The PhD experience is a series of wild oscillations between feeling gloriously competent and wildly out of your depth. These oscillations occur on a semi-hourly basis when you begin, lengthen out to months somewhere in the middle, then rapidly shrink back to hourly, if not half-hourly, as you reach the end.
Doing a PhD is hard.
I have a very healthy work/life balance. A little too healthy, if you were to ask my supervisor. I do a lot of exercise, training acrobatics or trapeze (you know, regular gym activities). I regularly go for dinner and drinks with my boyfriend, friends, and colleagues. I spend my spare “non-activity” evenings chilling out in front of Netflix with my flatmates. I have a network of friends and family who are all incredibly supportive. I don’t have any pre-existing medical or mental health issues. I don’t have children or dependents. My PhD is still hard.
A PhD is like Tough Mudder, a 12 mile obstacle course through mud, ice, and barbed wire. You start out fresh faced and ready to go. You’re looking forward to the challenge, and your team is with you. There’s banter as you jog along, and the first few obstacles aren’t so tricky. But then you come to a big one. Arctic Enema, a.k.a. the ice-bucket challenge on steroids, a.k.a. your first-year viva. You hesitate, it seems scary and unpleasant, but your teammates psych you up, you force yourself through it, and you realise it wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought.
You’re feeling pretty good, refreshed by the ice-water. There are obstacles ahead, including some bloody massive ones, but they seem less threatening, more manageable…
But then they just keep coming, and coming, and coming. You start to get really tired. Everything becomes more difficult with each (metaphorical) hurdle.
Your knees hurt and you just want to lie down with a G&T.
I have a healthy work/life balance, but doing PhD still encroaches on my personal life. I returned from a mini-break to Ireland recently, landing at midnight on Sunday, and I had to rush off to the lab to prepare some samples for the next (same?) day. Luckily, I have a wonderful partner who is at the same stage of PhD as me, so he understands. But when you stop and think about it, those moments all add up. I can count on three hands the number of times I’ve had my weekend plans interrupted by “ooh I’ve just got to pop into the lab”.
No matter where you are, in the back of your mind the PhD is always crouched, whispering sweet nothings to you, and making you feel guilty for not being at work.
The worst part is, I keep telling myself it should be easy. All I have to do is go into the lab, do a few experiments, and then write down my results! So easy!
So why then, when crunch time comes, I can’t do it?
Instead of going into the lab, I sit at my desk thinking about going into the lab. Instead of writing up, I think about writing. I am periodically fluctuating between I’ve got this! My results are good! I am an awesome PhD student! and everything is awful, my results are terrible, I should just quit now.
Sometimes I have a result but can’t work out what the hell it means. In conferences, I often feel like an imposter when I don’t seem to feel as wildly enthusiastic about research as everyone else. During research presentations, I find it incredibly difficult to focus, let alone come up with questions.
Doing a PhD is hard, and all of those things are just the less hard bits.
The whole time you are doing a PhD, you are dreading the final obstacle (we’re back to Tough Mudder imagery). Electroshock Therapy, a.k.a. running through wires charged with 10,000 volts of electricity, a.k.a. your Thesis.
You finally reach the edge. You stand there, thinking, there is no way I can do this. How do I even build up the courage to start?? Meanwhile, you watch your friends and colleagues go through and it looks awful. They suffer, and you think, why on earth am I about to put myself through this?? This is madness. But then you see them come out the other side, and they look so happy, so relieved, and you think, maybe it is worth it, and you take a step… and immediately get shocked in the leg.
Everybody knows that PhDs are hard. There is a reason why it’s the highest level of academic qualification you can get. What I am coming to realise, as I reach the end of mine, is that it is hard no matter what. The internet is full of tips and tricks on how to manage stress, maintain a work/life balance, etc., but there is a lack of reassurance that even if you do all of these things, it is still hard. That’s why I am writing this.
Your PhD was always going to be hard, and that’s okay.
