PhD Bamboo

Do you ever feel like your PhD is in control of your life – and not in a good way? This post speaks to the resilience you need to complete using the story of a bamboo plant, which can be an invasive weed if not properly controlled!

Fiona Robards is an independent consultant providing strategic planning, policy and resource development to the government and community healthcare sector. You can find out more about her here.

When I started my PhD, I was full of enthusiasm, excited by this new opportunity and period of growth. I read a Thesis whisper blog by Jodie Trembath about having a PhD symbol (she originally called it a PhD totem but changed this on the request of several First Nations scholars in the US).

I bought an Asian bamboo plant for my desk at my new university workspace. I loved the way it was so green, fresh and growing strongly – like me – so I decided it was my PhD symbol or PhD bamboo. It grew and grew, rapidly, as did I. When I looked at the PhD bamboo it filled me with enthusiasm.

After a year or so the plant became so tall it was no longer supported by the small green pot. I went away to a conference with a colleague looking after my PhD bamboo. When I returned, my colleague has stuck a post-it note on the pot saying ‘replant me!’. The message was clear! So, I replotted the plant, or rather, removed it from the soil and placed it in a tall vase of water.

The PhD bamboo entered a new growth phase, as did I.  With data collection complete, and moving into the analysis phase, my skills and knowledge continued to grow.

Like many PhD journeys, I went through a more challenging period. My paid employment in the study ended, and I lost access to my workspace. I worked from home, and my PhD bamboo came with me. I felt less supported by my supervisors and became more isolated.

The PhD bamboo became so tall that not even the vase could hold it upright, it began to collapse without adequate support. Another transformation was needed, so I chopped each branch in half, stuffing the vase full.

During this last year, I attempted to resolve the issues with a lack of support from my supervisors with little success. I came to detest my PhD bamboo. No longer fresh and healthy it was struggling, like me. I didn’t like having the PhD bamboo in my study – but I felt I couldn’t part with it given it was my PhD symbol. So, I hid it behind the door in my spare room.  I would forget about the plant until I was vacuuming, then I would curse the “bloody PhD bamboo”. Through a lack of nurturing, some of the PhD bamboo died.

Nearing the end of my candidacy, I moved the PhD bamboo back out into a prominent position and transferred it to a larger vase. No longer constricted, it looked happier and began to grow again. The PhD bamboo had room to move, and soon, so would I.

I submitted my thesis. While the journey is not over, I felt it was time I could finally let go of the PhD bamboo. I didn’t want to destroy it, so instead, I decided to set it free to the world. After toasting it at my celebration party, I put it out on my front fence for a passer-by to adopt into a new home.

I do not miss the bamboo, but I do have some sadness about the journey we went on together. There was unnecessary hardship. Positively, the PhD bamboo and I both grew much and went through several transformations. Thankfully the bamboo has a new life, and so do I.

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11 thoughts on “PhD Bamboo

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi, just wanted to say I loved your PhD bamboo story. It is very simple and short yet the emotions you express ring so true.

  2. Mary says:

    I like the analogy! Personally, I feel like my PhD is like an episode of Grand Designs. Starting off with a great idea, tight timeline and budget and optimistic feelings. Throughout the process I imagine Kevin/Peter/Chris (depending on whether you’re a fan of the UK, Australian, or NZ version) checking in to see the process slightly delayed and stress levels a little bit higher, until the ‘valley of shit’-part where the build has stalled/budget overblown and it looks like the house will never get finished. And then – a sunny day, a drone shot of the rental car on the road, and the newly build (and finished!) house about to be admired as it’s just there, around the corner!

  3. Suzy says:

    That’s a Draceana species (related to asparagus), not bamboo. I hope that doesn’t change your analogy too much.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      ha ha! Cannot put anything past a PhD audience. I remember saying for years in one workshop that Watermelon was a fruit, before I was gently corrected that it is, in fact, a gourd. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks Suzy.

  4. Fariba says:

    Bamboo are invasive outside of their native regions. It grows out of control and once planted outside, it multiplies and takes over whole plots of land. It’s a good metaphor however about the PhD experience.

    • Alice P. says:

      If you have a bamboo, think twice before planting it in the garden! It is nice, but it will send root suckers into your neighbour’s yard, and their neighbours’ too.

      PhDs will also take over your life, but they could be considered biennials (sort-of) – they will end after a few years.

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