Three things I wish I knew before starting a Ph.D…

It has been a while since I came on this blog to write about my life trials, successes, inspirations, and reflections. It has been a crazy few months owing to the mental task I put on myself, that is pursuing a Ph.D. My life has been far from normal and at times, clearing my head long enough to write my thoughts down has been a draining task on its own. I just couldn’t do it.

Today, my mental state has once again brought me back to these pages. I remember when I started this blog in 2012, I was seeking an escape from my emotionally draining social work job. Six years later, I find myself needing a mental escape from my draining Ph.D. journey. Life does seem to go round in circles and I find myself in the same place I started.

That’s me…thank God for Snapchat filters

A Ph.D. is the most isolating, mentally draining, intellectually challenging endeavor I have ever done. Granted, when you think of adding those three letters after my name (Getrude Gwenzi, Ph.D.) it sounds exciting and when the end is near you can smell the success and feel you made an achievement. But the mental strain that comes hand in hand with this process is something I have had to contend with. No one told me any of this before I started. I am in no way trying to discourage others from attempting a Ph.D. This is why I am going to turn this seemingly pessimistic post into some advice for those who wish to pursue a Ph.D.

This advice is based on the lessons I have learned myself and things I really wish someone had told me before I started. I am embarking on the 3rd and final year of mine so the following advice comes from 2 years of experience as a Ph.D. student (however, do take it with a pinch of salt, my experiences might be different from yours) :

Lesson 1: The environment you decide to do your Ph.D.in is very important

Friends, I cannot emphasize this enough! When making the selection of which university you want to pursue your research degree, it is very very important to consider the local environment in which that university is located. I came to Hong Kong which is a culturally very different environment. This made my adjustment relatively less smoother compared to if I had moved to an environment in which I was already used to the culture. Going through a culture shock can be tough for your academic process because the language, your ability to integrate with the locals as well as your social life all depend on this cultural environment. When doing a Ph.D., the last thing you need to be worrying about is the way people around you are reacting to your presence or how they are treating you. This adds unnecessary strain. So, please do a bit of research on the culture, ask yourself if you are open-minded enough to live with different people; research the chances of you having a social life (friends, significant others, dating if you are single) because all this becomes important when dealing with the extremely difficult task of doing a Ph.D. I am also far away from all my family and friends, so I have had to make new friends and find alternative “families”. If you are spiritual, find out if there is a church you can go to. Will you be free to practice your religion? Will you find a community to fellowship with? Again, this is relative, but it may be important for your adjustment and ultimately your ability to focus and thrive on your work.

Lesson 2: If you have unresolved mental health issues, it might be best to seek counseling for them before attempting a Ph.D.

As I said above, doing a Ph.D. is in itself a mentally challenging thing. You constantly have to second guess yourself and the #impostersyndrome Definition is always there to remind you that you are not as good as you once thought you were. If you have a supportive advisor, you may be satisfied with your progress, but this is not always the case. So, when things get tough, you don’t want to be having multiple mental issues at the same time. See below for an accurate description of the Ph.D. journey:

Image result for phd comics mental health

I recently learned that past mental issues may resurface if not dealt with because I am pressed and stretched to the limit, anything can make me cry at this point. Your mental health becomes one of the most important things in life. If you are already struggling with depression and low self-esteem, for example, this becomes extremely difficult so please do seek help. A friend of mine recently told me this and I think it is really valuable.

Lesson 3: A support system is not only key but may be the difference between sailing through and quitting.

If you are like me, you would be the type of person who is stubborn and likes to do it on their own; the type that never asks for help or rely on people. However, this Ph.D. journey will humble you in a way that you realize you cannot be on your own. The whole experience is already isolating enough with the fact that there are not many people doing what you are doing, which makes it hard to find people who can relate to you. It is still crucial to find a small group or even one person you can talk to and really be honest about your feelings with. Most PhDs find it difficult to relate to non-academic people, which makes it difficult to find this circle. My advice is that most research students are just as lonely and will probably appreciate the chance to have someone they can talk to or do non-research stuff with. Also, find a research network near you for support (I will write more on this in a later post).

For now, I will end with these three lessons which in my opinion are the most important. Of course, there are other issues such as financial and academic support, which will all differ according to the kind of offer you get at the university. I am still dealing with my own mental state 2 years into my Ph.D. and it does not get any easier. These three lessons have really opened my eyes to what is really important when doing a Ph.D. and I thought I should share.

Please share with someone who might be thinking of doing a Ph.D. and save a life :).

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8 thoughts on “Three things I wish I knew before starting a Ph.D…

  1. That’s a sound advice! Personally, I admire your courage and confidence for sharing. From your experience, I have learned to understand that Ph.D. ain’t meant for everyone. Eye on the trophy, you are almost there. Keep the dream alive, knowledge is power!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thank you Eddie, and you are right this journey is definitely not for everyone. It has been a tough and emotional journey but we live and learn from our experiences. Thanks for reading and I miss reading your posts too. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I stayed in the UK for my PhD so luckily item 1 wasn’t much of an issue, but 2 and 3 are most definitely important. I can definitely say without my friends at archery I would likely have quit by now. Good luck for the year ahead! I’m allegedly finishing mine next year but will definitely need a fourth year to take it at a pace I can manage

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment and for reading the post. My PhD is in Sociology and Social Policy, and I am studying how children living in separation from their families(in orphanages/children’s homes) construct the meaning of family. Basically investigating what family means for them, as something we often take for granted that everyone has. Tell me about yours…

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      1. Hi, you’re welcome. Your dissertation sounds interesting. With being separated from others its interesting to find out what sense of meaning they have of family. Best wishes with your study.

        My study is on the process by which seasoned human service workers create and sustain passionate commitment over time despite the challenges of their work. As many times it is reported that these types of workers that deal with the public on a regular basis are burnt out or jaded from what they do. I wanted to explore the other side of it, what makes them stay passionately committed.

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      2. your study is also very interesting. As a former social worker I can understand burnout but you are right, there must be something that makes them keep going, like a sense of fulfillment etc. All the best with your study.

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