PhD students are a miserable bunch. Or at least, I’m worried that’s how we must come across to the rest of the world. When asked ‘How’s the PhD going?’ there are a few standard responses:
• ‘I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing’ (during first 12 months)
• ‘stuck out in the field/lab’
• ‘chained to a computer running analysis/data/entry’
• ‘struggling to finish a chapter/paper before a deadline’
• silently shudder and die a little inside (anywhere after 3 years)
Overall, we might give the impression that doing a PhD is not particularly enjoyable. Why do we make it all sound so bad? Perhaps it just feels more natural for us to focus on the bad than the good. For example, while I quite enjoy writing, as a PhD student I feel like it’s a chore that I’m duty-bound to complain about (e.g. ‘argh! I’m chained to my desk and haven’t seen the sun in days, woe is me’). It’s common for students close to finishing to say ‘they can see the light at the end of the tunnel’, making it sound like they’ve suffered through a tortuous three (or more) years and will soon come out the other side a happier, fully grown researcher. Sometimes I get the sense that we are supposed to be permanently stressed and the ‘crash and burn’ stage is a mandatory rite of passage.
But a PhD is not a zombie apocalypse to be survived. We chose it. In fact, we fought hard to get in, presumably because we enjoy it. And some pretty awesome things happen along the way. You get to travel all over the world meet the ‘celebrities’ in your field who soon become good friends. My very first trip overseas was for a conference, and since starting I’ve been to the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, the USA and New Zealand. There are grants and awards up for grabs, and societies chock-a-block full of like-minded people to join. You can get your work published and share it with the world. Hell, one of my friends just got published in Nature! (I am insanely jealous). People even finish on time and go on to get great post-doctoral positions. Imagine that!
True, things will happen that can put a kink in carefully laid plans. Equipment may fail or be delivered six months late, your study species may be uncooperative, computers crash mid analysis, and field sites are subject to natural disasters (yes, most of these have happened to me). And there are plenty of tasks along the way that, well, suck. Traipsing through the bush in the middle of the night and accidentally putting your face through the web of an orb weaver spider is a good example of this. Still, I’ve never regret taking a PhD on and, in spite of any arachnid-related setbacks, I really, really enjoy it.
There’s no harm in a good vent. After all, nothing builds camaraderie like shared misfortune (especially if it’s shared at a bar over drinks and nachos). But as with all things, moderation is the key. If we get too caught up in the negatives, it’s easy to lose heart, lose interest and permanently adopt the foetal position. Yes, your PhD will be hard. This is only because you are doing something that nobody else has done before. That’s why you thought it would be exciting in the first place, remember? You know you love it – don’t be afraid to say it aloud.