Shit I learned during my PhD

Jon Tennant just finished his PhD in paleontology. This post originally appeared on Jon’s blog, Fossils and Shit. Follow him on twitter @protohedgehog.

Doing a PhD is one of the greatest trials you will ever experience in your life. It is physically and mentally grueling, you will be challenged and pushed to the limit every single day, and the pressure levels are so high they will bust you right into the sixth dimension if you’re not prepared or strong enough.

So yeah, they are not for the faint of hearted. That is, if you want to succeed by pushing yourself to the limit, excel in everything that you apply yourself to, and grow to become more powerful than you can possibly imagine (compared to the wimpy undergrad you used to be). But I imagine you wouldn’t even be doing a PhD if this wasn’t your mentality anyway.

I’m a strong believer in committing yourself fully to something if you believe in it, and doing everything within your power to achieve your goals. A PhD is basically a 3-4 year long single project that you can, and should, dedicate yourself too. Now that I’m nearing the end of my own challenge, I wanted to share some simple things with you all that might help in some way.

1. Don’t compare yourself to other people, especially researchers
Every day, you will see other people achieving their own things. Encourage the success of others, but do not think that this means your own work has any less value. I think this competitive nature of academia is one of the main causes of Imposter Syndrome for researchers. Acknowledge that others will succeed, and that your own successes will come too. Which leads on to…

2. Be content with your successes
Celebrate all the things! Get a paper published? Awesome! Abstract accepted for that conference? You’re amazing! Get some code to run? Get a beer! Accepting that your successes, no matter how big or small, are meaningful is a great step towards acknowledging your personal worth. Both to yourself and others. That doesn’t mean rub them in other people’s faces; simply allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of completing something that meant something to yourself or others. It took me about three and a half years of my PhD to get there and realise ‘Oh. Maybe I’ve finally done something good.’, and then it was like a cascade from there where every achievement began to mean something and excite and motivate me even more. My only wish is that I’d realised this sooner.

3. Social media is a doubled-edged sword
Social media such as blogging and Twitter are amazing to learn for personal development, networking, and science communication. The negative side of this is that social media emphasises point 1 in this list. People basically pump out all of the good things in their lives, and it’s like having 1000 marginally interesting success stories pummeled into your face on a daily basis. That is not healthy, as it becomes too easy to see this as a single timeline of success that you could not possibly live up to. This is why it is so essential to know that if you do use social media, what you’re looking at is a multitude, and not a single narrative of another person’s life.

4. Challenge everything, especially that which seems normal or is the status quo
Universities are places were freedom of thought and freedom of expression are standard. Note that this doesn’t mean you are at liberty to be a dick, and simply do or say things without thinking them through. If someone tells you to do something ‘because that’s the way it is’, challenge it. Conforming to expectations is not only boring, but changes nothing. Research and academia are places to unleash yourself and your creativity in ways that you will never get in a standard workplace, and you should embrace the opportunity. Rules are meant to be broken.

5. Having a relationship during your PhD is insanely difficult
A PhD is so time consuming it’s ridiculous. When people say they work 45 hours a week, a PhD student replies “Oh it must be nice working just a part time job..” This impacts quite a bit upon the hypothetical ‘work life balance’. I’m not gonna sugar it up, there is no work-life balance. Work becomes your life. Even when you’re not working on your PhD, you’re thinking about it. Trying to reconcile this with a love life is insane. If you can find a significant other who understands this, keep them for life. If they don’t, it’ll make the relationship all the more difficult. It’s not about placing one person/thing above another, but recognising that at certain times there are certain priorities that have to take precedent.

6. Take every opportunity to travel
PhD students can be blessed with unparalleled chances to roam the planet. We get to attend conferences, workshops, talks, and do our research in some of the most exotic, weird, wonderful, and exciting places on the planet. Embrace this chance, as you probably won’t get it ever again. Never be afraid to try something or somewhere new, and embrace every opportunity as a new learning experience.

7. Take every opportunity to learn
A PhD is a learning experience. Don’t ever feel stupid for not knowing something – no-one knows everything, and the whole point of research and education is that we’re forever pushing our boundaries by discovering new things. What is obvious to some people is clearly not to others, and you should not be afraid to ask questions, or be made silly for asking them. Over the course of 3-4 years for a PhD, you will be constantly learning new things, expanding your knowledge horizons, and acquiring new skills. Some times, you won’t even recognise that you’re picking up or developing skills. Often it’s worth going out of your way to try new things: a foreign language or a new coding language, creative writing, yoga, art, baking – anything that helps you to enhance yourself.

8. Use your spare time to learn ‘secondary’ skills
By ‘secondary’, I refer to those which are not strictly to do with research. These include learning how to write for non-specialist audiences through blogging as a form of science communication, learning marketing, advocacy and community building skills as a form of networking and promotion, and social media usage in order to more effectively communicate with a diverse range of audiences. These skills are invaluable and can open up a multitude of new opportunities, and if you learn to integrate them into your daily workflows can become valuable extensions of yourself.

9. Learn to code. For the love of God learn to code
Coding is frickin’ difficult, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Some people have a knack for it, others don’t. In the modern age though, the ability to code, or at least read or execute code, is so damn important. I’ve only learned how to use a bit of R during my PhD, but this basically saved my research just by learning the basics. Websites like CodeAcademy are super duper useful for picking up coding skills, and good fun and free too.

