A letter to my former self,
Well – you did it! You’re officially a first year PhD student. Despite what everyone said about it being too isolating, too scary, too hard, too (everything) you went for it anyway and now you’re here. You have an office, a desk of your own. A computer that looks like it could be as old as you, a chair that provides about as much lumbar support as a generic rock. But, you made it. Year one of three, here you go. You’re going to hear a lot of scary things over the next few weeks.
I know you thought the horror stories about PhD life would stop once you finally got here, but I’m afraid they just get more graphic from now on. Piled on top of the stories of missing social lives and rejected paper proposals will be deadlines, threats of vivas, rumours of expulsion, all carefully engineered to make this time of intense fear and stress the perfect cocktail for a complete breakdown. I guess I’m writing to you today to tell you to ignore all of it. Researchers that are further down the track then you will get a disturbing amount of pleasure out of trying to throw you off your game. They’d rather tell you the worst thing about their week then the best thing about it, and this pessimism creates an echo chamber of groaning that builds and builds until you feel like your ear drums are ready to snap.
Occasionally, there are nuggets of wisdom hidden in these complaints. Perhaps someone lost their entire Methods chapter on a dodgy USB, and you learn to back-up. More often than not, the moan is futile – a weary groan for groaning’s sake. Don’t let it eat you alive. The colleagues that you meet that are further along than you, that have mastered the perfect way to adjust their rickety old desk chair and have sussed every software update required to keep the pre-historic computer ticking over, seem like Gods. They seem like they know everything, but they don’t. They’re just as lost as you are. Because as much as you are a new, first year researcher, fresh out of your masters, or your undergrad, or your years away from education, they are new second years, new third years, new fourth years. And each year comes with its own unique set of challenges. You are all learning, again and again. You are all new, and lost, and worried. I’ll level with you here, there’s some truth to the horror stories you’ll be told. A PhD is hard, and it is isolating, and all that. But there’s a reason you’re here and you need to cling to that. I’m not saying because you’re so clever you’ll clearly survive, instead I’m begging you to remember why you ignored all the warnings from previous lecturers and friends about how hard the PhD would be. You wanted this, you wanted to learn and develop in this environment.
And under all those moans is a privilege. Because the moaners, all of them, are lucky enough to be studying a PhD. They’re lucky enough to be on the cusp of a doctorate, to be granted time and space to research and write like they never will again. And whether you think that is an honour or not, it’s pretty damn cool. Life is full of problems, we just chose the ones we think our worth battling. So, former self, I’m here to tell you – it’s okay. Your PhD probably won’t kill you. And I’d like to encourage you to take the stories from colleagues you hear with a pinch of salt. Moaning can be great, sometimes. Just try to remember, at least once a day (and if that’s too much then maybe once a week), that you chose this and that it was your dream once. Remember it’s a PhD, not a prison sentence. And, if it all gets too much, remember you’re entitled to annual leave; so why not bugger off for a bit and enjoy the sun?
You – 13 months later.