Loving the PhD life

The PhD can offer some distinct lifestyle benefits. In this post is by Cassandra Wardle. Cassandra is a PhD student in the Griffith University School of Environment, the HDR representative for Griffith University, and an intern at the Australian Academy of Science. You can find Cassandra on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/cassandrawardle/ Cassandra has lived through her fair share of ups and downs during the PhD. Like a lot of people, she’s managed conflicting priorities and stresses. But in this post she wants to focus on the positive for a change – where is the good in all those downsides?

I recently saw a psychologist to help with time management, stress management and to get better at ‘saying no’ (ie: how to do it). When I told her that I was a PhD student the psychologist actually laughed and said, “There’s no getting around it, these will be the most stressful years of your life”.

The PhD is stressful. These are words I hear often, both from fellow students and academics alike. And they are phrases I find myself repeating to family and friends, justifying why I was late, once again, to an event. But overall, I love my PhD.

The two competing mindsets can be confusing, to me and to others. I often see perplexed looks when I list everything on this week’s ‘to do’ list to someone and follow it up with: “but I love it!”.

When talking with my friends and fellow students (i.e. complaining about how time poor we are over beers at the uni bar at 2pm on a Wednesday), we agreed that if you look past the constant 60+ hour work week, the lack of sleep, the stress that we’ll never finish, the stress that we might finish and have to work ‘a real job’, the stress that we’ll never actually find a job due to the increasing number of graduates and shrinking job market… there are a lot of things to love about this lifestyle.

So for those that need a little help digging through the anxiety, stress and self-doubt to find the positives, here are the top 10 things I love about my PhD (in no particular order) with the hope they will inspire you to think about your top 10.

    1. It feels amazing to know I’m not ‘stuck in a dead-end job’, and I always feel positive about my career and professional development.
    2. I often work from home, in my pyjamas, with The Simpsons on in the background (I’ve seen seasons 1-12 so many times that it’s now become a way to support myself financially by winning drink vouchers at Simpsons trivia comps).
    3. I get to tailor my project in such a way as to learn specific new skills that I haven’t yet had a chance to develop. This has ranged from interview skills to stats techniques to presenting in front of a wide range of audiences.
    4. I cook a delicious breakfast every morning (eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, the works). As someone who is notoriously late (no matter how early I get up) and whose morning routine fits 100% into Parkinson’s Law, I’m enjoying this before I have a boss who pays attention to when I get into the office each day.
    5. Because the PhD lifestyle often conflicts with ‘normal’ 9-5 working hours, my schedule is flexible and my time is entirely my own. I can break up my day by going to the gym at midday, I can grocery shop at odd times when the shops are less busy, and I can wake up at 10am (and then work til 3am) if I feel so inclined. This flexibility has also allowed me to play with my work schedule and find the times of day I’m most productive (10pm it turns out, unfortunately).
    6. The additional research assistant jobs I’ve accepted to supplement my scholarship have provided me with amazing networking and funding opportunities – and a glimpse into research areas quite different from my thesis.
    7. On occasion I get to travel to some pretty cool places for free (and by ‘free’ I mean undertaking the terror-inducing task of presenting my findings to international audiences at conferences and continually cringing internally at my awkward attempts to network).
    8. I don’t have time to have the quarter-life crisis that many of my non-PhD friends are having.
    9. I get to continually apply this misattributed Hemingway quote: “write drunk, edit sober”.
    10. And, most importantly, I get to spend every day exploring a topic that I love, with the hope that my work will make a small contribution to both the academic literature and to the world.
I completely understand the stressors that many students face, and as the PhD student rep at my university I have seen a lot of the challenges of a PhD first hand. We’re all overworked, underpaid and stressed out perfectionists with imposter syndrome. Given recent findings about mental health issues among PhD students, many things need to change. Of course, universities and supervisors have a large role to play, but perspective is also important.
The results of our projects may be unclear, our sanity tentative, and our future career prospects after PhD vague; but ‘when nothing is certain everything is possible’. I have no idea where my PhD will take me – but that’s incredibly exciting!

Thanks Cassandra! What about you? What would be in your top ten list of things to love about the PhD?

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27 thoughts on “Loving the PhD life

  1. Ouch. Yes. As someone with dependents and a complicated financial situation this was hard to read. But it is important to find the positives – they’re also different for someone with dependents and a complicated financial situation 🙂 Different, but still there (I can’t drink beers at 2pm, nor write at my most productive time of day; school pick up time .

    • I tend to agree- this one hurt a bit. This sounds like the dream PhD experience for me! I appreciate the additional obligations I have on my time because I believe it makes me a more productive researcher/academic (as opposed to my friends who struggle to find the motivation to write against the call of endless Netflix, midday drinks, and abstract deadlines), but it’s certainly hard. The sentiment expressed in this article doesn’t align with my experience of higher degree study.

      • Hi Ladoco and Amy – author of the post here – just wanted to let you both know that the lead in sentence to the start of this article was added by an editor and does not accurately reflect my situation. I’ve requested that it be modified or removed. The PhD experience can be very different for everyone, and I assure you that mine has been full of many challenges. I’m sorry that this post caused you both some pain – it is not intended to portray my candidature as the dream PhD experience, but is instead highlighting ‘some tiny positives’.

  2. I’m early in the process and, like “Ladoco” almost none of this applies to my situation. I almost wish I had undertaken a PhD when I was still footloose and fancy free (and didn’t know what having a real income felt like:). However I wouldn’t have been ready then and I wasn’t even working in this field. Attending seminars, it strikes me how many different ways and ages people come to the PhD process.

