Leah’s PhD: Another Year (Almost) Down

Well, another year of #phdlife is quickly coming to an end, and it’s been just over a year since my last reflective blog post. In last year’s post, I thought it’d be a good idea to use bug GIFs to illustrate some PhD/life lessons I had learned throughout the year. Don’t worry, readers – I’ve grown up. I won’t bombard you with bug GIFs again.

Because this year it’s going to be Oprah Winfrey GIFs! Those who frequently speak to me in person know that I love Oprah, and I’ve just discovered how massive the collection of Oprah GIFs offered by the Web is. What a time to be alive, folks. What. A. Time.

So, here goes. Another year as a PhD student, another reflective blog posts about all the important things I’ve learned. Please bear with me on this one. As I write this, I’m in the business class car of a train from Montréal to Toronto and VIA Rail offers unlimited alcoholic drinks.

Just three things this year, so you have no excuse for not reading.

Above all else: You are the most important thing. Take care of yourself.

Quite honestly, this is something I am acutely aware of, but struggle with nonetheless. The past year has been rife with physical, emotional, and psychological challenges, and I have not been good at balancing my work with activities that make me feel calm and refreshed. I have probably spend hours spontaneously bursting into tears, upset about things that felt like they were (and, indeed, are) out of my control.

This one is therefore a work in progress for me. I know that I need to work on this, but it can be difficult to change bad habits that have become embedded after so many years. I’ve started to learn how to let myself relax by doing things like:

  • Watching films
  • Listening to really loud music and colouring (although I still get a bit upset when I go outside the lines)
  • Playing my guitar and writing songs (or just writing poems when my fingernails get too long)
  • Cooking
  • Reading books unrelated to my research
  • Napping

I’ve come to realise that I can hardly work when I’m feeling poorly. Plus, the work that I do get done when I’m not feeling well is usually of such bad quality that I end up having to redo it.

There’s just no point in trying to work if you know that what you produce is going to be garbage. One of the benefits of doing a PhD is that you (often) have a much more flexible schedule than a typical job would allow. Use this to your advantage. Take a walk. Sleep in. Take an Oprah-inspired bubbled bath.

Image result for oprah bubble bath

Do whatever it takes to make sure that you can be your best self, and that you can write your thesis without feeling like you are going to snap. Whether you’re facing physical, emotional, or psychological challenges, you’re too important to be anything but intact.

Set yourself big goals. Know that you might not meet them, and know that that not meeting your goals is okay.

This year I wanted to publish peer-reviewed articles. I went into my second year telling myself that I was going to publish, publish, publish, and that people were going to love my writing unconditionally. Additionally, I told myself that I was going to travel to continental Europe lots, regularly read books for fun, and overcome my irrational fear of spending money (it’s a thing, y’all).

I did actually meet all of these goals – just not to the extent that I wanted to. I published two peer-reviewed articles this year (see here and here), and have another one on the way. I read one or two books for fun, although most of my reading was (as usual) related to my research. The money thing continues to be a problem.

These goals were all set in a completely sober stupor, but my life actually did positively change when I tried my best to meet them. I felt good about myself when I saw my name in print, even if my writing was not met with unconditional love (I’m not going to link you to my public lynching on Twitter – you can find that yourself). But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still failing, even though the only thing I was failing at was reaching the goals I had set for myself. Everyone else told me I was doing well. I was the only one who felt otherwise.

The emotional side of me still feels like a bit of a let-down. The rational side of me, however, knows that I have achieved lots, and it’s largely because I set these big goals for myself. I had things to strive towards. I gave myself purpose. Giving yourself purpose is particularly important in PhD life, because often there are few others around to motivate you. Your supervisors are there, sure, but they have other things to do and won’t always be around to prod you when you need it.

Set yourself big goals. It is okay if you don’t fulfil them. Heck, you probably won’t, but you tried. And in trying, you can achieve some damn great things. Try your best to brush off that sense of failure, and keep going.

Image result for oprah gif shrug

Other people want you to succeed.

I was just in Montréal for the annual Electronic Literature Organization conference. The thought of presenting at this conference had been daunting me for months: I was presenting my empirical study results for the first time, and felt like the people who would be watching my presentation would realise that I didn’t belong there.

That’s absolutely not what happened.

The presentation wasn’t perfect. I stumbled over my words, and had to rush to finish on time. I felt like my heart was beating outside of my chest, and I had to lean against the podium to hide the fact that my legs were shaking so much that I didn’t feel like I could stand up straight. Speaking about my research always does this to me, but the symptoms of imposter syndrome felt especially strong that day.

People didn’t seem to notice. Instead, I got asked some solid questions that both affirmed the value of my research and prompted me to consider it in new ways. People approached me afterwards to compliment me on my work and offer their own opinions on what my study results might mean. I was overwhelmed with positivity and, resultantly, a sense of belonging.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt surprised by such positivity. Every time I present – despite how nervous I may be – most people are receptive. I get new Twitter followers who are interested in keeping up with my research findings. Listeners stick around to chat with me afterwards.

It is really easy to feel like your work is not good enough, or that you don’t belong. And it’s okay to feel that way, especially when your research isn’t as polished as it will be when you finally end up submitting your thesis.

Plow through that presentation, though. Lean against the podium if you have to. People are interested in what you have to say – you wouldn’t have been accepted to speak if they weren’t – and people want you to succeed. Even if it’s just so that you do the hard work for them.

And if the people you present to don’t like you, screw ’em. At least Oprah believes in you.

Image result for oprah gif

And that’s that, y’all. Another year completed. Only one more year before I have to start seriously looking for a real job.

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