This post is really going to be me asking for suggestions from you guys.
As you might know, I am a PhD student. What does a PhD student do? Mainly:
-go to classes
-teach (most PhD students are either Teaching or Research Assistants)
It does not look complicated and demanding maybe. But PhD students anywhere in the world are 3-6 times more like to suffer from depression or other mental issues than other people (for example: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis)
-PhD is not a 9-5 job. You (your mind) are busy all the time. When we are not attending classes, we teach. When we are not teaching, we do our research.
-Because we always do something, we feel soooo guilty when we don’t do anything for a while. Sometimes even for a few hours.
-There is a lot of expectation. We need to publish research to be credible. But PhD students are just learners. So, we make a lot of mistakes. Getting publication out is already difficult and with our inexperience, it is even more difficult. So, judgment is made on the product and process is, meh.
-There is not much of job promise after PhD. There is a high chance of dealing with PhD, with the result that we get nothing (nothing as in ‘nothing we expected when we entered PhD’).
-We are mostly alone and we forget how to socialize. With so much to do, it is difficult to have a life outside of PhD.
So, how do we deal with all of these?
We can’t. Most people break down at some point. Granted, we mostly recover but we suffer. We recover because we are trained to be and look strong (Well, in reality, mental issues are not a sign of weakness, but oh well). How much we recover is a question that remains.
But we have limits. There is an increasing number of PhD students who give up during or after PhD or seek outside help like therapy because we are realizing that we can’t really deal with all of these anymore.
So, currently, we still suffer a lot but we are in the process of trying to change the situation. There is at least more talk about these issues. So, people are becoming less concerned about the need to look strong. But in the meantime, many people are still going to be lost. What PhD should do is to encourage people to be better scientists, which is why we hang on to it. We want to be good researchers because we like out fields. We want to do something to improve it. But currently, PhD is serving more to discourage people from being and doing that. And with all that is expected, it is not easy to be that.
Maybe one day, we will have better solutions.
So now my questions: if you have/had a very busy schedule, what do/would you do to balance your life? How do you deal with it? Is it wiser to choose something that will be less demanding, giving up on what you always wanted? What would you suggest me to do?
74 thoughts on “PhD Life”
Not to terrify you, but as someone with a doctorate, I agree and it gets much worse when you get into academic. All the writing, reading, research. So many uncompensated but necessary parts of the job.
I can see that happening. I think that is one of the reasons people started dropping out.
One of the biggest reasons my students leave, and few of them do, is because they let life get the best of them. Many, but most especially women/mothers, have a hard time telling their family no. You have to make schooling a priority. I have had students who lost their spouse, parent, I was working on my MBA when I lost my daughter. You cannot let life make you take time off or you are exponentially less likely to finish. I will tell you that it is awesome when students call you doctor or professor. Every time it still makes me puff out the chest a little bit.
That sounds lovely! Yes, that could be a good motivation!
Great post! I think this is something that is missed when students enter grad school. I have a Ph.D. And although very demanding, my grad school years were some of the best up to that point in my life. Although very demanding, most advisors will let you work flexible hours as long as you get the work done. I was fortunate enough to have a great group of friends in grad school that helped me cope w the stress. Ever since I’ve had a busy life and I’ve come to like it that way. Even now with full time work and kids, it never stops. Grad school teaches you how to handle this kind of life. Always remember to reach out and network. There is always someone going though or has been through the same. Never give up and never doubt yourself!
I had great years in grad school so far, mostly. So I agree that it can be satisfying at some level too. But especially towards the end, when we start feeling the real expectations, it gets harder. Maybe that hardship is what teaches us to bear with really bad situations.
True. Right before the end, just as you are finishing up your last year or so and you have no idea if you are gonna land a job, or where it might be. That’s the hard part. Not knowing where the next chapter will take you is stressful. As someone that’s been through it, ive always told others to be confident and have faith. Things will work out as long as you make an honest effort.
I am myself a master’s student and I see a lot of PhD scholars who are not really having a great time. But I have also seen PhD students who love their life. And one thing that I have learnt from these experiences is that, if you really want to be here and you really love what you do, then you will enjoy it. I remember one of my PhD mentors during my internship who told me why he was happy. He said, “I enjoy my work because every single day I wake up with the excitement that today I will be discovering something new that no one might have ever done before in this world. And this is what keeps me going every single day”. So if you think PhD gives your life a meaning, if you think you can create a change in the lives of people, then do it. Enjoy what you are doing because you might also find out about things that no one in this world may have ever got even a hint of.
