Guest Post: Musings of a PhD Student

I never thought I’d be the girl who went on to do a PhD.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being in college and learning. I was good at school. It was the one thing that I had control over. I knew if I worked hard and did the right things then I would end up with good grades and, for the most part, I did. However, not once did I consider doing a PhD. My grand plan was to do a master’s and go on to work in some big pharmaceutical company and discover the cure for AIDS or something like that.

But I should have known, my plans never go the way I want or expect them to.
The first time someone mentioned doing a PhD I was just like, “but why?” Why would I want to subject myself to torture for at best 4 years and at worst n years? But then the idea grew on me and I realized that, to do what I wanted to do, a PhD was a great tool to have, most likely a necessary one.

So fast-forward to today and here I am knee-deep in the PhD life. I’m about halfway through my PhD in polymer chemistry and I must say it was not what I expected. I mean, I was prepared to be frustrated, but I was not prepared for the disappointment.
If you remember, I had a formula for doing well in college. You work hard and you get results. A PhD doesn’t work like that. You often work extremely hard and still end up disappointed. But I’ll get into that later.

Sometimes people ask me “oh, how is work going? How’s your research? Any results?” and I laugh in tears because all those questions, the answers are usually not encouraging and expressing that can be depressing. And, for me, the worst part is when I say it’s not going great or it’s so and so and the person in question proceeds to tell me how it’ll be fine or how I should do x, y, and z. I know it comes from a good place. But most of the time said person has little or no knowledge about what I’m doing and their suggestions often fall short. Other times when I say I spent my day reading articles I get asked “so basically you’re just studying, how is that work? ” or something along those lines. I won’t lie, I get defensive when people say that to me because a PhD is realistically 50% reading journal articles and staring at your computer screen. Maybe more. Or better yet, finding interesting articles that could potentially have the solution to your problem, opening them and never reading them. Then wondering to yourself “why on earth did I open this tab in the first place?” At least that’s what it’s like for me. Another thing I’ve definitely learned about this PhD grad school life is: it’s a confusing position to be in/occupy in the university hierarchy. You’re technically still a student but you teach other students. You’re not a staff member but you get staff related emails and have some of the perks such as staff parking. You also get to do a lot of the grunt work, which is good experience I think but still grunt work nonetheless. Anyways, like I said, it’s a confusing position to occupy.

So back to the PhD life. if you’re a high achiever like me (you most likely are if you’re in grad school) then you will find that it can be quite hard on your emotions and your mind. I used to think that I knew what it was like to be depressed but starting this PhD took me to a whole new level of depression. I mean, I love the research and I love what I do, especially when it works. But for me, it tends to work for a week and fail for 6 months.

I think the problem is that we walk into PhD programs with all sorts of expectations and expect to do them all within the allotted PhD time but these dreams get crushed because they are unrealistic and the system doesn’t work like that. I think a lot of life works that way, so I guess it isn’t completely a bad thing.

I know it all sounds pretty depressing, but it isn’t. There are moments of joy, like when I went into my lab this morning and something I thought was a flop wasn’t. Or when the abstract I wrote for a conference got accepted. That was a major victory for me.
I guess the long and short of the PhD life is this: a PhD is fucking hard. You don’t have to be super smart to do one, you just have to have a thick skin, be stubborn, and be willing to work hard. One thing I haven’t been able to do is to find a balance to my life which means I work hard and don’t take time off. Even when I try to take time off I’m stressing about work which defeats the whole purpose. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t need to disappear into your PhD to be successful. In fact, I strongly suggest that you don’t.

The life of a grad student is hard work but it’s also rewarding. If I could go back in time would I still do it? Yes, I’m a glutton for punishment. Would I do things differently? Yes, I’d definitely try to create time for myself right from the start.

The PhD life is one of intense emotions and ups and downs. It isn’t for everyone and that’s okay, but it is an interesting path to walk.

meSharon Bolanta (her friends call her Shay) is a Nigerian currently pursuing a PhD in the Republic of Ireland, at the University of Limerick. Her research is on the fabrication of smart hydrogels for biomedical applications.
She is also a writer. She writes mostly articles and poems/spoken word poetry. She has a personal blog where she shares my thoughts on a number of topics.