“Come along with me, misery loves company,
You’re welcome at the home of the blues.”
Johnny Cash, ‘Home of the Blues’
It’s no secret that the work of a PhD is heavy going. As candidates, we face poor health, financial drain, and the possibility of failure as standard risks for undertaking this type of project. I think everybody begins with a sense of cautious optimism, of which most are disabused by around the end of semester one. But what’s wrong with a little optimism?
It seemed no sooner had I begun but my peers (and some colleagues in higher positions!) were positively enthusing about how soon I would have a breakdown. This was not encouraging. Most of the people I was in touch with when I landed in Northern Ireland were just beginning their second year of research and several of them had had variously traumatic, difficult, and stressful first years. There are any number of reasons people may find graduate school painful, all of them completely legitimate, and conversations about these experiences are not only worthy but vital. That said, my introduction to the research community was nothing short of toxic.
Of course I’m not saying that anybody is obligated to sugarcoat their experiences for my comfort, or for any other reason, but it strikes me that to greet an enthusiastic (and probably slightly naïve) newcomer to your field with the words “This will break you,” is… well… not helpful. I’m sure to an extent this negativity is meant as an expression of solidarity, which is not entirely misplaced – after all, PhD candidates should probably prepare themselves for a degree of stress – but I’m not sure this is the best way to express solidarity with a new colleague. My new friend Ash (who I met at the Gothic Bible conference in Sheffield) said it best:
Telling someone they are doomed to fail or hurt themselves succeeding is not supportive. Academic life is hard enough without crab mentality. There has to be some way that we can express to newcomers in our disciplines that we understand and can sympathise with their unique difficulties without telling them that such difficulties are inevitable and insurmountable. It’s certainly the case that motivation will ebb and flow during the process, and we also have to give ample space to those who have had negative PhD experiences, but it’s also important to affirm and celebrate the things that are great about PhD research. Even when the work is at its most Sisyphean, it’s worth doing. If this post finds you frustrated with the toxic negativity of a PhD community that won’t let you enjoy the optimistic excitement of things going well, let me say to you that your joy at having made it here is worth celebrating! The stress you will more than likely experience before this is over is perfectly legitimate! And above all, it is all absolutely, eventually, survivable. I did it. You can too.
And more than survivable, you could even find yourself enjoying it. It’s not everybody who gets to spend three-plus years developing a new and original piece of research. It’s awesome. You’re awesome. Don’t let the crab claws let you down.