All the best👍
I definitely agree with that. I definitely love my field and that kept me going and still is. I think what is more difficult for me is that I am away from my family as an international student. If my family was here, then I think I would not mind PhD stress that much.
Well now that’s an issue that is really hard to solve. But I guess all I can say is you need to keep reminding yourself that you left home for something amazing. So experience your dream life of PhD as you have always wanted to be here. So that when it ends, you return home as a proud Dr. Betul Erbasi.
Thanks for the encouragement! Yeah, I know that this is something we can’t solve and I am not the only person with this issue. That is just one part of PhD difficulty for a lot of people. But there is always a pay-off. So this is ours for having other awesome opportunities.
Exactly. Wish you all the best👍
I can’t offer anything better than the comments above. But I do wish you well with whatever you do. Doing a PhD seems unrelenting.
It is very satisfying because I love my field, but it is also hard. We will see which one wins.
Well one thing I have learned the hard way is that ‘easy’ gets you nothing worthwhile.
I hope whichever wins out is what is best for you. Good luck with your struggle!
No pain no gain is the rule of life. I agree! Good luck to all of us in our struggles, because we all do have something.
Here here. I have every faith you will find the strength and courage to do what is best for you!
I have a PhD….. The only thing PhD is good for is to proof that you have high frustration tolerance. But having a high frustration tolerance is pretty useful in life.
It is your decision: If you always wanted it then how much are you willing to pay for it. Do you really want it so much that you are willing to go through all stress for not a lot of money? Your decision.
Don’t take neither yourself, and especially not your research, too important. That will relax situation a little bit.
Academia has always been what I wanted to be in and it still is and I am willing to bear with the stress. But I need to see how much stress it is going to put on me. For now, my decision is to keep going and as you say, that will help me in life later.
It’s funny, but I was just talking to a burnt-out PhD student about this today (I’ve have my PhD for a while already and am still in academia). I will tell you what I told him: I think you need to take breaks. People get the idea they need to work late every day and work in the weekends or else they’re doing something wrong. That’s not true. if you do this you just get burnt out and become less efficient, and maybe start hating your work. It’s fine to not work in the weekends – the PhD will still be there on Monday! Save the late night shifts for when important deadlines come up. With more rest you’ll have more energy and get more done when you are actually working. Let yourself have time for other things too, like exercise, time outdoors, hobbies, your friends and family. If you feel like your schedule is too busy too allow this, it could be worth analyzing it to see if there are things that you could stop doing, or doing a time management course. Also, even if you don’t want to continue in academia, the skills you learn during your PhD can be applied to other jobs, so don’t think it’s a waste. I know lots of people who left academia after getting a PhD and they didn’t have trouble finding jobs. Good luck!
I actually really agree to all of this. I become very inefficient when I overwork, for example. But I think most PhD students are conditioned to work all the time and are tired afterwards. We probably learn by seeing what we should not be doing after we do the wrong things.
Honestly I didn’t realize how quickly time was passed. However, my last assignment was so boring and both my mind and brain was exhausted.
What do you do when they are exhausted?
Follow your passions..on and off the job and that will help you re-energize. My daughter And son both pursued higher education because they were and are passionate about their work. Don’t forget to socialize and remember to maintain a healthy balance of outdoor time and work time. Research can be draining but it can also be exciting if you keep your purpose and your why in mind. Good luck with your work.
I think I am learning by doing the extremes and seeing that I should not be doing it. Otherwise, I think I am doing what I am passionate about. I wish I could learn without doing the extremes and not tiring myself.
Ah yes, I see what you mean. It’s a process. How long have you been pursuing your PhD? Maybe as time goes on the extremes won’t present so dominantly. Also, I believe that people are the most precious part of living that’s why I believe reaching out
and spending time with others is so important☀️
I am in my fourth year. Hanging out with others is really helpful. It not only distracts you but it also makes us see our likes. Sense of belonging
Wow!, that’s wonderful!, you’re almost there☀️Oh good, I’m glad you have that sense of belonging and connection. It makes life wonderful in my opinion.
It does! I think what I am mostly suffering from is that I am too far away from my family. I am used to this, but it sometimes still hits. But overall, I would not say I regret getting into PHD.
