I’ve written before, here, about how much bad advice there is out there for PhD students. One of the reasons that advice can be misguided or inappropriate is the many differences between PhD students in terms of age, discipline and projects. Comparing yourself to other people, particularly when it comes to making progress, is a game of diminishing returns, which I wrote about most recently here. I thought the message needed to be repeated yet again when I read this submission by Ellie Wood, which made some excellent points on diversity amongst the PhD student cohort.
Ellie Wood is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her research uses both social and natural science methods to study causes of degradation in ruralTanzanian communities and impacts on ecosystem services. Ellie wants her interdisciplinary study to inform effective and equitable conservation. Alongside her research, Ellie loves science communication and getting involved in outreach projects across Scotland and further afield as often as she can. You can find Ellie on LinkedIn, follow her on Twitter @EllieWood24, or contact her via email at Helena.email@example.com.
Doing a PhD is an absolute nightmare, I reckon, and I say so. Frequently. The drag of PhD research is go-to water-cooler-chat for many students (well, if not you, maybe I drink water and whine about my PhD enough for the rest of us).
Okay then… PhDs aren’t horrid all the time. But they definitely are horrid. Nightmares. Some of the time. The timing and mode of nightmarishness is different for everyone, which means that you might find yourself in the midst of your PhD having scary experiences that are also very different to the experiences of the people around you. And that can feel isolating… which really compounds the horrid scary nightmarishness of it all. I want to tell you that feeling this way, and in fact having what feels like a different PhD experience, is totally fine and normal. And there are ways we can help each other banish that these creepy crawly thoughts from our brains, so we can focus on fun stuff (which might in fact be creepy crawlies – hello entomologists!).
The super variable experiences of PhD students are really unsurprising when you consider the different places we’re all coming from. PhD students can be aged roughly between fifteen and ninety five years old. They have different cultural backgrounds, have gained different life experiences, training, education and jobs. My PhD is interdisciplinary so even within my project I myself have varying levels of knowledge and confidence: I did a biology undergraduate degree and now do 50/50ish ecology/social science which basically means I started with some knowledge and skills in half of my project, and zero knowledge or skills in the other half. Which has been both as fun and as terrible as it sounds.
But anyway. We’re not talking about that are we. And you don’t have to be doing an interdisciplinary PhD to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and some people have pointed out that this can actually be a really great and productive thing*, and in fact at the very core of novel research: we’re all supposed to be doing something that’s never been done before, right?
My two housemates and I are all PhD students, working in relatively similar fields, but our methods, learning, and work schedules are very very different. I spent much of the first year of my PhD just reading which was both an amazing privilege and totally terrifying when some of my classmates were collecting data in the lab from Week 2. But this was how my PhD needed to work, and yours might too.
Different students also have different commitments (to research, teaching, extracurricular activities, their personal life) and that is fine. Plus, although PhDs can be very stressful, they are often also very flexible, which can be great if you’ve got other stuff going on – like kids you need to drop off at nursery, or a job you’re doing at the same time as studying. And it’s okay to utilise that, even if you’ve got lots of 9-to-5 colleagues making you feel bad. Comparing yourself to other students simply will never be a case of comparing like-for-like, so don’t bother.
So PhD students are a diverse and interesting group, yes. But we need some support when we’re having worries about being a bit too different and interesting, and we do need to be able to tell if we’re veering off track. We need to share experience and knowledge and talk about whether what you’re going through and the work that you’re doing is normal and okay.
Thankfully, despite all our differences, there is a pool of experience common to PhDs that we can all contribute to and share in. I recently read The Unwritten Rules of PhD Researchwhich was genuinely helpful and it kind of blew me away that a computer scientist and someone who does something called “knowledge modeling”could write a book of advice for any PhD student. And what about all these blooming blogs and articles – who do the authors think they are trying to relate their own life experiences to mine? Well, as you may have guessed, I think that these blogs and articles are great. I love reading about other people’s experiences, even though those writing them are probably doing very different research to me. There’s a big pool of wisdom out there which you can share in, gain some knowledge, and comfort in not feeling alone. And that doesn’t need to mean that someone else’s experiences need to match your own entirely. For example, I didn’t find every word in Unwritten Rules helpful and relevant (yet), but it was very useful to me still. It was part of my building of a knowledgebase of other peoples’ experiences, which has helped me no end during my PhD.
So please remember that there are many diverse journeys to getting your PhD, and the experiences that students have are correspondingly diverse. Remember that all of those students were all recruited to do a PhD because someone who’s already got one thinks they are capable of it. You were invited to do your PhD because someone believes in you. Diversity is a wonderful thing. In life and in research groups. So celebrate it, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re doing things in a different way to other people. But when you do feel unsure and alone – ask someone about it. Get help, and you’ll probably find out that you are not the first person to have this experience and although it might not fix everything, it might help you to realise that what you’re going through is normal.
* My supervisor pointed me to this article during my first week as a PhD student because 1) he’s great and 2) he understands how prevalent feelings of stupidity are amongst students, and how important it is to know that it’s normal and, in fact, useful.
Thanks for sharing Ellie! Couldn’t have said it better myself. What do you think?
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