One of the things no one tells you when you start a PhD is the amazingly strong bonds of friendship you will create. I have recently entered my third year and I have just woken up to the fact that there is a community of scientists around me I truly love and draw inspiration from.
You know how most friendships are based in mutual love for adventure, fun and possibly late nights out? I am not talking about this kind of relationship. I am talking about a friendship the foundation of which is a mutual passion for something we want to know more about. For some of us, this passion follows the adventures of bear poop into the gut of a fly, for others it is all about adding to our understanding of human diseases and their treatment. But in the core of it, it is the same thirst, really.
There are about 40 of us in our department and each one of us does something so unique and specific, and loves it enough to spend at least three years researching just that. We must be insane.
Three years, immersed in the entire spectrum of feelings available to humans, sometimes all at the same time. Three years of successes, failures, supervisor struggles, utter lab disasters (perhaps that one I experience a bit more often than your average scientist), moments of glorious clarity, and, the most frustrating of all, long periods of nothing in particular.
During induction week, you are told, 100% of the time without failure, that \”this PhD will be so hard that you will, many times, find yourself wanting to give up\” and that \”everyone is going through tough mental health dips during this degree\”. First of all, thanks for the encouraging words! I was feeling pretty excited to be following my passion, but now I wonder if I should actually be feeling a little depressed already, just so I can fit in. You got the wrong crazy bear lady, buddy!.
What they say after these deeply reassuring words is: \”when you find yourself in that state (when, not if), come and find us\”. All that coming from about five different people, one of which I am pretty sure was some kind of Student Union rep I am never going to see again in my entire academic life. After two years filled with all the emotions, personal and professional turmoil and all the horrible things the SU man accurately predicted (damn you, SU rep!), I know why they all came to talk to us.
Doing a PhD is hard on so many levels other than just academically challenging.
You don\’t realise it at first, but you take on a project you cannot leave again until you are allowed to email the bank to change your prefix to \’Dr.\’.
If you really love your subject, you will not even leave it behind you after you are allowed to hang a note outside your door saying \’the doctor will see you now\’. It is not the kind of work you can just leave behind as you walk out of the office every evening. You can\’t walk away from it like you would if you worked at, say, a cafe. It is always there and surprises you with new ideas and stressy thoughts when you brush your teeth, when your friends are talking to you about their worries, and when you are writing a grocery list and find that you\’ve turned it into a to-do list and have now listed all the emails you need to send that day.
Oh, and if you think you can sleep to mute it, erhhh, not so much!
In simple words, doing a PhD makes you a much crappier person in all other aspects of your life. It leaves you with 20% of your previous ability to keep a tidy house, be a good friend, be there for your family, and never run out of toilet roll.
Instead, you find yourself loosing your sleep over, in my case, flies and bear poop. Or waking up at 3am and staying awake for 2 hours readjusting lab methods (because 3am is a time of real clarity to for that kind of contemplation) and wondering when you will hear back from the grant application you sent two months ago. Classy classy times.
I promise though, clarity sometimes strikes like the sharpest tornado kick! As you are lying in the dark at 3am in the morning, wondering how long can bear poop stay fresh in a freezer, you are hit by this one very small slap of truth: I am so damn lucky! Thinking about bears has been my dream for a long time, so being woken up thinking about scat expiry dates must be another proof my dream is actually a reality now. I am so lucky to be in this place. So, having joined the #teamnosleep, looking less-than-fresh most days, and having to become a bit of a hermit and an overall crappy human in most other aspects of my life is a price I will gladly pay.
However, it\’s not all frolicking on the sunny valleys of academia. Even when you feel blessed to be doing what you are doing, there are still days that doing a PhD is just hard. We are challenged on levels of professional and personal endurance that brings us to our knees. And on top of that, most days, the rest of life is happening too. Our families need us, our friends need us, our fridge is empty (other than an old zucchini that, if I was honest with myself, I would have gotten rid of a long time ago) and our house, more often than not, runs out of surfaces we can dump things on. Life is happening and sometimes we miss it. Drama is creeping in and we can\’t process it properly. Sometimes I stay awake and think of all the life that\’s happened since I started this journey that I wasn\’t able to participate in or had to give up. My niece is a year old and I live on the other side of Europe from her.
The reality must be that, because our lives are so overrun by the great big mount that is our research and academic progress, we have less time to deal with our emotions and see things in perspective. We are in a narrow tunnel, where small things become big drama, just because we have no time to fix them as they arise. People outside see this as us being distant, having changed. The lack of energy makes you withdraw into yourself to preserve the little emotional energy and confidence you have left. And now I understand why so many students get depressed.
You are trying to stand out in a world where there is competition left, right and centre, and when even if you think you are better than the person working on the desk next to you, there is always someone getting more grants, doing more work, publishing more papers. You are tying to find someone that admires your work. Make someone proud. Get a job at the end of it. We have all been raised in a system where someone ends up on top. One student who gets the best marks and everyone assumes they are a genius. One academic who has collected more citation tokens than everyone else. One mental scientist to rule them all. A ladder system, where everyone has a place either above or below someone else. And if, god forbid, you haven\’t published any papers, you might as well pack your bags and leave for ever. Academia is failing to see the worth of individual researchers for what it is if they can\’t rank somewhere (preferably high) in its made up point-scoring system. A system that fails to emphasise on what I thought was the most important thing about being a scientist: working hard to improve the current state of your subject area. We don\’t live in the age of great discoveries anymore. A lot of the big and the great have been revealed – we even have live footage of the giant squid.
