The gateway into this life is a PhD, and the PhD system is deeply, deeply fucked up when it isn’t actively abusive. Doing a PhD will break you. It’s pretty much designed to break you. Yes, even you, you who are brilliant (that almost goes without saying; it’s because you’re brilliant that you’re contemplating doing a PhD in the first place). You who are resilient and have survived several kinds of shit that life has thrown at you just to get to the point where you’re about to graduate with a brilliant degree. You who have the unconditional support of your family and friends and partners. If you have every admirable personal quality you can think of, if you have every advantage in life, still, getting through a PhD will grind you down, will come terrifyingly close to killing your soul and might well succeed. It will do horrible things to your mental and physical health and test to breaking point every significant relationship in your life.
At this point in reading it, I had to put the computer down and go off and do something else for five minutes, because I had to process my own feelings.
Here’s the thing: The process of doing a PhD (Liv is talking about the UK, and I am talking about the UK) broke me fairly horribly. I went into it a young recent graduate with no masters degree, no work ethic, and also undiagnosed ADHD and an anxiety disorder (probably). I thought I had some sort of depression, but had never seen anyone about it. I still only have self-diagnosed ADHD/Anxiety, but I’m pretty confident about the symptoms right now, and I’m only where I am because I learned coping mechanisms. When I was 23, I didn’t even have the motivation to rein in my wondering mind.
The PhD system in the UK is relatively simple: three years to write a thesis. That is: learn the science, do the research, write it up. Many people take four years, and that’s socially acceptable, but funding only lasts for four years. The funding bodies often provide universities an extra funding pool to support students who are still writing up after three years, but my university (UCL) decided instead to use this money to reward people who completed in three years. In other words: they gave the money to the very students it wasn’t intended for in the first place.
PhD students get supervisors, and mine were amazing and supportive and the best supervisors I could ask for. Given the colleagues I’ve had that have had their supervisors retire, leave the country, or have sexually abused their students, I have nothing to complain about. But they can only ‘supervise’ so much – thesis writing depends on being self-motivated. And I had none of that. I procrastinated most of my first year, and then ran head on into hard, sudden, anxiety. And guess what happens when I’m anxious about something? I procrastinate some more!
I believe I may have had a breakdown around my 4th year, when I was working a job I hated, in a living situation that wasn’t ideal, and dealing with the kind of social situation with my online friends that was designed to hit me in all my social-anxiety weak spots.
A PhD is “supposed” to take 3 years. I took 6.
Do I regret doing it? Not really. I loved the actual data collection. I love dinosaurs and think paleontology is the greatest thing. When I got to grips with the science, it was a rush like – well, let’s just say that the only thing that compares is watching my students get to grips with difficult ideas. I learned, and the learning process is my favorite thing.
But I still advise people to think again before going into a doctorate fresh from an undergraduate or even a masters. And I definitely advise people never to see a PhD as a means to an end. Know yourself. Know your subject, and ibe prepared to make your life your work for as long as it takes.
Maybe warm up by doing something easy first, like writing a novel.