Sometimes I get a bit disheartened thinking about how my PhD hasn’t yielded the world-changing results a small part of me hoped it would. But then I remember that while yes, the final thesis is a large part of doing a PhD, it is not the main aim (ignore your supervisor). When I think back to when I first started, I realise I have gained so many skills. I am more confident (those who know me will say that’s an impressive feat). I feel more secure in myself as a person. I’ve gained organisational skills, diplomacy skills, people skills, teaching skills, writing skills, reading skills. I’ve gained the ability to get through a meeting while giving the illusion that I understand what’s going on.
A PhD is about building yourself as a person.
So yes, doing a PhD is hard (did I mention that..?). And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure if it will all be worth it. But if I had the chance to start it all over again, I would (probably) still do it.
I am writing to you because I feel that I need to get something off my chest. I’d have done this in person but you are a collective of thousands of people and it seems unlikely that I can persuade you all to meet me at a coffee shop to ‘talk’.
We’ve had a complicated relationship over the years. From the first time we met and you were trying to sell a dizzying array of lab consumables I knew that our relationship was going to be long and filled with exciting challenges.
We’ve danced back and forth between you trying to sell me suff I need, me trying to buy stuff I need, you trying to sell me other stuff and me trying to get you out the door as quickly as possible.
I’ll always think fondly of those times when you’ve actually had the thing I wanted available and I’ve been able to give you money for it.
But it’s not all been sales and smiles. Many times you’ve let me down and promised me things that have turned out to be the science equivalent of a unicorn made of chocolate. In several cases you’ve actually offered me chocolate but I’m still waiting on the unicorn.
However, not amount of unicorn promises and impossibly high quotes can make it okay for the way I’ve treated you. They way I’ve repeatedly ghosted and blanked you for months at a time.
Countless times I’ve contacted you for quotes or even just to check you sell a product and almost always you’ve replied with information. Not always the information I was asking for but you were trying.
In return I’ve replied with deafening silence.
You’ve persevered with continued e-mails including subjects such as “Did you get my quote okay?” and “Was this helpful”. Reaching out to me just to make sure I was happy.
Again I replied with nothing.
This kind of behaviour by me is totally unacceptable. You’ve put yourself out there with your quote or helpful link to a incomprehensible ordering page and I’ve used you and moved on with my work.
I can try and explain this kind of behaviour.
I’m busy with countless other researcher’s things. I have other e-mails that filled up my inbox. There are lots of sales people contacting me and I can’t possibly find time to reply to you all. My project changed, to something else and I don’t need to know the answer to that any more. The money I thought I had was used up and now I don’t want to buy anything.
But each of the reasons somehow make me sound even worse! Combined it comes across like I don’t care about your e-mail, I’m seeing other sales people behind your back, I’m asking questions I don’t really need answered and even if you answer I can’t spend any money anyway. Which in my defence is only mostly accurate most of the time!
Where do we go from here? Well, I’m not sure I can promise to stop ghosting you. I feel terrible about it and I hope you realise that I don’t mean to be so cruel.
So I ask, can you please forgive me. If you can somehow see past all of this and find that forgiveness, then can you look deeper still into your heart and maybe, just maybe, find me an extra 10% discount? That would be great.
Whether you’re a science communication professional, a scientist or simply a science-enthusiast, social media is one of the best places to go for your science fix. But with thousands of potential ways to digest online content, how do you know what to look at without becoming overwhelmed?
There are a few ways you can break it down: how much time you have, how you like taking in information, what exactly you’re looking for… and even that list is beginning to feel overwhelming! So in this post I hope to be able to give you a little guide for how navigate the thick soupy waters that is science on social media.
Which social media channel?
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, blogs… the list is almost endless. Unless there’s something or somebody you’re really keen to hear from on a social media channel you don’t already use, you may as well stick with what you know.
Different social media channels are suited to specific things. The most commonly used ones are: YouTube for videos (can vary widely in length/quality/style); Twitter for short snippets of info (but can also link to further content); Facebook for shorter or longer pieces of content; Instagram for visually-orientated posts; blogs for longer reads.
On Twitter and Instagram you can also search for content by using a hashtag e.g. #science – so you can find posts from you people you may not necessarily follow or have heard from before. This is a great way to find new stuff!
