I realised yesterday that I’m a recovering PhD student. The easiest way of describing how that feels is to say that it has some similarities to coming out of a bad relationship. You’re left with attitudes, behaviors and habits that don’t make sense to the average person. You’re left with a pretty thoroughly warped and erratic sense of self worth. You’re left with an aversion to forming a similar relationship that’s so strong you can’t even look at it straight on.
The last on that list is a particularly kicker – it’s taken me months to understand why I can’t face applying for research positions, why I can barely make myself look at job listings and why I feel physically sick when I read job specifications. I’m so gun-shy of entering a similar environment to the PhD that I can’t even face looking for a job in the specialty I trained in for close on ten years.
I feel I should say here that my experience as a PhD student was not bad compared to many others. My supervisor was good, in their own way, my department was not a terrible place, I wasn’t bullied or picked on. Only once did my work get published without me as an author on the article, and even then my name was mentioned, so that’s not so bad in the scheme of things.
My PhD experience was not really bad, and other students’ experiences, even within my department, have been worse. You can read horror stories across the web, but from what I’ve seen the average experience tends to be one of being generally left with limited supervisory contact and sometimes actively ignored, with all the reduced outcomes you can imagine from that.
But it’s been a few months since I finished, and I’ve realised that although my PhD experience was honestly average to good, it has still had a profound impact on my attitudes to myself and my work. I’m only just beginning to unpick and recognise these attitudes, and only because at the moment I have the time and space to do so. If I had jumped into a research post straight out of my PhD I don’t think I’d have the mental space or safety to do that, and I think I’d be pretty darn miserable as a result. I wouldn’t know why I have such a bruised and inconstant confidence in my own abilities, almost constant anxiety related to my work, high levels of self-criticism with regards to anything I do in front of other people, and a complete lack of passion for my speciality. I’d probably just be trying to ignore it all, or just assuming there was something wrong with me, instead of having the opportunity to realise that these are all things that have developed as result of the PhD experience.
So right now I’m in convalescence. I’m hoping with a bit of self-care, a bit of rest, and a reintroduction to a normal working environment I’ll be able to rebalance my perspective and regain that spark that drove my research a few years back. Being able to enjoy writing again, even something like this blog, is part of that.
I’m going to concentrate on the small things for a while, and let the big things move at their own pace.