10. Some people are assholes, and there’s nothing you can do about it
The common asshole can often be a difficult species to find. Common traits include: 1. Talking about others negatively behind their backs; 2. Only ever talking about themselves and their activities; 3. Interrupting you to tell a story that’s just oh so much better; 4. Poisoning the way you think and act so that you begin to question yourself, but not in a good way; 5. Sapping all of your time and energy to deal with them and their problems; 6. Taking everything from you, but never giving something in return. One thing I’ve learned is not to engage with people like this. People who are not helping to build you are not people to surround yourself with, and are best removed swiftly and painlessly from your life. This also accounts for serial harassers, some times even people under the facade of ‘close friends’, and those who refuse to be held accountable for the words they say and the actions they perform. There is a whole world of amazing people out there, and do not settle for people who act like shit and treat you like anything less than you deserve.

11. Be there for other people as much as you can
I might have mentioned this once or twice, but doing a PhD is fucking difficult. Some times, those most in need are those who hide it most. Learn to read the signs of when people might be struggling, and be there as a stone pillar for them when they need it most. This is just part of being a good friend, and some times for people simply knowing that someone is there for you can make all the difference.

12. Don’t sacrifice your mental or physical health for research
At Imperial College, almost every grad student I know was suffering from some sort of mental or physical health issue. Alcoholism, depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia – the list goes on. The pressures of academia are insane, and don’t kill yourself just to get out a paper or do another experiment. Everything that needs to get done will get done with time. You work more efficiently by pacing yourself. Staying healthy in body is also a path to staying more healthy in mind. I started running during my PhD, and found that after a while I was able to focus more, sleep better, and not be so damn exhausted all the time.Also, don’t over-caffeinate – quitting ten shitty cups of coffee a day was awesome, I gained the ability to think again. If you’re a coffee fan, have one or two a day strategically. Drink a glass of water in the morning as soon as you wake up, and stay hydrated during the day. Don’t binge on carbs, and try and have a healthy diet. This shit actually works, is ridiculously simple, and you’ll feel a positive difference. Meditation can also be a powerful method for clearing your mind and helping you to focus – apps like Headspace are great for starting with this.

13. Publish the shit out of your PhD as much as possible
I’ve written about this one already here.

14. Learn how to empathise with others
This is a ridiculously powerful way of thinking, and very difficult to grasp. I’m not sure I’ve got it yet fully, but is something I try all the time. My parents always used to say to me ‘treat others how you would like to be treated’, and being able to place yourselves in the shoes of others and understand their feelings is important for this. By doing so, you’ll be able to understand the problems of others more easily, and generally perceive everyday issues in life from a more enriched diversity of views. It also means that you’re not thinking about things selfishly, shallowly, or narrowly. I got sick of people in London being so self-centred about their thinking, when it came to personal and academic issues, and is actually one of the key reasons why I left London and Imperial College in the first place.

15. Learn how to think about problems from a range or perspectives
Problem solving is an intrinsic part of academia. Shockingly, problem solving is not easy, either to do with research or real life situations. Being able to consider problems from as diverse a range of perspectives as possible is a very powerful tool for understanding and resolving them. Learn to be solution-oriented, focus on the positives, and consider how other people are perceiving a situation and what the implications of this are. Follow thoughts and actions through like a web – consider all possibilities and all implications of this. Through this, often the optimal solution will emerge, and you will be braced for all possible outcomes.

16. If you recognise that you have a weakness, do everything you can to overcome it
Part of self-development is recognising that you are not perfect. Everyone has weaknesses, or parts of themselves that can improve – if you can’t think of anything, think harder, or stop being so arrogant. Learning what these traits are is the first step towards building upon them. For example, if you have an issue with approaching new people and initiating conversation, slowly build up your confidence in smaller steps by approaching groups, people who you know from social media, or by planning out the first few lines of a conversation in your head in advance. For every problem, there are a thousand solutions – you just have to find that which suits you the most!

DISCLAIMER: These views are based on my own experience, and might be utter bullshit.

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9 thoughts on “Shit I learned during my PhD

  1. I would add: Treat Yo Self.
    Accept that you’re not going to be a dynamo of productivity every day, and it can really help to call today a healthy write-off. My officemate and I would catch each other staring out the window, and declare “Movie time!”, and take off for the afternoon show. For most grad students most of the time, no one knows if you’re there or not – and no one cares, no matter how important you think you are (meetings notwithstanding). Take advantage of this and Treat Yo Self. Some days I’d be teaching in the morning and was already resigned to the fact that today, I’m just not getting all that much done on my thesis. So why sit in the office and feel inadequate? Meet friends, have a beer, do all that “secondary learning” whatevers. Christ, even go to the gym if you’re that crazy.

    I’d also advise against #16. Not every weakness is a problem. There are lots of thing you’re good at, and there are even more things you’re not good at. Don’t dwell on what you’re not good at, unless that weakness is actually holding you back in a tangible, serious way. Focus on what you’re good at instead, and become the best at it. You won’t get known (or get a job) by being OK at a lot of things, you make your name by being “the person that’s really good at X”. In theory it’s nice to be well-rounded; in practice, you want to be “the person that’s really good at X”, because hiring committees want someone good at X.

  2. Really good read! Especially liked the point on health! So many PhD students are suffering but a stay quite as to not show signs of intellectual weakness.

    Thank goodness someone else is taking notice.

  3. 17. Remember that you didn’t do it alone. There will be many support staff who have had some form of input along the way either by providing services or resources that were useful to you and your supervisors. They chose not to do a PhD because their reward was to be able to help those who put themselves through this struggle. When you get you PhD it does not give you the right to treat those who don’t have one as lesser intellects – just ones who perhaps wisely chose to avoid your self-inflicted PhD wounds. They are just as human as you, likely more so. Remember everyone who is patronised by a “Dr Bloggs” is secretly thinking what a pain in the arse he/she has become, and is giving their support to someone else who hopefully deserves it.

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