Before we start, you need to read this: Partly because my punch line is going to hang on you being familiar with the metaphor, and partly because if you’re here, then basically you need it in your life.
It would be safe to say that my PhD has not been plain sailing. I’m not sure that anybody’s doctorate actually goes smoothly and pleasantly at all times, but I genuinely believe that – as the lovely Jenny Rohn from LabLit.com said yesterday – if you can survive this then you can survive anything. So how do you? Survive, I mean. I’ve talked about making your PhD easier by being organised from the start, and finding a support network and by not letting yourself get dragged down. But what about when you’re completely at rock bottom? What about when it’s time to do or die?
The last month has been hell. Not just from a work point of view, although that’s hardly been a bed of roses. On a life-outside-of-biology level, the last six weeks are up there as some of the roughest I’ve lived through in my adult life. Some of it’s medical; some of it’s social; a lot of it revolves around a particular group in which I hold a leadership role. Everything has gone belly up and life has Not Been Fun.
At the height of this I was asked what the worst case scenario was. Tell me, what is the worst that can happen? I ummed and ahed and cried and whined, but when I actually answered the question it was pretty simple. I walk away; I stop doing something I love; I cut loose a group of friends, who probably wouldn’t forgive me for abandoning them even if they agreed with me in terms of everything else that had happened. AND I WOULD SURVIVE. I might be unhappy for a little while, but life would go on.
The same, I realised this week, is true of my PhD. I could quit my PhD tomorrow, and while I would regret it and be sad, the world would not end. My supervisor would probably be over it in about a week. My family would breathe a sigh of relief that they could stop worrying about how stressed I was. A few of my other postgraduate friends would chalk it up as ‘a massive shame’ but probably not judge me for it. A few people I don’t like all that much might judge me for it: but would I actually care?
The truth is that knowing your exit strategy – knowing that you have an exit strategy is important even if you never use it. Feelings of shame and underachievement and disappointment are hard enough to endure without throwing blind panic and claustrophobia into the mix. How can you expect yourself to cope with the fact that your PhD isn’t going so well when it feels like you have no choice but to carry on, even when it seems hopeless? If you’re going to survive doing a PhD, some days you will need to know that you don’t have to do a PhD. You are choosing to do something kind of awesome, even though it’s hard and demoralising and frustrating. Nobody is forcing you to do it.
To pass your PhD you will need to wrestle the snake. But sometimes knowing that you can walk away from the snake fight and still live might just give you the courage to enter the snake pit in the first place.