So aside from which ones you already use, it’s worth thinking about what kind of content you’re after. For example, I don’t know why but I always forget about YouTube, and there’s some awesome stuff on there – from exam revision-style content and how-to videos to more casual vlog (video-blog) content from science communicators.
What are you looking for?
This requires first knowing what’s out there – do you want to get information directly from an active researcher? A news outlet? A reporter? A fellow science-enthusiast? Do you purely want the hard facts or are you interested in the personal lives of scientists too?
If you’re new to following science stuff on social media I’d suggest looking at as many different people and styles as you can. That way you can begin to filter out the users and content types that don’t engage you as much, and your social media feed will become tailored to what you like.
For a bit of personal life and science stuff mixed, following scientists and researchers on Twitter and Instagram works best and is often really interesting. People still often forget that scientists have a personal and social life! That said, if you prefer just the science content, there are scientist and science-specific news accounts on Twitter who just do that. YouTube is great for more in depth science content, often from science communicators, and blogs can cover a bit of both.
How much time do you have?
Once you know a little bit more about what social media channels you’re happy using and what type of stuff you like, this is a key one that will determine where to get your science fix.
Very little (e.g. you’ve taken your phone with you to the loo): Have a quick scroll through Twitter or Instagram depending on if you want some words or some pictures! You can bookmark any longer reading that’s been linked to for later.
A few minutes (e.g. you’re waiting for a train): Perhaps have a look through Twitter or Facebook and click on a link that interests you, give it a skim and see if you might want to read more later. Instagram posts often have fairly lengthy captions so you could head there for some more in-depth Instagram time.
A bit longer (e.g. your experiment has gone wrong and you need a bit of time out before you attempt it again): There are some nice short videos on YouTube, or you could look through Twitter for any of those longer read links you bookmarked earlier.
Half an hour or so (e.g. your lunch break): If you’re subscribed to any blogs (like this one!) you can read their latest posts, or you can look at the channels you’re subscribed to on YouTube for their latest videos. I find that if you scroll through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook for this long you reach saturation point pretty quickly; but you might be different!
An entire evening: Kudos to you for dedicating your whole evening to learning some science. In this instance I’d actually suggest sticking a documentary on the telly with a nice cuppa or a glass of wine. Enjoy!
And last week we had a wonderful guest blog post from Dr Victoria Stafford, who after seeing the photo of Dr Katie Bouman’s face as the first photo of a black hole was processed, wanted to write about how science is full of wonder, and working in it is amazing. Hear, hear. Thanks for a great post, Toria!
If you’re interested in writing a guest post for us, please do get in touch!
Dr Katie Bouman. If you have been on the internet and looked at any science content this week you will know that name. Dr Bouman played a critical part in developing the algorithm that enabled us to successfully obtain an image of a black hole for the first time by assembling the data collected by eight radio observatories.
If you have heard the name you have probably also seen the picture of Bouman’s face released by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT of the first time the data to form said picture as part of the Event Horizon Telescope Imaging team was processed. That look of wonder and astonishment at what she had achieved has been filling our screens, and rightly so. It is not every day years of hard work pays off to get such an incredible result.
Now not all of us can have a breakthrough as ground-breaking as Dr Bouman and the teams involved, but that wonder and astonishment is something that under the pressures of modern-day academia (and the ‘publish or perish’ environment it presents) seems to have been forgotten.
Time and time again I have seen people get so wrapped up in the details that anything they achieve, small or large, doesn’t emote the kind of response it should.
When I was younger and I envisioned myself working in a lab, being a “proper chemist” in a white lab coat and lab specs, I saw myself having this same sense of wonderment at every single reaction that I put on no matter the outcome. I was that excited just at the thought of doing something that someone had never done before, the prospect of finding out something new, and the notion that I would be advancing human knowledge even if it was not a positive result as there was still something to be learnt from what I had done.
I lost sight of this during my PhD but there are a few who do still have this sense of wonderment at what they achieve in the lab, my partner being one of them. Every new result, whether it is what he tried to make or not, gets that same reaction although sometimes accompanied by a sigh or two, and we can learn something from that.
