Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

How to avoid the PhD meltdown

As I am now in the third (and supposedly final, yeah right) year of my PhD I thought I’d share the most important thing I've learnt so far in successfully surviving your own. You need to find a way to stay sane. 

Right at the start of my time at UEA I was told by another stable isotope lab research student a few years above me that it was a not a matter of if, but when I would have a meltdown. The early-third-year-meltdown does appear to be pretty much the norm, I've seen so many of my friends & colleagues go through them. Right from the start of your PhD it is drilled into you that by the beginning of your third year you should have practically finished your research andin a position to write up. However, if you are doing a lab based project this just does not happen and I've known people to be still in the lab well into their fourth year and still do perfectly fine.

The obvious way to avoid the apparently inevitable meltdown is just not to do a PhD, or at least go and do something in the social sciences or computer modelling (although I’ve seen a few impressive meltdowns from modellers when the supercomputers crash at the wrong moment, again). Unfortunately this is not always possible when you want to do ‘real’ science and so the rest of us are forced to spend hours, weeks and months fighting with highly sensitive and often broken analytical machinery which, of course, leads to delays, frustration and a hell of a lot of stress.

The bane of my life, the very temperamental LA-ICP-MS

I'm currently about 7 months behind on my lab work thanks to a flood in the lab back in January which broke the mass spectrometer I use for carbonate analysis and set off a series of problems which meant it wasn't working properly until mid-August. The other main mass spec I use (for trace element analysis) needed its laser servicing; the finance department helpfully sat on the request (after approving it) for about 3 months!

Luckily this is where I was when the flood happened so I came back to it in quite a good frame of mind to deal with shit 

However, even with all these setbacks, due to working my arse off during the short periods while things work, I'm still hoping to get out of the lab by Christmas and have still avoided/delayed my meltdown by realising one simple thing:


Yeah, no-one other than your supervisor, your viva examiners (and this isn't guaranteed) and yourself will probably ever read your thesis and, unless you are doing something ground-breaking it is unlikely you will make a huge contribution to the scientific knowledge. So why stress yourself out about things. Lab equipment breaks, experiments go wrong, lines of enquiry hit dead ends, technicians get sick, machinery gets booked up, your supervisor tells you everything you've done is worthless (not mine, they’re really nice), shit happens. If you can’t do anything about it then don’t worry about it. This takes everyone when they start a long time to realise, I've seen some never realise this and they’re the ones that don’t enjoy their PhD and may well be put off a career in academia all together. You worked hard to get this post and you've landed yourself another 3 or 4 years of being a student, only doing what you’re interested in and you get paid for it, so why not enjoy it!

When everything goes tits up and you find yourself with fuck all to do for a month or so while waiting on parts/repairs/money/etc that’s when you need to have something else to do. To get through your PhD you really need to have not let it have taken over your whole life because then, when it does get put on hold by something out of your control, then you’re in trouble. 

I find that the best things to do and take your mind off the crap you’re currently going through in the lab are things that take your utmost attention while doing them. You can’t think about the fact you've measured yet another batch of anomalous results while hanging off a rock face at the weekend, attempting a PB on your evening run, or lifting something heavier than yourself (while trying not to poo) while venting in the gym. I have less free time then I ever had at school, college or during my university and yet I have taken up or rediscovered so many hobbies: mountaineering, climbing, cycling, running and even this crappy blog to name a few, purely to take my mind off and to have outlets for the rage that builds throughout a stressful day in the lab.

Try thinking about work problems while concentrating on avoiding failing to your death...

So go, say ‘Fuck it’ to all your PhD problems and get outside, join a university sport’s club or whatever you fancy, just don’t let your work rule and ruin your life. And if all else fails, there’s always someone willing to go to the pub and listen to you rant about it all for a while.

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