Now I can definitely relate and understand. I talk with my son everyday. I think, he too, is going through that. I know I am. We are a close family. He is far away also. I hope you get to see and spend
time with your family soon😊
Summer is coming😊
I don’t have a PhD so I am not going to give you reasons to keep on going, except for the one that you should go on on the path you feel being yours and you love (nothing is better than loving your job, I think, and doing something you truly like, as it would be 10 times worse to work something you don’t like because you would still need to do it everyday and stress over it). I can only share the feeling of being exhausted and overwhelming because I have a full time job, a house, a partner, I try to exercise to stay in shape, to home-cook my meals, to keep my social relationships, to write, to travel and I am doing a II level Master for workers at night and sometimes I just feel like EXPLODING. Moreover, like you, I am also away from my family and live abroad. How do I cope? Practical, small things. Long calls with my mum, some “empty” time in a park, loud music to dance in my saloon, comfort food and series, a hug of my boyfriend, a good book and even… skipping a class. I learnt how to stop judging myself to be less perfectionist one day: better for me to stay home and take the time to read the slides when I feel like instead of sitting in the class 3 hours with my mind elsewhere and my frustration raising by the minute. Detach your brain and gift yourself with extra-free time. And good luck 🙂
Thank you for the nice advice! I try to give myself that extra free time too, but PhD trains us to ‘look perfect’, although we obviously are not. So I sometimes get lost in the loop, until I get myself out and regularize it again. But yes, those small things are real savers!
My husband has a Ph.D. in biology. You are certainly not alone in your feelings or fears. Depending on how far along you are in your program, you may want to consider what you can do with a master’s degree vs. a doctoral degree in terms of actual employment — sometimes less education is more marketable and profitable in the long run. If you are at the point of no return, get done as soon as you can and get on with your life, even if it is not exactly what you hoped for.
On life balance: Pray. (I am praying for you this morning, Betul.) Eat right. Sleep enough. Exercise in the sun. Be with your loved ones. And, take time to fly a kite or read a graphic novel or draw or go roller-blading or grow tomatoes — whatever it is that fills you with joy. You are not just a brain. You are a whole person. Step away from your studies and live like it. 🙂
This is so lovely! I like being in PhD, I like doing research and I am coming towards the end. So I will keep going but am learning to balance life like you are describing. Work in progress😊 thanks for the prayers too!
You should definitively go through with it. I’m glad I did. You will probably never have such an intense period again in your life. Remember that scrutiny is attention and later on, if you leave academia, nobody will care to give you that level of scrutiny. In a job you’ll just get demoted or fired or disregarded if you don’t live up to expectations. There’s really nothing that compares with peer review to up your game.
For the sake of the rest of your life, you will want to finish your project: to see it to the end, to close it with a positive nod, forever knowing in you heart that you can do it.
My life has a before and after there, even if it isn’t something you can really share with anyone. To this day I still restrain myself to not say it as a part of introducing myself within the first few minutes of meeting someone I don’t know. It’s meaningless anyway, nobody will be able to understand even the basics of the work you did, or its implications. You will know, however, that your self esteem isn’t based on comparing yourself with anyone, or wining some sort of petty, playful competition between people.
You project will always be about you overcoming all your reservations and doing your very best for a prolonged period of time, at the end of which you are mercilessly criticised by competent and mostly well-meaning people. You don’t get that anywhere else. In my 130 something posts on my blog, perhaps five people have cared to drop a single line to comment. In academia you can hardly open your mouth without someone standing ready to comment, criticise, encourage, question, all of which help you improve your act – not just the act of presenting, but the ability of seeing things as they really are and putting them in a context and perspective, constantly revising your own reasoning in the processes.
Remember your body though. Do some excise and, as Miyamoto Mushashi says: cultivate a wide range of interests.
This is such true description of what academia is like! Academia is very dense in all of the aspects you described. It is easy to get lost in that dense environment but I also believe this is probably denser than most places in real life. It is good to get confirmation of that from you! I will finish my PhD and see what happens. In the meantime, work on life balance😊
Also I can’t find your blog. Can you send the link to it?
Thanks for the reply.
Your name stirred a curiosity and after a while I got around to the image of a birch tree (Betula in Latin, abedul in Spanish) – not a bad association.
My blog is Story Reviews and here’s the link https://wordpress.com/view/jokjorgensen.wordpress.com
Hey I didn’t know about this tree! Great info!
I want to say thank you very much for sharing this insightful post. I want to also cease this opportunity to say that your post have inspired what I will be uploading today on instagram based on the works I have been doing on @zedtears. I very much empathize with the issue and it forms part of what I try to communicate on that platform. Experience has been a good teacher too. Have a fantastic day.
