Loving the PhD life


I recently saw a psychologist to help with time management, stress management and to get better at ‘saying no’ (ie: how to do it). When I told her that I was a PhD student the psychologist actually laughed and said, “There’s no getting around it, these will be the most stressful years of your life”.

The PhD is stressful. These are words I hear often, both from fellow students and academics alike. And they are phrases I find myself repeating to family and friends, justifying why I was late, once again, to an event. But overall, I love my PhD.

The two competing mindsets can be confusing, to me and to others. I often see perplexed looks when I list everything on this week’s ‘to do’ list to someone and follow it up with: “but I love it!”.

When talking with my friends and fellow students (i.e. complaining about how time poor we are over beers at the uni bar at 2pm on a Wednesday), we agreed that if you look past the constant 60+ hour work week, the lack of sleep, the stress that we’ll never finish, the stress that we might finish and have to work ‘a real job’, the stress that we’ll never actually find a job due to the increasing number of graduates and shrinking job market… there are a lot of things to love about this lifestyle.

So for those that need a little help digging through the anxiety, stress and self-doubt to find the positives, here are the top 10 things I love about my PhD (in no particular order) with the hope they will inspire you to think about your top 10.

    1. It feels amazing to know I’m not ‘stuck in a dead-end job’, and I always feel positive about my career and professional development.
    2. I often work from home, in my pyjamas, with The Simpsons on in the background (I’ve seen seasons 1-12 so many times that it’s now become a way to support myself financially by winning drink vouchers at Simpsons trivia comps).
    3. I get to tailor my project in such a way as to learn specific new skills that I haven’t yet had a chance to develop. This has ranged from interview skills to stats techniques to presenting in front of a wide range of audiences.
    4. I cook a delicious breakfast every morning (eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes, the works). As someone who is notoriously late (no matter how early I get up) and whose morning routine fits 100% into Parkinson’s Law, I’m enjoying this before I have a boss who pays attention to when I get into the office each day.
    5. Because the PhD lifestyle often conflicts with ‘normal’ 9-5 working hours, my schedule is flexible and my time is entirely my own. I can break up my day by going to the gym at midday, I can grocery shop at odd times when the shops are less busy, and I can wake up at 10am (and then work til 3am) if I feel so inclined. This flexibility has also allowed me to play with my work schedule and find the times of day I’m most productive (10pm it turns out, unfortunately).
    6. The additional research assistant jobs I’ve accepted to supplement my scholarship have provided me with amazing networking and funding opportunities – and a glimpse into research areas quite different from my thesis.
    7. On occasion I get to travel to some pretty cool places for free (and by ‘free’ I mean undertaking the terror-inducing task of presenting my findings to international audiences at conferences and continually cringing internally at my awkward attempts to network).
    8. I don’t have time to have the quarter-life crisis that many of my non-PhD friends are having.
    9. I get to continually apply this misattributed Hemingway quote: “write drunk, edit sober”.
    10. And, most importantly, I get to spend every day exploring a topic that I love, with the hope that my work will make a small contribution to both the academic literature and to the world.

I completely understand the stressors that many students face. As the PhD student rep at my university I have seen countless horror stories first hand.

We’re all overworked, underpaid and stressed out perfectionists with imposter syndrome. Given recent findings about mental health issues among PhD students , many things need to change.  Of course, universities and supervisors have a large role to play. BUT perspective is everything, and when our projects, our relationships or our lives go to shit, it might be helpful if we have some tiny positives to hold on to.

Author Bio: Cassandra Wardle is a PhD student in the Griffith University School of Environment, the HDR representative for Griffith University, and an intern at the Australian Academy of Science.