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The PhD can be challenging AND joyful

I posted a tweet about joy/suffering in the PhD and was surprised by how many people resonated with it. It went something like this:

In my 1st #PhD yr I was talking about how much I was loving my work + supervisor. A 3rd yr told me “wait til ur 3rd Yr. It’ll get bad. I promise.”

(I then went on to say that it didn’t get bad and that, in fact, I loved my PhD experience and supervisor through the whole thing)

(read the full thread here)

The responses I got were divided into broadly three camps:

  1. People who’d had similar experiences of colleagues ‘warning’ them that ‘things will get bad’ and not allowing them to just be happy in their PhD
  2. People who also loved/are loving their PhD experience and felt relief seeing my tweet because they felt they were doing something wrong or felt guilty about not having a hard time
  3. People who got a bit snippy that I wasn’t fully acknoweldging the real struggles of some PhD students and thought I was oversimplying the ‘choice’ we have to enjoy the PhD.

It struck me how embedded struggle and suffering have become in the PhD journey that the experience of enjoyment, fulfilment and pleasure is regarded as something anomalous and wrong.

And that to suggest that the PhD could be enjoyable and *gasp* even easy, is not only regarded with suspicion, but sometimes, with outright hostility.

I’m not saying that the PhD/research life isn’t hard or challenging, because it is (and to some extent, it’s meant to be).

I’m also not saying that there aren’t structural, systemic issues that are in dire need of redress, change and massive improvement.

I’m saying that suffering doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be the default setting, nor accepted as the norm.

I’m saying that we don’t have to feel that we’re doing something wrong, or think that our work is somehow less-than if we’re not suffering.

I’m also saying that even though there are very real constraints and difficulties, we don’t have to let that define the entire PhD experience and get stuck in the belief that there is no other recourse, ever.

Instead, here’s what I’m saying.

There are ways of doing equally (if not more) excellent doctoral research that can be joyful, pleasurable, in easy flow, fulfilling and equally valid – even as we encounter challenges, difficulties, and things going disastrously wrong along the way.

Challenges/difficulties AND invigorating, stimulating, joyful fulfilment in the PhD process are not two mutually exclusively things.

And experiencing one doesn’t have to precluding the other.

So instead of looking at these examples of joyful, happy, rewarding research experiences as weird outliers or exceptions, I’m here to encourage the PhD community to:

get curious about these stories/experiences
uncover how we might begin to initiate, ask for and (re)create some of those elements for ourselves.

And yeah, there are still going to be obstacles – not everyone is going to have a totally easy breezy experience where all of the things are pleasant all of the time.

But what I’m saying is that it also doesn’t have to be a total awful struggle where all of the things are miserable all of the time.

Even if there are aspects of the PhD / academia-in-general / relationships with your supervisors/colleagues that are always going to feel like a persistent chronic case of extra-large haemorrhoids, that doesn’t automatically have to define the entirety of the PhD journey.

It doesn’t mean you have to accept it as ‘just the way it is’, get stuck in that hopeless finitude and spend the rest of the 3-4 years feeling decidedly shit all the time.

Instead, start by thinking through these prompts:

  • Where can you begin to ask for more support and for what?
  • Who can you speak to, to get additional support or to help you find alternate ways of working that will lighten the load and align better with your way of working?
  • What would feel better/more joyful for you, and what one small step can you take each day to make that more possible for you?
  • What one (or 5) things can you let go of or not take on so you can focus more on the things that are most important to you?
  • Where can you see glimpses of possibility, rather than problem, and what small practical action can you take to get slightly closer to it? (that could include reaching out to someone for support, help, advice)

That last question is key – looking for what is possible, rather than to get stuck on what’s not.

Even if you can’t go from 0 (total misery) to 100 (total joy) all at once, you might still be able to create some movement forward that will get you closer to a better-feeling situation.

It starts with even believing that there is possibility and a better way to do this PhD thing (whatever that possibility looks like for you).

It doesn’t have to only be miserable and you absolutely don’t have to accept that misery as something you should just put up with it.

Which of those prompts resonate most with you? Which ones are you going to take on board? Let me know in the comments, or drop me an email to let me know what tiny step forward towards possibility you’re planning to take.

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