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Why Not to do a PhD 
29th-Jan-2013 01:06 pm

From [personal profile] liv on Dreamwidth:

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.


This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

29th-Jan-2013 06:52 pm (UTC)
I think my problem with doing a PhD (and I did mine 25 years ago!) is that it doesn't really prepare one for academia. It was necessary - part of the career path - but really not sufficient.

One of the reasons why I left academia (and there are several) is that the ininterview process for post-doc, the panel convinced me my project wasn't a good idea. And then they gave me the money.

That broke me. It was frankly a completely useless process. And it was designed to do this: it was completely adverserial.

I have no idea why.

Maybe because to succeed as an academic you need to be ruthlessly ambitious and cut-throat?

Anyhow, I decided several months into my post-doc that I really couldn't be arsed. And I have been way better off in all kinds of ways because of that decision!
29th-Jan-2013 06:54 pm (UTC)
One other thing, though - and this still does my head in.

For a few months, I knew more about my topic than anyone else in the world. That is still a hell of a thought!
29th-Jan-2013 07:20 pm (UTC)
There are many reasons I won't do a PhD - this being a big one. I'm struggling just to deal with the stresses of Masters level study.

I am utterly in awe of you that you managed to do your PhD while coping with everything else you've described.

29th-Jan-2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
An MS is supposed to take 2 years and mine will have taken 6 by the time I'm done. Mt my program, we have to take 2 full years of classes, and it's extremely rare for anyone to finish in less than 3 years unless they come in with a funded project already.

I don't understand why it has to be this way, it seems like there's a chronic problem of advisors who are good scientists but horrible mentors. I don't know why universities can't do more to fix that. There seems to be zero support for advisors to learn better people skills; the administration seems to assume that if someone can do science then they're fit to supervise a lab full of students. And there seems to be a bit of "well if I had to survive hell to get my PhD, it shouldn't be any easier for students now."
29th-Jan-2013 07:48 pm (UTC)
It's weird, and I think comes from the idea in academia (undergrad and above) that academics should BOTH teach AND research. Obviously having an active researcher supervise your research is important, but teaching/mentoring is an entirely different skill set.
30th-Jan-2013 05:57 am (UTC)

Thissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. Trufax.
29th-May-2013 10:43 pm (UTC)
Okay, so. I'm only reading this now, because I've been unable to use the computer for literally forever BUT.

WRT ADHD/Anxiety: I discovered by accident that Lush's Sakura Bath Bomb literally worked as well as Xanax for me in the midst of an anxiety/panic attack. And just an anxiety attack.

I was about, with it (and, okay, Ember, but I felt more confident with the Sakura) to go entirely off of anxiety medication, and I have not needed it for 6+ years.

I have four Sakura bath bombs atm. I can send you one. I rec, rather than putting it in the bath, breaking it up into powder or small pieces. When needed, put a tablespoon/small piece into a mug. Add hot water. Deeply inhale until calm. (Then, to get the most out of it, as it smells lovely, reheat in microwave and let the steam and scent fill a room of your choice. THEN, with what is left, reheat it again and add to a bath, because there will be enough left if you fill a mug about 2/3 of the way with water, that it will scent both the water and yourself.)

I looked up the ingredients in Sakura, by the way, about a week ago on Lush's site. For the very first time. Despite having been using it this way for over six years, yes, it would have been smart, at least, to look before, but hey. It was working.

About four of the main ones are essential oils known to calm anxiety, so. It's not in my head. And it's worked on at least one other person I sent a bath bomb to and who keeps one in the house (as do I) at all times, now. (I can't remember *admits* if I actually sent half a bath bomb to the second person or not; I meant to, and I feel horrible that I can't remember! But since my fall, my memory for a very select time period (it covers about six weeks of last year, for some reason; I don't know why) is very, very patchy. And I just have no idea if I did or not, or if I did and it got through, or not, and I'm kinda embarrassed to ask because WHO CANNOT REMEMBER AN ENTIRELY RANDOM, NON-RELATED TO THE FALL OR THE TIME THE FALL TOOK PLACE, PERIOD OF HER LIFE?!