Thank you for that! I just followed you on Instagram! These points should be shared more and more so we can fix them!
Thank you for the follow and feedback. Very true indeed about the point raised. Issues as such are non-visual and are mostly overlooked as a result. Communication, active engagement and awareness is a great mechanism for tackling these issues. Appreciations again for the effort.
Exactly! Mental issues are generally looked down on because they are not as visible. This is Especially true for PhD students because we hide what is already not obvious.
I remember when I was working on my PhD. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. I enjoyed the total immersion aspect of the learning part because, at that time in my life, I was sort of monkish anyway. But you are right. One has to be careful about becoming isolated and obsessed. Exercising regularly is so important. Also, one needs to drink a lot of beer! A little late-night carousing around helps too!
Yeah, PhD gave me such good times and also really bad ones! It is such a weird combination of everything. I think mental issues among PhD students is more common when isolation gets denser, for example when we don’t have classes. Also Exercise is really helpful to me too!
My mum has been telling me to study for a PhD for years but I keep rejecting the idea because I do not want to be in academia. I am in the education field as an English teacher and didn’t really see any use in acquiring a PhD to advance my teaching career, unless I wanted to teach in a university. The mere thought of teaching uni students makes me light-headed and stressed. But she says I don’t need to work in a university. Having a PhD just opens more doors and opportunities. But it seems that there are PhD holders who still don’t get the job they want or are even deemed overqualified for a job. I couldn’t really think of a good reason why I should pursue a PhD…
Is there any other reason, besides a career in academia, to study for a PhD? Does it really open doors? Do people really respect you more? Is that Dr. title worth the 4+ years of hard work?
So I think this is a question of what you want to do with your life. For me, honestly, the doors PhD might open, if any, is not much of a concern. I just love doing research. Obviously I want to get a good job after all this we go through but I would not mind too much if I don’t. I am happy to go and teach (my BA is in teaching). Having a PhD helps you get promoted easier in tech companies, for example. So there are definitely benefits to it. But if you are not really in love with a field, research and are satisfied with your position now and you think it is in line with what you want to do in life, I would not recommend getting into PhD. But if you want to get positions like university teaching or maybe tech company positions (which I assume is not an option for you?), PhD is good. I guess there is no right or wrong answer to this. You need to evaluate your field and your life goals and get into PhD only if it is the best way to achieve your goal. Otherwise, maybe no.
That is a good way to evaluate. I admire you for loving research. I struggled with my undergrad thesis a lot, even though I was given 1st Class Honours in the end. I just could not envision a life of research, and data analysis has haunted me since. I can see why PhD holders would get promoted more easily in tech companies and definitely an advantage for university teaching. I guess I am not that interested in those positions. I hope to become a writer and write books for children one day. Guess you don’t really need a PhD for that…
It is tough to live a balanced life when you are doing a PhD. I can totally understand how you feel, constantly thinking about your research and feeling guilty when you are not working on your research… It’s like you are wasting precious time and think every moment should be devoted to it. But it is ok to take breaks, procrastinate, step back. Sometimes you see something new and different after spending time away from it, giving you new perspectives and fresh eyes.
All the best for your PhD!
If you are not interested in such positions, then don’t do PhD. Our ultimate goal is to be happy and content. Whatever gives you these is your life line.
About taking breaks, I noticed that whenever I overwork, I become much less efficient and much less creative. Taking breaks is actually much better for the PhD process.
I do not have a PhD, and I can’t begin to know the pressure you are under to gain this credential! Congratulations on your efforts to become tops in your field. The world indeed needs your dedication and exploration in order to move forward! That being said, I too have struggled with finding time for things that are important to my own mental health and physical well-being. Some helpful Strategies: 1) Find ten minutes a day, whether you have to wake up early, or get away during a short break, to be mindful. Set the timer on your phone for ten minutes. Sit in a place comfortable for you, put both feet on the floor, relax your shoulders,unclench your jaw, hands in lap. Turn off lights or close your eyes. If this is impossible, make your eyes “Soft” meaning unfocused. Practice not thinking. (yes, unthinking!) When an intrusive thought comes in, say “It’s only a thought, goodbye, thought” and resume not thinking. Don’t get mad at yourself if this takes time, it will. Then move on to something pleasant that lifts your spirits. Picture yourself happy, relaxed, and unencumbered. Stay there for the remainder. 2) Write three things down every night that you are thankful for. Gratitude is proven to increase feelings of expansiveness and capability while diminishing negative thoughts. A datebook with large blocks is sufficient for this activity. Reflect for just a moment on each thing. 3) Practice self-care by guarding your few opportunities for free time. Make sure any activity passes the test. A) It is good for your mind B) It is good for your body C) It is something you chose to do. We can get overwhelmed with the needs of others. The best quote I have ever heard about this is from MJS Bhagavti: “Drink while you pour.”
