Preface

I share my story mostly because I thought I would not suffer during my PhD. But I did. I thought it would be hard. I knew it would be stressful. I was not prepared for the reality of the situation. I am not sure any preparation could have been enough. I am not sure what I could have done differently.

I want to share this with students to remind them why a work life balance is important. I share this with supervisors to remind you how hard it is to do a PhD.

I think I have had a good PhD experience. I can't imagine how hard it must be for those who consider themselves to have had a bad PhD experience.

I am giving you access to things about myself I am not proud of. I am not proud of being so stubborn and determined that I put my heath at risk. I am not proud that I let is get so bad that I broke down at my desk in the middle of the day. I am not proud that I shut myself from everyone I care about and had tunnel vision for my PhD.

However I am proud of my ability to raise my hand and say that the last six months of my PhD really sucked. I think we do not talk enough about how hard things get sometimes. There is no strength in hiding your weaknesses.

Is there a standard PhD experience?

During my time as a PhD student I asked a lot of questions about other peoples PhD experience. Mostly directed at post-docs and recently completed students. I wanted to be armed with as much information as I could get about how the last year and in particular what the write up felt like. I know that I have a propensity to stress about things. I know I am the type of person to put blinkers on and focus on the task at hand. I wanted to know if it is actually as bad as I thought it would be.

What I have leant is that everyone has a unique PhD experience. Different challenges. Different problems. Different levels of success.

After collecting many stories about individual PhD experiences I have come to realise that there are in general only two types of PhDs that people talk about. The good and the bad. Maybe there are more and people are not sharing their stories.

The good read like a synopsis. It was a challenging, rewarding and a great achievement. You have all heard these stories too. I don't disagree with them. But these descriptions often came from people how did their PhD many years previously.

Those who more recently completed and had a good experience say that it was really enjoyable to have the security of a job, with the freedom to do their own research, often challenging and that there were points in time in which they struggled but ultimately it was worth it.

Then there are the horror stories. I admire people who share the horror stories.

I have heard stories of a supervisor that refuse to work with them, locked them out of their labs and would not engage with them at all. Others whose supervisor relationship breaks down and they need to start again with a new supervisor.

Supervisors that move country soon after they start their project. Projects that go nowhere and you get lost in the tunnel trying to find them. People who quit within the first year because they can't make sense of how to make a PhD fit into their lifestyle or maybe that are scared by the horror stories like I have described.

Why I am writing this blog.

Some people talk about the hard times during their PhD but I think for many people time bends the emotions into something less raw. We filter ourselves when we describe what we are going through for fear that other will see us as weak. I too am like this. I worry that by sharing my experience I will seem weak. What I am starting to realise is that it takes strength to acknowledge our weaknesses and courage to talk about them.

I write this knowing my supervisor will read it. Which feels weird after I spent a long time hiding the fact that I was struggling from him. I think he suspected I was having a hard time but I don't think he had any idea how much. I think in hindsight I should have opened up more with him. As you can tell I felt ashamed to admit it when things were not good. I was not depressed. But I would say that I needed help and took too long to ask for it.

I write this knowing my husband and family will likely read it. I know that what I write will hurt them. I know that they will be sad that I suffered and tried to hide it.

I write this knowing that future employees may read this. I write this knowing that my PhD examiners may in fact come across this too.

I write this because there are some things you would not say to people in person because its a bit too personal. For example, no one tells you what it feels like to sit at your computer while your body is telling you it can't suffer the idea of one more minute. People also neglect to mention how much weight they put on. Maybe a few kg. Maybe a lot more.

I write this knowing that I am letting people into my head, which is a rather daunting prospect. I am sharing my experience for a number of reasons. I want to tell others things I wish I knew a year ago, caution people of the mistakes I made and to talk about the bad times without filtering them.

I was told not to look at my PhD now that it is submitted as I will see things I am not happy with. Excellent advice. I won't even begin to describe the cold sweets that I feel about not doing x, y or z. Did I correct that sentence? Did I add that reference? It is a truly awful feeling. I am still trying hard to ignore it. Trying and failing.

I submitted my PhD a week ago. I think I need at least a month to get over the experience. More than likely longer. This is my honest and raw story of finishing my PhD.

Continue to the next part of this blog: the good. »