Sure, life on other planets and other such amazing things are yet to be discovered, but perhaps we ought to stop asking for scientists to make groundbreaking discoveries and \’be the best or go home\’, but, instead, empower them to do their job and support them along their journey. And then marvel at the genius of the healthy scientific process.
I have to admit, I realised in these past two years of my life that I truly am a very positive person. Everyone who knows me understand this. I have an innate joy and enthusiasm that wins over drama in the worst of cases, normally in the form of some silly song I\’ve just made up, or reminding myself of the better, more important things that exist above the drama. The singing works better, take my word for it. But I have also realised, to the surprise of myself and my beloved people, that even I break under the pressures of academia and the demands it makes in the life outside it. Even I, every now and then, need to be cared for and told that it will all be ok.
But this is not about my personal drama. I only mention it because it is a good indication of how hard things must be when I get taken down for a bit. The issue is real. I have seen it reflected in my friend\’s eyes, the people trying to do good in the world and contribute their little bit to making this world a better place. My dear people are stressed and many of them are depressed. We end up eating bad food because cooking is a luxury. We sleep badly because we are stressed. We are stressed because of all the above. No wonder depression is so common. No surprises there, but truly a highlight of the malfunction of the system we have created for ourselves and keep supporting.
There, I said it.
So, as it becomes more obvious that the system is lacking the capacity to care for the individual instead of their productivity value, people are offering to help solve the issue. That\’s great news and that\’s how we start solving the problem within our institutions. However, depression and stress are mean beasts and often too shy to show themselves to any but a few.
I am sure the SU rep was a nice enough guy, but I would sooner drink an entire cup of salty coffee than ask for help from a random person when I am in my deepest, darkest place. Some do, and that\’s right for them. Ask for help from where you think you will value it the most. For me, that\’s when I need my friends and family. In fact, that\’s when I need people who understand this exact feeling all too well.
When I joined grad school I was safe in my own group of friends and assumed that, even if I managed to hide away the fact that I don\’t quite belong here, everyone would be far too clever to want to hang out with me. I was right about one thing, but very wrong about the other: They are very clever. But, even after my failure to hide how far from an academic I am and feel most times, there was still a place for me in the group.
So, what none of the induction people told us was that there would be a community of people going through the same journey, that would look after you and embrace you, like a family away from home. Your fellow post grad researchers. Granted, all families have a strange uncle or two, but we can treat those as our actual strange uncle and avoid them all together, until an awkward chat is completely inevitable. As for the rest, they are to be treated as treasures at all times! Empowered, encouraged and provided for. Because what they do is extremely hard and I admire each one of them so much more after joining them in this adventure. Laura, who is sieving through litres of water in search for eel DNA in massive lakes. Josie, who climbs trees in Borneo, looking (amongst many other things) for, arguably, the least loved creatures out there: centipedes, and has still made us all love them (in a way). Contrastingly, Pedro and Bertrand, who study the most loved thing on earth – cocoa! Eva, Gill and Josh, working on river and drinking water quality. Liana, who is finding out more about the disease that took my father and so many people. And so many more researchers, not mentioned here, not because they are less appreciated, but because the fact that I could write about this endlessly doesn\’t meant that I should!
I am so proud to be among them. Each so good, kind and devoted. I am so inspired and I, for once in my life, am starting to feel like I possibly, maaaaybe, could feel at home in academia after all. Perhaps the only group of people that, even if very different from each other otherwise, they all have been through the same journey and understand the roughness of the waves and the tranquility of the calm sea better than anyone else. Our supervisors are always busy and have maybe forgotten what it was like. Our families have their own issues to be getting on with. Our other groups of friends, understandably, either think we are exaggerating, or they are simply too tired of hearing about bear poop. Dear friends, I do apologise that my deepest passion is smelly and attracts flies and I know you love me anyway.
We are going to get through this like so many before us and so many after us. We are just doing a PhD.
Please understand this: the depressive, dark times don\’t last forever. We are not sad all the time. We are not even tired all of the time. And best of all, we are not all in the tunnel at the same time. So we can help each other come out of the depths, we can make each other laugh, bake cakes and do crosswords. Yes, perhaps outside that little bubble, the academic environment is not always healthy, nurturing and welcoming, but we owe it to ourselves, our fellow students and the ones to come after, to nurture what we have and use it to change the bit outside the bubble too. We need to be there for each other, from helping someone choose between affect and effect, to hugging a scientist who has been stressed to tear explosion.
There is no reason why being a scientist should mean that you agree to participate in a point-scoring game of successes and publications. This needs to be clear. We do not support a system that will not support us when we need it the most. Bu we do need support the scientists in it. We are all in this together and we are all in it because we are trying to do something good (even when your \’good\’ take the form of tiny fly smoothies in microcentrifuge tubes).
If this has inspired you in any way and you think you might understand what it might be like to follow your dreams in any scenario, think of the people you know who are trying hard to make a difference and send them a kind message. Tell them you support them, even if the system is not. Tell them that you will be patient while they are crappy friends because you know that it is important. Make them some tea when they come home tired. Support and care for the people you love. Empower them. It will only inspire you more in your own work and, perhaps, it will slowly start transforming the system.
Are you with me?