I am not saying that we should all act like little children opening presents on a birthday or at Christmas over every single thing we do, but we should take a bit more time to allow ourselves to celebrate getting a result that may have been days, weeks or months in the making.
Too often “imposter syndrome’ or a similar such feeling makes us feel guilty for celebrating, or that whatever we have done is not good enough because X, Y or Z could have been done better. We need to ignore that and allow ourselves to feel that sense of pride and achievement so obvious as you look at the face of Dr Bouman.
Looking back at my time in the lab as I prepare to move on after recently finishing my PhD, I keep coming back to this feeling and thinking that if I do end up moving away from the bench I will not get that feeling again and it keeps me wanting to stay in research.
After all, even if you don’t get the result you were hoping for, synthesise something you were not planning to, or crystallise a by-product instead of your desired product, in all likelihood you are the first person in the world to do that. Sometimes we just need a little reminder that working in science, whatever field you are in, is pretty incredible. Even at Masters research or PhD level you are doing something no one else is likely to be doing, and we as scientists are pretty awesome because of it.
I have a confession. Despite years of terrible paper work, awful online training, tedious training days and being very sarcastic online I am actually a stickler for health and safety (H&S to cool people). I like being alive and I like that some people have spent quite a lot of time thinking of ways I might accidentally kill myself and then explaining that I shouldn’t do those things.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of H&S rules that are eye brow-raisingly weird and pointless. To this day I don’t understand why my 40 ul vial of colourless antibody solution had to be looked at by a vet on import for ‘safety assessment’. But for the vast majority you can understand why they exist.
For example, one of the simplest and to me most reasonable is no food and drink in the lab.
Firstly, labs contain lots of pretty horrible things and often horrible things that you might not actually be aware of. Mostly, the horrible things aren’t all that horrible if they are kept outside your body, and skin is pretty effective at making sure that things stay out or at the very least just do a bit of surface damage.
Sticking stuff into your body while in the lab gives the horrible things a nice easy route past your skin and right down into your horrible thing-phobic organs. It’s kind of like the city of Troy not waiting for the Trojans to build a horse but going out and buying one themselves and then dragging it into the city. Maybe they manage to drag it inside without it filling up with Trojans but why take the risk when they can wait until the Trojans have got back on their boats to write very long books and THEN go buy themselves a nice wooden horsey.
Secondly, humans are frankly disgusting when we eat food. Unless we try very hard indeed it’s practically impossible to eat any food without some small crumb, flake or micro drop flying from our mouths. Most people can be very tidy and there will be barely any crumbs etc at all. Most adults manage a half decent job of this but to get none is an almost impossible feat. We are, a best, only good enough to not drop big crumbs, short of eating with a microscope we tend to miss the rest.
For you personally dropping crumbs is at best food wastage. But for the horrible things it is not something you want happening. Mostly the horrible things in labs will sit very happily without being all that horrible if you leave them alone. But some horrible things get very excited when you add extra bits to them. High powered lasers, for example, get really quite agitated if you add crumbs and become ‘fiesty’. It can also be hard to tell if your testing of the horrible things is causing a change in the horrible thing or if the doughnut you just dropped into it is.
Both of these seem somewhat obvious and hopefully in reading this you are nodding along going “yup, makes sense”. Although, I’m aware lots of you won’t be because…
I keep constantly seeing people eating in the god damned lab!
No experimental setup is improved by bits of blueberry muffin and no blueberry muffin is improved by being dunked in PBS buffer. Testing that theory isn’t science, trust me, it’s been tested… extensively. I know it’s hard to got literally any time at all without a bag of crisps or flat white mocha decaf soy latte but can we all please collectively agree that we don’t eat them in the lab!
This will sometimes means going without snacks for upwards of 2 hours but people often say science requires sacrifice and that sacrifice is your ability to snack constantly. If that is too high a price to pay then I suggest you switch to a subject where your snacking won’t either kill you or cause something the fire-brigade will later describe as “the incident”.