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No "one size fits all" rule for completing a PhD

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

I think one of the things I find interesting about any postgraduate degree, but specifically a PhD is that it generally takes place when you are an adult, who is trying to balance life.

I didn't fully start to take care of myself until I started my PhD, and so the experience for me has been a lot. In my first year, I decided I was going to learn to drive, and I was going to buy a car. I bought the car, but it ended up sitting in my parking lot for about six months because life happened. I couldn't afford insurance, and when I could, I was too nervous and anxious to get behind the wheel and drive. In the second year of my PhD, I hit rock bottom, and I hit it hard.

A lot of things were going on in my personal life, and in my bid to balance everything, I neglected my mental health. In my third year, I tried to fix all the broken relationships from my second year and stretched myself thin, and now I am suffering from burnout. When I started my PhD, I genuinely thought that life would stand still for me and everything would be smooth sailing in my personal life until I graduated, but that hasn't been the case at all, and I was naïve to think it would be.

Now, when I talk to new PhD students, or anyone really, I always tell them to put themselves first. I am still only learning this lesson in the final year of my PhD (You would have thought I would have learnt my lesson by now!). A PhD is very demanding, and sometimes it seems like a huge ask to take care of yourself first, but I am learning self-care is extremely important.

One of the things that helped me in the last year is taking breaks in the middle of the day with someone. I know this sounds obvious, but hear me out.

PhD's are very isolating by nature, especially when you are an international student (which I am). You are not only trying to navigate a new country, but you are also trying to navigate a new system

Sometimes it just seems easier to eat your lunch or have all 20 cups of coffee at your desk. And even though there is nothing inherently wrong with that, sometimes it helps to have a chat with someone about work, or life or just random things.

People always talk about having support systems and how important they are, I 100% agree and support this. However, when you are an introvert, who struggles with anxiety, and is an international student, it can be a challenge to build a network. When I started my PhD, I thought I would be the girl with lots of friends and a diverse network, but that was and is not my reality. My support system currently comprises of my family and a handful of friends spread across the world, and that works for me. My system includes people in my office that I can talk to when I am struggling, or when I need to vent. However, none of these people is in the same group as me, and only one is in the same department as me. Nevertheless, that is okay, because in their way they provide support for me when I need it and vice versa. A support system is an essential part of getting through grad school, but your support system does not need to look like everyone else's support system.

I have also found that Twitter is such a useful tool for finding people who understand your struggles and can celebrate your successes with you. I love the community of PhD students and just academics in general that I have found on Twitter because they remind me that I am not alone, and this is merely just a phase in my life.

Over the last few years, I have learnt so much about myself, due to the pressure of the PhD. It's interesting when you think about it, and if anyone asked me how I have made it this far, I would honestly have to say "I have no idea" and that, is the truth. There is no "one size fits all" rule for completing a PhD and overcoming the accompanying challenges. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them and stick with it. The best advice I can give anyone is, be kind to yourself. This experience is a marathon, and you have to pace yourself, in every way. You have to intentionally take care of yourself and be kind to yourself when things don't go the way you planned. If you genuinely love what you do, then you should always remind yourself that the goal is not just to finish. The goal is to answer a question, advance the research, and solve a problem. It does not matter if other people are sprinting across the field your jog will get you there eventually. You deserve to play in the game with everyone else, and you are doing a great job even if you cannot see it.

Ultimately, a PhD is an experience, but it also just a part of your life. It is not your whole life. You might buy a house, get married, lose a loved one, have a child, have a falling out with a loved one, etc. The list of things that may or may not happen while you are in the phase is endless, but they can happen, and that's just the way life is. When these things happen, don't give your PhD priority over everything else. Remember, it is a part of your life, not your entire life.

~Sharon Bolanta

Follow @shayrunn on Twitter and Instagram.

Learn more at Sharon's website

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