Who is your support group?

When I was 7, my school held a musical evening – a night when all the music teachers that taught different instruments came to the school and attempted to tempt kids to pick up a trumpet, or oboe, or bassoon (an if you have never seen a 7 year old with a bassoon – it’s hilarious). I had a brilliant time running around blowing on milk bottles to see if I could master the wind instruments, or trying to make a noise out of the trombone mouth piece, but it was the string instruments that drew me in – I loved the sound of the cello, but if I am short now (and I am) I was teeny then, and my hand couldn’t reach around the neck of the cello with enough strength to make the right notes. So the violin, as my second choice was it. I turned to my Mum and asked if I could take lessons. The teacher, Mr Robinson, said to my Mum:

‘Is this a commitment you can make? She will need your support to learn.’

My short lived career as a violinist - note the snazzy waistcoat and scrunchie!

My short-lived career as a violinist – note the snazzy waistcoat and scrunchie!

Since those days, I recently realised, a lot, and nothing at all have changed. Doing a PhD is, in many ways, an experience in getting to know yourself. In fact if more people chose to undertake a PhD rather than going off on a yoga retreat, we may know much more about every area of human curiosity. Also, I imagine, introducing yourself as doctor wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. But still it is something that I as an adult, an independent and (mostly) functioning member of society chose to do. And there is noting so true as saying that when you do a PhD you do it alone. But the thing I always think is that it would be so much more impossible without my amazing support network, at the front of whom are my family.

My family are always there to support me

My family are always there to support me

My family has been with me in every step that I have taken on this path, from reading my undergraduate dissertation, helping me pack to move for my first job overseas, forcing me out of bed during my brief period of unemployment in 2008 (great year to be unemployed), being my emotional, educational and financial support system through many highs and lows, to now – letting me move back in so I don’t have to live in some awful student flat! And I am not alone. One of my colleagues has been living with his cousins and their young family for over a year. Another PhD told me recently that your thesis will only be read by your Mum and your viva committee – and they were right! My Mum is going to read it!! She read my sister’s too!

This afternoon, my sister and her partner came to visit us. We had a lovely lunch, caught up on all the news, and then I tested my questionnaire on them. Yes you read right, not only did I waste some visiting time on a questionnaire, but my family is always my first testing ground when it comes to this stuff. I send my Dad my chapters. I ask my Mum to proofread my grant applications. I discuss the pros and cons of having a neutral option in a questionnaire with my sister.

Though some things never seem to change....

Though some things never seem to change….

That they let me do this, I find amazing. But that they also continue to encourage me and provide positive support whilst I angst out my results in my little selfish PhD bubble, I find spectacularly moving. I am so lucky in my family and friends. Friends who know that I won’t speak to them for months, but when I send out a facebook message saying ‘I’m in London, who is free?!” will take me for a beer and a burger. Friends who text me just to say, ‘I’m thinking of you.’ This is what you need to do a PhD, because actually – it is a commitment you need to get, you need support to learn. 

So turn to your support network, family, friends, partners, children, other PhDs – whoever they are and give them a big THANKYOU hug.

Because without them, this would be a whole lot harder.

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Losing the joy – the love/hate nature of doing a PhD

I am currently in the final stages of doing my PhD; collecting final data and attempting to write up my monster baby of a thesis, and on an almost daily basis now I am facing the reality  of completing this project. It is a well known fact that a PhD is a marathon and not a sprint – and that you have to choose your subject really carefully because it will be, in essence, the ONLY thing that you think about for between 3 and 4 years.

Now I consider myself really lucky in the way that I came to do my PhD. I’m older, have worked in ‘the real world’ and had to leave a paying job (with an independent life) to come and do this, so it was not a spur of the moment decision. I had to think long and hard about whether it was right for me – could I really be happy turning 30, when back as a student at University again? I decided, yes, I could be happy – and what’s more not only did I want this challenge, but that it was the right challenge for me. And my subject was PERFECT.

I love my subject!

I love my subject!

I love my subject. Like, really REALLY love it – I could spend all day talking about geology, and how people understand geology and how they talk to other people about geology. It’s inspiring and fascinating at the same time. It is the only subject that I could successfully do a PhD in, because to me it is (to paraphrase the Lego Movie):

‘The greatest, most interesting, most important subject of all times.’

 But today, as with many days over the last year – I also hate it.

This is a difficult thing to admit to anyone other than another PhD student, because you are not supposed to hate your subject – not least because you have given up 3 years of your life to dedicate to it, but yes hatred is definitely the right word. I hate that I constantly feel that I haven’t done enough for my data, that they are sitting there judging me, saying ‘what have you been doing with your time?! You could have completed two independent analyses of these data in the time it’s taken you to do one!’. I hate the fear that I have gotten it wrong; not my interpretation of the data (which as a scientist I accept as part and parcel of doing research), but the analysis again – did some stupid mistake skew everything I have been doing?! I hate that I have so much time and so little. I hate that the subject is not cut and dried, there are no easy numerical answers with cognition.

The tricky thing is that a lot of the things I hate, are also some of the reasons why I keep coming back to loving this. I love that my data is constantly provoking new questions or I would be bored. I love the qualitative nature of the work and, although I don’t love it, I value that my work keeps me second guessing myself so that I don’t become complacent.

I guess what it boils down to is that on a good day, my love for my topic makes it really easy to throw everything that I have at this. I’m optimistic, driven and focused. But on a bad day I hate my PhD so much that I am barely able to look at my computer and writing anything becomes like pulling my nails out. I struggle with this dichotomy. Each day I’m pushing myself more and more to finish, to make it make sense, and remember why I started this. Some days, however, are better than others.

Thesis love/hate from http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1780

Thesis love/hate from PhDComics.com

What do you think? Has anyone else struggled with the PhD love/hate relationship, and how do you deal?

In a previous post I have spoken about the value of ‘leaning in’ to my work when I am frustrated, and I still stand by this, but now also I will add that when my hatred gets too burning, a chance of scenery helps. Not digital scenery, but actually getting up and out of the house.

So if you feel the hatred taking over, try a walk? And remember – there is life outside your PhD.