Enjoying your PhD…?!

Going back into my desk at uni in January felt a little sad this year. The PhD student who has sat at the desk next to me for the last few years, is close to submitting and has moved interstate to take up some exciting work (and lifestyle) opportunities. I’ll miss her a lot; having a truly sympathetic, wise, funny, generous and supportive peer has been invaluable to help me navigate the many confusing and stressful times of the PhD experience. It’s also been wonderful to laugh at the absurdities, and celebrate the big and small achievements along the way.

In her farewell email, one of the pieces of advice she gave fellow PhD students was to be sure to enjoy it. My initial thoughts were: ‘impossible!’, ‘absurd!’; probably because I ended last year having worked myself into quite a state of anxiety about how the hell I will be able finish my data collection, analysis and write up in less than a year after which time my scholarship finishes (and if not how I will find ‘proper’ work and finish it etc etc), which, when I think about it, is exactly the kind of state of mind I in at the end of the previous year!

CC, Werwin15 @ flickr

CC, Werwin15 @ flickr

Even prior to the end of the year, enjoyment is not a word I would use to describe my PhD experience – in fact it’s probably one of the last words I would use. Indeed words that immediately spring to mind if I were to describe my phd are: stressful, confusing, perplexing, challenging, isolating, hard, and, perhaps occasionally a little demoralising. This is a bit sad, if not entirely surprising given my anxiety disorder; I tend to fixate on the negative and less enjoyable things.

However, it reality my PhD has been quite wonderful in many regards; I ended the year winning the Best Student Paper at a major conference (surprising and thrilling!) and after a ridiculously long time I submitted a systematic review to a journal. I also successfully ran a series of participatory design workshops. It’s challenged me and shown me the value of persistence. I really have loved learning and love the fact that my research has the potential to make a real difference to young people’s experience and their relationship with their General Practitioner. I have supervisors who are generally pretty awesome too which I am very thankful for, not to mention the the support of my PhD peers. Unfortunately I just don’t tend to give these positives much thought (too busy focusing on the negative stuff) .

Interestingly, over the summer I did a major clean out of my flat and found a list of my signature strengths. Signature strength is a concept from positive psychology, individual skills or talents that facilitate a sense of happiness and flourishing. Mine are: humour and playfulness; gratitude; love of learning; social intelligence; and honesty, authenticity, and genuineness.

I’m not naive enough to think that I can banish my anxiety and negative ruminations. However, I will commit to trying to have a more balanced outlook, and perhaps ensure I incorporate my signature strengths into my research where possible.

So here’s to a year of moments of JOY!

Applying

I’ve applied for a PhD scholarship. In so many ways it ticks the right boxes for me. It is in an area which I am particularly passionate and interested: mental health, young people and technology and is with a highly recommended and accomplished supervisor.

As I didn’t do honours and my masters was course-based, the university department has requested I submit more information detailing my research experience and skills so that they can argue I am suited to the PhD (and will get a return on the investment, which seems very reasonable).

So I’ve been spending the last few days thinking about what to include in this document. Some things are no-brainers – such as the literature reviews I have undertaken on numerous work and university subjects. However, I worry that my relative inexperience in statistical analysis will be a barrier the university won’t see past.

Apart from concrete examples, how do I convey more esoteric qualities that may  make me a suitable candidate: determination, curiosity, communication skills, passion, not to mention willingness to learn? I wonder are these qualities taken into account in the application process (at least as much as stats ability, which are much more easy to acquire).

Preparing this document means putting aside my self-deprecating nature and acknowledging and celebrating the skills and experience I have acquired. This is hard. But I can’t help thinking this is an important lesson I need to learn before continuing on this journey.

Meanwhile I have been quite humbled at a number of amazing academics being willing to act as my referee. If they believe in me, perhaps I should believe in me too…