Cutlery cluttering, excited voices, and intertwining conversation – the familiar pulse of a conference mingle. I was chatting with current and aspiring graduate students when I suddenly heard the dreaded advice: “Expect you will suffer during your PhD, I definitely did”. My skin crawled and I rushed to correct “No, you should not accept suffering as a part of PHD”.
Suffering to me is an unhealthy, painful state of being, a state when one is unwell and thus something we should avoid. Or it should at least be minimized. It definitely should not be a mainstream expectation for our graduate programs. With rising levels of mental health struggles in academia in general and especially among students, I strongly believe we need to stop sharing this advice. It might seem innocent, but it might have negative impacts on the individual.
Such advice had a negative impact on me. During my time as a PhD candidate, I was grappling with project failures, slow progress, doubts, and isolation as an immigrant without a large research group. This affected my mood and self-worth. At the same time, I had many things going on in my private life, which only worsened how I was feeling. My life felt like a house of cards that was falling apart, no matter how hard I was working. This may be familiar to many graduate students, because everyone struggles and life does not stop during our 4-5 year long projects.
So what influence did hearing the “suffering is part of the process” had on me? I felt like I was being told I am weak and that I just cannot handle my life and PhD. With that, imposter syndrome came rolling in and loads of other concerns, all the while just trying to stay above the surface. See the negative spiral? Now I do too, but once you are in the midst of it, it isn’t that clear. What else did I do? I delayed seeking help, partly because suffering was posited as normal and yes, there is still a taboo regarding mental health care. It was only when I realized my key worry about my work was “where will I cry”, rather than “where will I conduct my research in a good enough environment” that I decided something had to change. I will write about my next steps in upcoming posts. But today, I just want to plead to reconsider what advice you give to those around you, because it matters.
Here are my two cents
Telling people suffering is part of graduate work can help to:
- Normalize suffering
- Create unhealthy work environments
- Delay seeking help/finding other solutions to minimize suffering
- Prolong staying in unhealthy situations & intensify ongoing struggles
There are things you SHOULD expect in a good healthy graduate program:
- Be challenged intellectually, perhaps even become lost or confused with regards to what you/we know
- Learn how to overcome such confusion and continue to learn and grow
- Work hard, but also have fun
- Life will go on during and after the graduate program
A colleague provided me with a metaphor for what PhD should feel like – it is like being thrown into a deep end of the pool and learning to swim, but not without an instructor, life guard and swim classes. Without these resources it would be life-threatening. So do not accept that!