A PhD storyline…

The dark side of a doing a PhD no one properly warned you about

In addition to some really rather wonderful things, doing a PhD comes with a lot of emotional luggage. It’s like dating that hot chick/dude in school who everyone swore was a bit mentally unstable. Naturally, no one warned you then and probably no one warned you before you accepted a PhD position either. Take note, the dark side might look something like this:

Before you start

Maybe the supervisor of your master thesis tells you he has a PhD-position in his lab. Maybe you feel flattered for being asked. Maybe you had considered getting a PhD and yes, you think the topic is interesting. Or maybe you are dazzled by the title, or that your parents might be proud, or want to prove your ex wrong. Or perhaps you read somewhere that having a PhD gives you a 30 per cent salary boost.

Either way, you accept.

Your first year

You start your PhD. You are happy. Excited. Thinking that soon you will get published, get results, you will be admired by peers and who knows maybe you’ll change the world. Perhaps you find the cure for malaria, or build a sentient AI system or maybe you develop an alternative energy source.

You write a workshop paper on the general topic and present it to peers at a conference on Cyprus or in Prague. You feel excited. An expert in the field gives an encouraging comment during your presentation. You are officially a scientist now. A rookie, yet recognised.

You relax and binge-watch three 5-season shows on Netflix.

You read more and more about your topic. Slowly a research question starts to materialise. You change it three times in one month. Eventually, your supervisor tells you that you have to pick one. It makes you uncomfortable to go from anything to something. Your opportunities feel infringed on. You pick an as general question as possible, hoping that you can change it later. Your supervisor advises against it. You ignore their warnings.

Your second year

Now as you have a specific research question you think it will be easier. You are published after all. You just have to do the same thing again. You write another conference paper. It gets rejected. One reviewer says that they “fail to see any scientific contribution,” another that “…the idea is underdeveloped. The author does not appear to have a point.”

You know rejection is common, but it makes you feel bad. Broken. You take charge to do better and start by reading more of the literature. You realise that you know nothing.

It hits you like a brick wall that you know almost nothing about your research field. The abundance of research on the topic is overwhelming. Papers, articles, books have been written on the topic by experts for decades. You struggle to sort out what is crucial information and what can be dismissed as irrelevant. You realise that you cannot read fast enough to cover all the information on the topic. Stress is no longer a common state, it’s a constant state. You check Wikipedia. It has half a page worth of content. You wished you listened to your supervisor and narrowed your topic down.

Your supervisor asks you how it is that you don’t know anything about Prof. X and Y’s research, it’s fundamental. You tell him/her that you missed it in your literature review. From a shelf s/he hands you one of their books. Stressed out, you can’t seem to concentrate on the content. You skim it, barely understanding anything. On Friday you have a presentation of the book’s content on the faculty seminar.

Worried, you start to sleep badly.

Your supervisor takes command of the situation and dictates what paper you are writing next. If you’re lucky, you get help. You stress out about it, perform some experiments and do the analysis wrong. You can tell that your supervisor is disappointed, but they help you fix it anyway.

You feel lost. And useless. You hide in your office, hoping no one bothers you. You sleep either too much or barely at all. You spend more time on Netflix. You drink too much. Your parents are worried about you.

You go to a few more conferences, maybe a summer school. You compare yourself to other PhD students. They appear to have more results, better results. You’re convinced that you should have quit your PhD in the first year. Now it’s too late. Quitting now would be too great a failure. You’ve wasted too much time on it already. You think about your ex. You get drunk and have sex with someone you shouldn’t. Overloaded with guilt and regret, you suck it up and spend a week working day and night on an article. You think it’s actually pretty good. Your supervisor nods encouragingly and proceeds to rewrite the whole thing.

Your third year

You have one more year of funding. You have some random results, some publications and a drinking problem. In a year you are supposed to hand in a written document on groundbreaking, novel research.

Workload goes up even more. You arrive in the office at around 11 am, but you don’t leave until 3 am. You still have a strong feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing. Sometimes on the lunch break your supervisor tells you that you are doing fine. Most of the time, s/he says nothing.

You start worrying about what to do when you finish. Despite the heavy workload of the past years, you feel like you haven’t learned any really applicable skills. You google it. Internet confirms your worst fears, you have no hireable qualities. You regret starting a PhD. You apply for an extension of your PhD funding.

You start copy-pasting snippets of your publications into a document you call “thesis”. It gives you a temporary sense of accomplishment. Then you read it and heartbroken, you find yourself in desperate need of a break.

The week before submission

You are not finished. The document is still a mess. The analysis is partly wrong, but you intend to do nothing about it. Several references are missing, but you hope no one notices. Figures have the wrong resolution, tables the wrong caption. But it is 231 pages and you have fulfilled the university’s publication requirement. They should pass you. You hope… You dedicate it to your parents, or to your partner. They understanding nothing, but they are very proud.

Last minute your supervisor tells you that something fundamental is missing, how could you not know? You don’t sleep for 32 hours to fix it, not eating anything.

You show up at the secretariat 45 minutes late, pale as a ghost, dark circles around your eyes. But with seven printed copies of your thesis and all the paperwork in a messy pile. The secretary smiles and tells you to relax. You don’t remember what relaxed feels like. Leaving the documents with the secretary, you realise that for a little while your thesis is #notmyproblem.

In the evening, your friends (might) celebrate with you and you get drunk on two glasses of champagne and proceed to pass out on the couch.

Right before the defence

You are nervous.

Not to fail, but to like a fool stand there not being able to answer the questions of your own research. Something you fear is very likely.

The reviews of your work are a mix of “well done, interesting” and “what the hell is this?” You pray that they will not ask any questions on chapter 5. Or 6. Or ask you to position your research in line with the past 20 years on the topic.

You look great. You answer the reviewers’ questions, except the ones you don’t know, which are most of them. Afterwards you don’t remember anything.

After you finish

You still have no idea what to do with your life. In lack of a better plan, you’re currently doing a Post-Doc.

No one has read your thesis.

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