Ups and downs of life as a PhD student

Myfanwy Hill in the lab
In science, as in life, it's all too easy to get stuck in a rut: a few things don't quite go to plan, and all of a sudden this seems to snowball into what can feel like an abyss of never- ending failure. Scientifically speaking, this can be a mere technical challenge; things are failing because you've got something wrong in your planning or in your understanding of the system. You try to solve the problem, identify your error and try again . . . and this fails too! Usually I find such events motivating because I like a challenge. It's not so very different from working up a tricky case, but, like that patient that just won't get better, sometimes repeated failures can become quite disheartening.

After a peak of enthusiasm at the beginning of the summer following a somewhat stressful, but ultimately successful, first year report and viva examination, I descended in to a slight scientific stupor over the summer months. I blame this in part on the excellent weather we had (in Cambridge at least). It was hard to motivate myself to sit in a dark basement when so many of my fellow PhD students were outside reading Byron in the perfumed gardens of a Cambridge college. Unfortunately, this is really more of an argument for not asking other graduate students (particularly arts grad students) for too many details about their work, and a far poorer excuse for my own inactivity.

I think I might also blame, perhaps slightly more legitimately, a degree of burnout, and the apparent intellectual paralysis that I seem to suffer following an outlay of effort and stress. I have always been one who needed a proper break after exams.

As a child, I used to sleep for a full day at the end of the exam period and then return to my (now enviable) array of activities and studies with full gusto a day later. As an undergraduate there were enforced periods of relaxation over Christmas, or a half-week between the end of exams and the start of the summer EMS treadmill, but I was never very good at planning in proper holidays. Unlike many of my friends, I didn't go backpacking around Asia, or combine a spay clinic in Greece with a Mediterranean holiday. Instead, I did more EMS, both clinical and in various labs, and had holiday jobs to earn some money. When I qualified I went straight into my first job, starting work before I had actually had my graduation ceremony, and then moved from my first job to my second, and on to my PhD with minimal downtime at each transition. The point of this is not to try to persuade you of my commitment, virtue and hard work, although I'm sure at the time I was convinced that I was making myself more employable, but more to emphasise what I am starting to suspect is naivety on my part as to my ability to just ‘power through’.

"Although I may not have produced as much work as I would have liked in the past few months, I'm glad I have recognised my limitations now and not further through my PhD"

My first year report, although routine in general timing and format, had been slightly stressful. The date and time for my viva was announced rather last minute, so I had an 11th hour scramble to prepare for it. However, the examination itself went very well and provided me with the rare opportunity of presenting my work to two academics, previously naive to my project but familiar with my field, whose goal was to examine and interrogate my data and aims, with a view to helping me shape my future directions. I regularly present data to colleagues, but it's not often I present to two experts in the field in such detail.

The outside perspectives and new ideas certainly inspired me and fuelled me with a renewed enthusiasm. Rather than jumping straight in, perhaps I should have made more careful plans to start my new investigations following a bit of a break. Instead, I jumped straight in and then trudged on operating subpar for quite a while, before realising, too late, quite how unproductive I was. My failures were almost certainly a result of poor planning and technical challenges, but also of my slightly dulled faculties and slower reasoning.

Another lesson learnt, and, yet again, not a scientific one. Holidays and breaks are important, my batteries are not everlasting. I am not superwoman, I need to recharge, take stock and relax occasionally. With our profession's mental health in the spotlight more than ever, it's important to remember that we should be aiming for positive mental and physical wellbeing, not just coping or getting by. For me, this starts with being a bit kinder to myself and slightly more realistic.

Fortunately, the ebb and flow of success and enthusiasm seems to be par for the course when it comes to PhDs. So, I had a break, went to an awesome conference, which kickstarted my passion for science and enthusiasm for my project again, just in time for the start of a new academic year. I also have the slightly daunting but largely motivating prospect of a looming deadline in early November – my first big international conference – so I had better have some interesting data to present.

All in all, although I may not have produced as much work as I would have liked in the past few months, I'm glad I have recognised my limitations now and not further through my PhD, when an ill-timed burnout could have far more serious consequences.

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