I did a PhD in sciences and it nearly broke me. Why I think everybody should do it.
Doing a PhD is no easy peasy. But I guess you know that. I believe that no matter the area or subject, doing a PhD is always accompanied by some sort of personal change. Some may say its personal growth, a beautiful journey towards a better version of yourself. I did a PhD in Sciences. Well, to be truly honest, it’s not done. I am nearly finishing my PhD in Molecular Oncology. And I can tell you yes, there was a lot of personal change, and no, I don’t know if I am a better version of myself now.
I left my home country to pursue my PhD. It’s not like I went to an exotic place, where I had to adapt to a very different culture, or that I couldn’t communicate due to language barriers. No. I am a Portuguese girl. I moved to Belgium, which is a few thousand kilometers north in Europe. So, you see, I am at 2h flight distance from Portugal. Also, it is perfectly possible to live in Belgium if you speak good English and basic French. It’s almost like being home. Almost. But more on that in another occasion. Hopefully, if I ever write again.
So here I came, full of hopes and confident that I was prepared to the slap in the face that life was about to threw at me during the next four and a half years of my life. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t! I had seen some of my friends doing PhDs and talking about how difficult and demanding it was, professionally and personally. But in the end, the defense day, everything paid off. And I remember thinking, boy that’s what I want! Why? I don’t know. Maybe because of all the praise, or because I though these people were the smartest someone could be. And I always admired intelligent people. If I would do it, I would also be smart. People would listen to what I had to say, because I would have a paper stating that I was an intelligent person. Yes, you see: all the wrong reasons to do it, but I did it anyway. No one told me not to, and there would be no point on that. I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I had to do it just because I had to, that’s all there is.
So, in the beginning it was all really fine. New country, all alone for the first time. My first house, a 25sqm studio next to a very loud student residency, which I would hate a few months later. My first day in the new lab, and I was so happy, I was a PhD student! At 9:00 am, I entered in the lab and I turned to my supervisor: “Hi, I’m here! So, what should I do?” to what she answered, “You go and do your PhD.” And this, at 9:00 am of my first day of my PhD, was when I felt for the first time completely lost.
For the next years in Brussels, I had some truly happy moments, but mostly they were a mix of self-doubt, low self-esteem and anger, a lot of anger. I always felt that, just to be a regular student, with average/good results, I had to work ten times as hard as anybody else. So, when I came here and had to share an office and a bench with people that knew so much about everything, that were so confident in themselves and that I thought never made stupid mistakes like the ones I was constantly doing… well, I felt the most stupid person on the face of the earth.
To add up to this, I was starting on a completely new research area, with experimental techniques that I had never done before. So, obviously, I was making all types of mistakes. And day after day, I would get only embarrassed every time I had to go in the lab or explain my experiments to someone. Then, of course, I would get so angry at myself for not being what I thought people were expecting from me. For not being what I expected from me.
I thought I was ready for this, I really thought! I remember the first day I spent without making a single stupid mistake in the lab. In the end of the day I felt it like a victory. And then, I felt so sad and embarrassed that I was happy just because I made one day just being what I was supposed to be. I could not even enjoy my tiny victory, because I believed I did not deserve to celebrate something that was the bare minimum for a PhD student.
I stopped feeling things. I stopped feeling joy, I stopped feeling gratitude. All I could feel was anger. I stopped caring for the people who were the most important for me. My friends, who I avoided to speak on the phone or text; my 7-year boyfriend at the time, who I know loved more than everything. I can tell you for sure he did everything he could to keep me sane, to make me smile anytime he could. But for every time he, or anybody else, would say something nice about me I would convince myself they were being condescending, they felt sorry for me. Because, of course I knew these people cared for me, so they would try to lift me up. Even if all they had, I though, were a bunch of patronizing lies.
For the next year, things got worse. Experiments in the lab kept failing, my PhD project had hit a wall. And a big one. Why I am doing this? Why does this even matter? Who cares about this one protein that causes this rare disease that affects one in I don’t know how many thousands of people? Who will ever read this shitty thing? It all turned to a vicious cycle. Experiments kept failing, I would be embarrassed and angry at myself, and thinking I was not worthy a single euro that someone was paying me to do my research. At the end of the day, with my boyfriend, all I could hear were a bunch of meaningless condescending lies, so I would get angrier at me and at him, thinking he treated like some mentally disordered person. We would fight for long hours, hours I should be sleeping, but that I chose to waste in (sometimes) pointless arguments about everything and anything at all. Then, going to work after a few hours of sleep, sometimes three or four, which inevitably would reflect in my lack of concentration and poor memory, which resulted in more stupid mistakes, more embarrassment, more anger, well, you know it.
I don’t know when was it that things changed. I cannot point a big event in my life that was game changing. It was surely not because I magically started being an expert at the lab, or that I stopped making stupid mistakes. But the truth is that things started to flow differently. One thing I learned about me is that anger fuels me. For one thing I know for sure is that I took all that anger against me and everybody else, and I made it work for me. I studied, I studied very hard. I prepared each presentation as if my entire career depended on it. I repeated experiments to exhaustion until I knew what was wrong and why. I read a lot, so that I wouldn’t feel that people were correcting me all the time. And not only about my research area. About all sorts of subjects. Another thing I learned about me was how much it bothers me to be in a room full of people talking something I have no clue about. And not because I am so eager to give my opinion to those who don’t ask for it. Rather because when I hear people going about on a subject that I know something already, I get to understand them better. Not because I think they’re right, but because I can tell where we both agree, and which are our differences. An this helps me building stronger relationships.
Eventually I started feeling more self-confident. I learned to accept that I will do stupid mistakes for all my life, and thanks to them I will learn something every day. I lost my fear of asking. Sometimes in academia asking may be seen as a weakness. It’s common that PhD students are afraid of looking dumb in front of their peers and their supervisors, so they prefer not to ask. And sometimes, most of the times I would say, having asked that single question would have saved hours of Google search, or even months of experimentation. So, I ask. I’m not afraid to do it. And if I look dumb by asking basic questions about something that is out of my field, I don’t mind at all. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it simply means that I don’t know this thing, but sure I know others. And you can come and ask me whatever you want, I will never think you are less because you don’t know something I know, just because I had the chance to know it.
So, in the end of the day, I learned that a PhD will not make the smartest person in the room, as I was so sure about five years ago. I learned to embrace failure and use it to build something. It’s like with failed experiments. If you understand why they failed, you may not yet have the answer you are looking for, but you can eliminate the wrong hypotheses, and change the protocol accordingly. Doing a PhD in sciences nearly broke me, and that’s precisely why I believe everyone should do it. I put back all the broken pieces together. I am still trying to find where all of them fit, but I’m not anxious to finish the puzzle anymore. I realized that we are all trying to mount our own puzzles, and all are made of different pieces that won’t fit any other person. This helped me to understand people a bit better. So yes, I think everybody should do it. Getting out of the comfort zone. For me it was to leave Portugal and start a PhD in a completely new research area. Break ourselves so that we can rebuild.
It would be presumptuous to assume I can teach you something, it is only my first time writing something like this. In any case, if you read it all to here, you might have already experienced something similar, or maybe you are going through your own stuff. If it makes any difference, I understand the struggle, and if you keep going and don’t quit, it will all come together in the end.
P.S.: what about my poor boyfriend? We’re together, and happier than ever! We grew as a couple, and all the challenges only helped to strength ourselves and our relationship. It’s all good for now. It’s all good…