Me, obviously, but.)

Anyway. It's yours, if you want it and send me an address to mail it to.
29th-May-2013 11:52 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I cannot remember random periods of anything. Which is just how my brain works, but it has resulted in no shame at all in admitting when I've forgotten something. You should ask!

And if we see each other in the next few months, I would love to try Sakura, thank you! I don't want to add to your stress by insisting you sen me one, but this is so generous and thoughtful I don't want to pass it up :)
30th-May-2013 01:04 am (UTC)
Oh, I know I will, if only because it's really been bothering me and if I didn't, I know I'll feel INSANELY guilty--but not as much as WONDERING if I didn't. Right now, I need to be physically able, with my head and all, to be able to get on AIM to talk to her. Anyway.

No, hon. I WILL send you one. *firm* I have sent things for eBay, I can send this to you, and it will make me happy to know it even MIGHT help you. So it will not add to my stress. I will bug you over email if you try to refuse. *threatens* So you may as well email me your address now; I was looking at my stash, and I'll send you one older both bomb and half of a new one--the half a new one is probably going to be powdered, because that HAPPENS in breaking a bath bomb up, so I generally powder the whole thing, and it ships slightly better that way--to try. I've had no problems with age affecting any Sakura bath bombs, but I strongly suggest you try the new one first, just in case. And it'll be powdered, anyway--if the scent isn't strong enough after a teaspoon and filling the mug 2/3 the way with hot water, just add more.

After all, I can use logic at you: you don't have an official diagnosis, so there's no chance of a prescription. You need non-medicinal treatment for that alone, and I am offering, quite happy to pay the shipping, too, as this is something that even MIGHT help you with something I know I literally suffered from for years, even WITH the Xanax, a potential excellent treatment.

Do not make me bombard you with logical and pleading emails! I will! *threatens, while trying to look cute and begging and pleading all at the same time* ...Yeah, okay, so the asterix-actions probably wouldn't work, but YOU GET THE IDEA.
30th-May-2013 01:06 am (UTC) - OH AND ALSO.
I'm also planning to mixing up, as soon as I find the oils for a good price, tiny vials of the essential oils listed on Lush as a) the main ingredients and b) specifically helpful for anxiety. But the price-shopping is taking a while. If I do, though, I will offer you one--though, uh, if it's overseas shipping, I may have to ask for help with paying for s/h. But I haven't had a TRUE anxiety attack in years--I think partially both from Ember, who is psychiatrist-listed therapy cat now, and from fairly regular use of mugs of this bath bomb.

But the thing that always caused them most strongly--and where I still get waves of anxiety, not-at-all fun ones, though not truly what I'd call anxiety ATTACKS--are when I fly alone. It started after the terrorist with bombs was on the first plane in my flight to Belfast the December I was 19.

Now, when I fly with Ember. As she's an Official Therapy Cat, she flies with me, at my seat, under the seat in front of me, for FREE. And like I said, she keeps the attacks away.

But I can't always take her with me.

Well. Can't really conveniently or quickly get hot water to mix up a tiny batch of powder--and I think they'd question it just a bit--shortly before take-off. But a tiny perfumer or vial with oils that smell strongly WITHOUT hot water? As long as it's under the 3 oz rule, shouldn't be a problem at all. And it would be much more convenient for when I'm out of the apartment, just in case.

So, assuming I actually can afford the oils to mix this thing up, I'm happy to buy an extra vial or perfumer--I get them free, perfumers, when I order from this one site, actually--when my one perfume that I allow myself runs out, I'll have a second one. But all that rambling said, the offer, should I have the money to get the four oils, exists.

However, I also say again I am FIRMLY looking at you and I am ALSO, with my OTHER eye, firmly looking at my gmail and waiting for the address of where to sell the 1.5 Sakura bath bombs. *waits, firmly, but patiently* I can be scary and firm. A girl at my first high school refused to be in a class-appointed pre-AP English study group with me, because she was so scared of how I "got into character," as she said, in the AP US History the week before groups were being assigned. (I was arguing for the side of Marbury in the historical case of Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review in the US. 1) Pretty much every historian and lawyer agrees Marbury SHOULD have one, and 2) I was the only person, I found out the day of the "trial", who had done any research. On my side OR the other, which had three "lawyers" each. The guy who spoke for the other side ADMITTED he had done no research and was relying on imitating Good Ol' Boy Southern Lawyer Rhetoric.

