Six months ago, while writing my thesis, I had a meltdown. I was frustrated learning to use a new data-visualization software, Cytoscape, and found myself on the receiving end of less than glowing feedback from my supervisor on a draft chapter of my thesis. My defences were low and the frustration gave way to stress and, eventually, tears.
Since I began graduate school, the people in my life have been divided into two categories: those who understand what undertaking a PhD is like and those who don’t. Even after three years, I still have friends who are surprised that I consider my PhD work to be a full-time job, and that my week includes various meetings, contradicting their idea of timetable-driven, semester-based ‘student’ life.
I think the act of doing a PhD is often misunderstood, and we, the academic community, have only ourselves to blame. Many of us are guilty of sugar-coating our experiences. We gush over our love of our chosen field, and are enthusiastic about our research, exciting results and the opportunities we get to travel internationally to share them. But we do little to describe the lows.
Do our friends and family truly understand the constancy with which we are expected to learn, process and put into practice new ideas and techniques? That we can spend weeks researching and planning an experiment for the first time, timidly perform it over the course of several days and wait longer for the results, only to realize that the experiment was a failure? Do they understand that repeated and costly failure, mixed with a ‘pressure-to-publish’ culture, is a cocktail for stress, disappointment, frustration and self-doubt?
As a PhD candidate, I’m more invested in my graduate studies than in any other study I’ve done before. Not to alarm those touting work–life balance (it is very important), but my PhD is my life. For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.
To achieve this, we need to educate them about the lows and be explicit when describing our needs. PhD students must be noisier when asking for help.
In that spirit, here’s what I need from my friends and family:
• Understand that a PhD is not easy. We aren’t ‘really smart’; we just work really hard.
• There are many highs and lows. Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world.
• Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process. Remind us we are still students.
• Encourage us when we are puzzling over a protocol or wrangling with how to analyse a new set of data — it can help us to overcome our self-doubt, because we often forget that we are skilled enough to have been accepted into our programmes to begin with.
• Please don’t ask us when we’ll finish and what life after graduate school holds — we might not know yet, and that can be scary. We will tell you when we know. There are a lot of unknowns; instead, tell us you will be there no matter how it turns out.
Back at my desk, calling my mum in tears, she asked me what I was stressed about. I sniffed before dramatically exclaiming, “Everything!” There was no specific reason for my stress that day. It really was everything: a culmination of the entire PhD experience compressed into the tiny pinpoint of that particular day.
We don’t know if our next experiment will work, if we’ll finish on time, if our next paper will be rejected or if we will even have permanent jobs when it’s all done and dusted. Some days, our resilience can waver and a multitude of stressors that hover on the periphery can come bearing down on us. On those days when we waver — as people do in any profession — we need our loved ones to empathize deeply, and remind us that tomorrow is a new day.