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Dial up the joy in your PhD life

The theme this week is JOY in the PhD – as in you’re allowed to experience joy in your PhD journey.

I know that this thought can be an uncomfortable one for many people in the PhD –

the everyday world of academia is such a heavy, serious one. One of my clients mentioned the absence of levity in that world, which I think is such an accurate way of describing it.

Because it’s such a competitive, high-achieving environment, filled with such capable, qualified, intelligent people (which includes you, of course!), merely entering this space is to encounter a whole ready-made set of high expectations and pressures from the get-go.

It’s so common for PhDs to start their programme already beating themselves up for not knowing everything they (think they) need to know
or feeling shame that they haven’t already published a bunch of papers
or experiencing deep imposter syndrome because they don’t feel nearly as capable as their supervisors or colleagues (even though they’ve been in the game for sooooo much longer!)

(Putting my hand up here for all the above!)

We think we need to be experts, the most knowledgeable in all the land, striving with the same dogged determination, resilience, lifelong devotion and tireless overwork we imagine of all the Noble prize winning geniuses that came before us (or so we believe – who knows how many times they actually fucked up, felt like losers, sat in a heap riddled with insecurity…)

And because of all these feelings, expectations, ideals, visions of academic prowess and elitism, it’s not wonder that the whole space of academic starts to lose its sense of humour
to begin to take itself waaaaaaaaay too seriously
and to lose all levity, lightness and joy.

Today, I invite you to just take a moment to step outside the academic bubble for a moment – peer down at all the very serious tweed-jacketed, spectacled academics, shrouded in the great air of importance they give themselves.

Peek into the land of conferences where people hum and haw and try desperately to out-wit, out-manouevre, out-debate each other with their bloated, over-thought questions and comments.

Look at all the people losing their damn minds to prove how right and how knowledgeable they are.

And then, see how silly it can all be. How very, very, very seriously they take themselves – when in reality, very few people out here in the real world give as much of a shit.

This is not to downplay the importance of the incredible work being done – the research, teaching, innovation, education, learning.

It’s to take it down a peg from its self-aggrandisement. To learn to laugh at ourselves a little more for just how much we unconsciously turn ourselves into those stereotypes of stuffy, humourless, narrow-minded, bland academics that is the stuff of caricatures and exaggerated jokes.

It is also to open up the possibility that PhD life – and the entire academic cosmos around it – can be a different way: that is joyful, pleasurable, full of ease and lightness and fun.

It is to create a new way of doing research that isn’t stuffed away in a grave ivory tower; but one that is always deeply rooted in the messy, joyful realness of living, that’s socially and community, conscious, engaged, alive and honours the humanness of the people doing the research, and the people for whom the research is being done for.

Because isn’t that what the very essence of research about?

Curiosity. Exploration. Experimentation. Wonder at the magnificent mysteries of being alive at this time. Learning. Expanding. Creating and discovering knowledge. Invention. Contribution. Collaboration and connection.

And if we can’t be joyful and take deep, belly-filling pleasure and satisfaction from all of this, what are we even doing? Where’s the fun in that? And why shouldn’t it be fun???

This post is me shouting from the rooftops that you can absolutely give yourself the permission to find joy, your way, in your PhD life.

and to do whatever you need to do to and ask for the support you need, to make your research life more joyful.

This could look like:

  • choosing to approach the research process as one of wonder, curiosity, exploration, discovery, collaboration, co-creation and play, rather than a big heavy rock of obligation, perfectionism, out-winning everyone else and competition.
  • finding your own best work flow and routines that feel light, easy and satisfying
  • unapologetically maintaining time and space to pursue your non-academic interests and loves. Making self-care and you-time non-negotiable
  • being more deliberate about whom you choose to work with, what/whom you say yes to
  • creating your own events/workshops/study groups that bring together like-minded researchers where you exchange, share, laugh, and learn, co-create, generate new knowledge
  • asking for the right guidance and support; if you’re not getting it from your thesis advisory team, to have the courage to escalate it to higher authorities to ask for better support
  • remembering all your initial intentions and motivations for this research, recalling why your research is important and owning that
  • curating the surrounding, supporting factors around your PhD – your physical environment, community, your daily work routine, the amount of rest and play you incorporate into your schedule

Pursuing joy in your PhD is NOT frivolous, or silly, or childish, or whatever other derogatory things we feel about having fun. It doesn’t make you less of a researcher. It doesn’t render your research less valuable, profound or rigorous. Instead, I promise you that working from a place of joy will make your research so much richer, more thoughtful, creative, insightful and original.

It’s not just okay to chase joy in your PhD life. It’s a necessity. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself and for your research.

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