The state of mind dilemma

How many times have you heard that doing a PhD is hard? That people end up depressed? That they quit because of isolation, mental health issues, life changes, or something else. That the PhD student is a tortured figure, working hard and feeling like they’re getting nowhere, struggling with imposter syndrome, suffering under the current lack of job opportunities, with no money, and despairing about their future? Because basically that seems to be the only narrative that I hear about doing a PhD.

I see a lot of advice out there for new PhD students that addresses ways of dealing with the above things, and that’s great… but I feel that it also leads to an expectation of the PhD process being all doom and gloom. This just doesn’t agree with my experience. I don’t mean to say that it isn’t hard. It is hard. I struggle with it a lot, and lots of things have gone wrong, and have caused me difficulty emotionally, mentally, and so on.

But I am happy.

Being at university again, being at a level where I can really engage with my interests, has just been the best decision I have made. I get to talk to world-famous scholars and discuss my ideas with them. I have people that actually care about my opinion on issues. I learn about new research, and new applications for research all the time. All the while, I am developing something that I feel passionate about, and I am keen to share with the world.

I have bad days. My research hasn’t been going well lately, and I’ve frankly been avoiding it in favour of the journal article and the other things. I’ve been struggling with motivation – even just for reading; and I have no idea how to develop a plan for all the other publications and things that I need to do to develop a career.

When I talk to others about my research though – especially when it’s other students – I always feel that I have to answer about all the bad things that are happening. As if being happy is a taboo way to be when you’re doing a PhD. I feel like the thing to do is to show your battle scars, talk about how much you’re struggling, and how much you’ve sacrificed to be in this position. Talk about how busy you are and so on. There’s an element there that I really don’t like – that because you’re struggling so much, and still showing up, you’re better. The better PhD student. I hate that.

From talking to other students, there are so many different requirements for being a PhD student across disciplines, and also across people. For me, I have found that engaging with the university community, getting involved in professional development, attending lecture series, and socialising with other students has been the best way for me to be doing a PhD. I go to as many conferences as I can. For other students though, I can see how this wouldn’t work. I love to be busy.

I love to have lots of things on, even though I complain about it incessantly. With that statement, I realise that I am stating something contrary to the things I was saying before. But the problem to me is not that people do it, it’s that I feel obligated to do it around others. I want to talk about the positive things too sometimes. But I feel like my successes are taboo, and my struggles are the only things that matter.

I have so many things going on. I feel overwhelmed at times. I am very unsure about my ability to do these things. I have never had a conference paper rejected. I have run workshops for teachers. I have great conversations with people. I have worked out some really tough problems with my research design. I’ve made a number of great friends. I feel like my work is well below standard. I feel like I am so far behind where I need to be.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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