I was already pissed, as I had done six hours of research to prep.

I was MORE pissed when, with no case, the "judges" decided for Madison. To the point I stood up in class and loudly demanded where, exactly, the "judges'" heads were and what they had been smoking when making their decision.

Our teacher snorted at me but said he'd like to know, too, as he couldn't exactly see the logic.

Judges: Well. Historically they voted for Madison, so we had to, too, right?

Teacher: Uh, no. That's what you DID, but, you see, doing it that way defeats the purpose of this entire assignment, which you have also just done. And I believe Kathleen is very, very angry at having spent six hours researching and then arguing quite well for her "client", thus taking the assignment seriously and correctly, two key approaches which no other person involved in this trial managed to BOTH achieve. Thus, she'll be getting the highest grade.

Me: *too fucking angry at having spent SIX HOURS and having been defeated by people with no common sense about how a retrial of a historical case works and b) some guy with a really bad, overly-elaborate accent which he had ADMITTED AS BEING HIS ONLY ARGUMENT.)

See? Scary! *claws at air like Ember* Grr?
30th-May-2013 01:15 am (UTC) - Re: OH AND ALSO.

You are definitely Ember-claw scary! Email sent!
30th-May-2013 01:43 am (UTC) - Re: OH AND ALSO.
I got the impression that was one of two MAIN things people in both the AP US History class and the Pre-AP English class--because the course roles were identical from one class to the other--remembered about me.

The other being when we took the PSATs that fall. Which most people knew I hadn't studied for and thought I was stupid for that.

Our scored tests were given back the next week and everyone started showing each other and talking about their scores. And I quietly put mine face-down after listening to the scores of the three people, one of them quite intelligent, sitting behind me.

After a few minutes, one girl--in my group of friends--came over to my table of three and asked what my score was.

Me: Doesn't matter.

She: *grins* Oh, come on, everyone knows what everyone else got. It can't have been THAT bad.

Me: *thinks You have no idea.* It's not bad at all, I just generally don't talk about my grades or scores. People only know what I've scored because they publicly post the principal's list of everyone who scored a 4.0 the first three semesters.

She: *teases me for a good five minute*

Me: *after losing my patience* Fine. Here. *hands her the paper* That's my score.

She: *stares. Jaw literally drops, and then she glares at me. By the end of our 15 minutes break after that class, when she knows the grades of people in our entire GRADE, she has decided not to talk to me and WILL not talk to me for 3 weeks*

The reason, she announces to everyone, while also telling, literally, our ENTIRE FUCKING GRADE, my PSAT score?

Was that I, by getting fed up with her and handing my paper over so she would read the damned thing and leave me the hell alone, was, and I quote, "bragging".


Was that I had not only scored the highest in our Pre-AP English class.

I had placed highest in the grade. By about twenty points.

Which I ONLY EVEN KNEW because she told everyone how I bragged about that fact, as after hearing the three guys behind me with their scores--which gave me a good idea that mine was high, though I didn't know it was THAT much higher, nor that there was such a big gap between my score and the one after mine--I deliberately stopped listening. I DIDN'T talk about my grades or scores in general, and I definitely was planning not to then. I already knew that people would get pissed off at me for how I did in school. I did NOT need to give them ammunition, and I also didn't, y'know. Particularly want to make anyone feel badly. I'm not FOND of doing that. Not, in fact, a sadist.

Though the story is much funnier now than at the time, I'm both told and able to realize!

*proud* Ember-scary! I didn't think I COULD reach that level! Hear that, kitten? Mama got high praise! (Seriously, this is not stress for me. And worrying about you when I had something that very well might possibly HELP you WOULD stress me. So you have a) stopped potential, future stress from ever taking place, and b) made me quite happy that I may send you these and possibly provide you with an effective tool to deal with the anxiety.)
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