As a dual-degree MD/PhD student I spent two years in the medical school doing classroom learning, now I’m in the lab trying to get a PhD, and then in a few years I’ll return for the last two years of medical school and work in the hospital. In this process, I’ve heard a lot about the hectic transition back to medical school: the early hours, the scary doctors, but I never really heard about the transition into graduate school. I took to Bitesize Bio to learn about some of the mechanics of grad school, but what I wasn’t prepared for was that grad school would entail such an emotional challenge.
In general, if you’re pursuing a PhD it means two things:
1) You’re driven.
2) You derive self-worth from your work.
The first is great; it takes a lot of motivation to spend long days in the lab tediously optimizing experiments. The second is dangerous. Many students enter the PhD program with no experience other than college, and while college can certainly prepare you for some aspects of a PhD program it doesn’t prepare you for the independence of PhD research. In college everything is clearly laid out, at the beginning of every semester there’s a defined syllabus with a schedule that’s set in stone; all you need to do is put your head down and hammer away.
Getting a PhD is a different beast
In graduate school there is no syllabus. You can learn when you want, what you want, and how you want, but this freedom can be a real double-edged sword. You finally have intellectual freedom, except now there are no due dates to keep you accountable. The only person keeping you accountable is yours truly, and when you fail there’s nobody to blame but yourself. During my first year of graduate school I had a hard time with this sort of freedom. Every time an experiment went wrong (a frequent occurrence for all scientists!), I questioned my sense of self-worth. If I couldn’t even conduct simple experiments, was I worthless? Was there any chance I could quit and still save face?
The reality was that these questions were overly dramatic, but at the time I was having real struggles with PhD-induced blues. Throughout that first year I learned that many other students were dealing with similar struggles, and here are the best ways we found to cope with this PhD-induced depression:
1. Read the PhD Grind
About three months into graduate school I realized I was seriously depressed. My experiments weren’t working, and I had no idea where I was going. I was second-guessing my decision to pursue a PhD, but around this time I came across Dr. Philip Guo’s memoir The Ph.D. Grind. This memoir did what good writing is supposed to do—it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. His memoir is about pursuing a PhD in computer science, but it really gets at the PhD experience as a grind, a fulfilling life experience filled with ups and downs and, is by all accounts, a great read. With the invention of the internet, the world is a much smaller place, making it easier to find people going through exactly the same problems are you—company for your misery is only a few clicks away so never feel like you are alone!
2. Develop hobbies
When you take ownership of your PhD dissertation project, it’s hard not to think about it all the time. After all, it’s your intellectual baby. But the bottom line is that you need other things to occupy your mind, pick up a new hobby: running road races, community soccer, any sort of physical activity can really hold off the PhD doldrums. If you don’t like exercise you could doodle in a notebook, write for a website, or pick up a harmonica. Just find something to keep your thoughts away from your experiments for a few hours each day.
3. Seek relationships
Entering a new environment, you’ll need new peers to fill your social circles. You’ll be holed up with your labmates doing science for most of the day, but connecting with coworkers outside of work can be refreshing. There’s a bar across the street from our campus where a couple labmates and I would often go for happy hour to complain about failed experiments. If bars aren’t your thing, why not set up a standing lunch or dinner date with some colleagues instead. The main thing is to have shoulders to lean on when times are tough!
4. Get involved in the lab
It’s intimidating to join a new lab where everyone knows more than you, but you have to get involved. Dabble in as many projects as possible. Dive headfirst into one project you love. It really doesn’t matter. Just get active in the workplace and stay as active as you can. The more you sit around and mope the more you’ll struggle.
5. Schedule regular time off
Science never stops. If you wanted, you could spend all your waking hours in the lab. I had a hard time drawing clear boundaries and knowing when to stop. As I adjusted throughout the course of the year, a usual work week for me looked like: five full weekdays, a half day on Saturday, and a couple hours on Sunday morning. Then, I took the rest of Sunday to go to church, spend time with my family, and try to relax. If you don’t intentionally schedule this sort of time off experiments will always come up. Your mentors will always want you to produce more data. People will always be asking you to serve on committees. Science never stops.
To recap, if you’re dealing with the PhD blues, just remember it’s completely normal and that you’re not alone. It’s notoriously a tough time for everyone! Seek help in relationships, take some time for introspection, and be as proactive as you can to take care of yourself.
How have you overcome the PhD blues? Let us know in the comments below!
Featured image by Florian Simeth.