at the problem again, clearly and without my ‘goggles of hopelessness’ on, and it wasn’t actually that bad. In two hours it was fixed and I was back to conquering my mammoth to-do list one step at a time. I felt good, if a little annoyed that I’d let myself get so upset about it in the first place.
So, as you can see, a positive outlook is a work in progress. It’s something that you learn and practice. It’s not about never being stressed or always being positive. And it’s not about having a hassle-free PhD (no such thing I’m afraid). It’s about picking yourself up when things suck. Because as fun (and easy) as it is to wallow, it’s not really helpful.
Sometimes you’ll fall down. But you shouldn’t stay there.
Originally posted at my old site, ksoanesresearch.wordpress.com, March 21, 2013