Also, walk as much as possible! )
This is really good advice! I was trying to so some of these things, but I guess sometimes, when I get lost in the workload, I forget, or just get too tired and want to go and sleep. The thing that works best for me is self-care, I think. I like having times when I dont do anything or do things that make me feel relaxed and mind (body and mind).
Also walking is the best of all, at least for me. There is some magic in it.
So true. Thanks again. Have a great weekend!
I initially wanted to get my masters and PhD in psychology, because I felt listening to people and helping was something I had naturally excelled at. However, just trying to obtain my Bachelor was difficult enough for my mental health and I realized having a family and listening to patients all day would be too much for me. Sometimes it is about realizing what we want versus whether it is achievable. If it is going to get you the life you want and fulfill your dreams, keep at it! Otherwise, maybe it is time to do a soul search for what you actually want from life. Use mental health resources, lean on your support network (which can be difficult to maintain), schedule breaks in-between what needs to be done. That is how I got through it (though it had its difficulties, too). At the end of the day, there is no magic recipe to follow and we all have to rely on our belief in ourselves (and others’ faith in us, too).
It is great that you realized this early enough! I believe PhD is what I want to do. But as you say, I need to take breaks every now and then and find my own recipe!
Hi Betul, I do not have a PhD. Therefore, I cannot relate to the specific stresses and obligations you are facing. I did go back to school full time in a very intensive, stressful program while raising a young family. A mentor shared a phrase with me. “You do whatever it takes.” It sounds simple, although, it really helped me and it still does whenever I am facing challenges. You have likely heard: Don’t look too far ahead. One day at a time. You are close to the finish line, just keep moving forward. I know you will complete your PhD!
I believe I will too. The only thing is that with each year, we face new challenges and it gets harder to adapt. But it is definitely a great learning process. I think I should apply that phrase into my life too!
Final year PhD student here, currently writing my thesis! I feel this so much…my PhD has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I think I ever will do. The constant feelings of frustration and inferiority were hard, and the guilt when I wasn’t perfectly productive was intense. I’ve never had so many mental breakdowns, but I’ve emerged from it so much stronger. I feel like I can do anything now! (except maybe stop procrastinating and write my thesis haha). I’ve actually just written a blog post about self-care in academia, because I don’t know a single person that hasn’t suffered during their Phd, postdoc, etc by not taking care of themselves! Maybe it’ll help you remember that ultimately YOU are the most important thing, and treating yourself compassionately is key to “success” (whatever that may be to you). https://wanderingcourt.com/top-tips-for-self-care-in-science-why-mental-health-matters/
Best of luck with everything, and honestly if you need anyone to talk to that has been there and completely understands please let me know! 🙂
Hey this is great!I I relate tot his so much! I think we are really learning how to value ourselves but in a really hard way. Good luck to all of us.
I did a PhD and the best therapy for me was running (or do exercises in general). I was sitting at the computer writing one sentence and deleting two :-). I used to go out for a run and come back with a clear mind knowing exactely what to write.
Don’t give up!
This is helpful! Exercise helps me too, except when I am too overwhelmed. I usually get stuck when I am too overwhelmed.
I’ve just started my PHD. But I had a heavy research load during my masters. I used to help out the PHD students at my university. We had a postgraduate club that took masters and PHD students outside. I hosted a few events. We encouraged the students to make groups and keep social. It was an amazing experience to take a day off from research and explore Australia. One day we went to the hot springs. One weekend we went to the 12 Apostles. I wonder if anyone can take my idea and maybe make groups for exploration? It’s hard for sure so I think reaching out when you really need support is important.
Thanks a lot for sharing this and actually this is a great idea! We have some similar things in our department too but they work best when they are put into schedule. Then, it becomes part of life and is more satisfactory.
I’m a PhD student, and I’m just starting my dissertation writing. I identify so much with your article, particularly what you said on submitting articles. It’s like, you need to have published articles in order to be published and taken seriously by a journal, but no one will publish you because you haven’t been published. But still, you’re a PhD student, so you better get published before you graduate. Geeze.
Yes, that vicious cycle!