    I also have young children and a very regimented life. I can’t drink in the afternoons, wake or work when I wish, and choosing to do a PhD has added pressure to all our lives. However, I find it helpful to think about the ways in which I can find joy in the process. I’m still hunting for all of them. It feels such an indulgence to be able to dedicate years of my life to this process, so I try to remember gratitude.

  3. I also had dependents when I did my PhD, but I still loved it. I was very disciplined and stuck to a schedule, and that meant I had time for the kids. What I loved was cycling to campus, which became my default form of exercise. I did some of my best thinking on that bike. Since starting an office job, I don’t like to cycle as the showering etc takes too much time out of my day. As a PhD student, I didn’t bother with becoming presentable after my ride to uni. I also liked that my kids could see me doing something that wasn’t focused on them. I think that’s important, and I think they became more respectful as a consequence.

  4. I worked 2 jobs for the last bit of my PhD, but the freedom was awesome. No dependents, and although I had a mortgage, it was in a very affordable place so my PhD scholarship, plus a few side jobs covered it, allowed me to have some savings and enjoy life. My prime writing time was 11pm to 2am unfortunately (and still is, but real world 9-5 work means I am generally asleep during this time).

  5. “I completely understand the stressors that many students face”.

    I think the world of a PhD student in their mid 20s and more mature students (like me) is vastly different – we can’t really say we understand other people’s situations unless we have lived it.

    I don’t have dependents, but I do have a mortgage, a partner, aging parents and work obligations (outside of the university),which mean constantly shifting deadlines and re-setting priorities. Staying in a PhD mindset on a daily basis is almost impossible when you need to shift gears, respond to and do “work” for people outside of the academic environment. Working on a PhD full time is like a dream. Working whenever it suits or going to the pub at 2pm – forget it.

    The positives – I think as an older student with significant work and life experience I have a more acute sense of what I know and do not know, which probably makes me more critical of my work but also more conscious of who I am writing for as I am trying to reach the business and academic world.

    Also, due to my work experience and previous education I have already developed quite a few skills necessary for the PhD experience- this makes some parts a little easier to get through.

    It would be great to see more recognition and support for mature students in similar situations. The difficulty is getting access to us as we often do not have the time to participate as student representatives or in sessions designed to support students.

    • Hi Donna, author of the post here. Just wanted to let you know that the lead in sentence to the start of this article was added by an editor and does not accurately reflect my situation. I’ve requested that it be modified or removed. The PhD experience can be very different for everyone, and I assure you that mine has been full of many challenges including work commitments, voluntary committees, partners, disabilities, etc. This post is not intended to portray my candidature as the dream PhD experience, but is instead highlighting ‘some tiny positives’.

  6. I sometimes feel like I missed out during my PhD experience – though I started my PhD straight out of my undergrad degree, I was also working a professional and extremely demanding job part-time, while working full-time on my PhD. I am extremely glad that other people get this experience, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the norm. (Also, I am a nurse, so I never even got a “normal” undergraduate experience!)

    I have a better post-PhD job than I would have without the professional clinical experience, so it did work out in the end.

  7. I too am a mature age PhD student (51), but I feel like a teenager in that I have had to put all my possessions in storage and live in a house-share with my dog and two other people. I really miss having my own place! I too cycle to uni (20mins each way) and especially enjoy that when I get to cycle mainly down hill on the way home!
    I love the flexibility and having a morning routine where I can sit and plan with a cup of tea first thing in the morning.
    On my scholarship I can only work limited hours and the opportunities where I am are slim so finance is a big stressor for me. My savings have dwindled to zero and I still have a year to go. I do love demonstrating/teaching at lab tutorials when I can get the work.
    I am lucky to have been to New York and Canada for conferences (but still had to contribute some of my own funds) and will go to Singapore entirely on my own funds in July. I also traveled to the northwest of WA for three months in a campervan last year after a relationship disaster and did manage to write a literature review and have weekly online meetings with my supervisor! That was an amazing and challenging experience but the outback was very soothing to the soul.

  8. The flexibility and lack of quarter-life crisis are two of the things I have really loved even if I had to fight for the former with my old supervisor. I’m about to start conferencing too, should be interesting xD

    I actually did a post on my PhD positives a few weeks ago, some are the same and some different: ashschwarzer.wordpress.com/2018/05/16/phd-positives/ Always nice to remember that there is a reason we’re all doing our degrees and there are some good moments amongst all the bad which we tend to focus on a bit too much.

  9. Thanks for this post! I really relate to this! Most times it is difficult for me to express how much my PhD stresses me out while also explaining how much I love my research. I really liked that you emphasized the perks of being a PhD, which I think we need more of to keep us going in the remainder of our program!

  10. It was very useful for me. Keep sharing such ideas in the future as well. This was actually what I was looking for, and I am glad to came here! Thanks for sharing the such information with us.

  11. Thank you for sharing this Cassandra. This encouraged me to look at the positives in my PhD as well. Wishing you all success.

  12. Wonderful post, thanks so much for it!
    I’ve particularly liked the notion of the two competing mindsets – I love it, I hate it, I love it! This is the way I constantly feel, but in a way – I love this feeling – it’s an emotional roller-coaster, but at least it’s got EMOTION 🙂 I love doing what I love (dislike feeling like I suck at it, but there are ways to handle these feelings…), and am constantly grateful for it. Thanks for a lovely post!

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