Tag: PhD student

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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Don’t let a busy life stop you from writing.

I have become that writer who only writes when they have free time. I used to be able to write even in the busiest of times, as a coping mechanism.  My writing was an escape from the busyness of life and not something I would only do when I got time. In case you missed my post on the reasons why I write please click here → I used to write… Writing used to be so much fun.

Today I found myself wondering why these days I can only write when I have free time. What happened to writing out of inspiration that came from anywhere: a song I listen to; an experience I go through; a beautiful thought I have?

I came up with a couple of reasons:

  • This Ph.D. ok! I know, it is common to be inundated with tasks that include research, academic writing, meeting deadlines for supervision…etc, etc, when you are a Ph.D. student. I haven’t had time to even think of blogging or writing in my journal because I have more pressing writing tasks on my desk at the moment. I always say my blog is always there and it has no deadline.
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Image from blogs.nature.com

 

  • I have lost myself. Ok! this one is a bit melodramatic, but it came up in my thought process anyway. I have lost interest in most of the things I used to find joy in doing owing to my current state of…*wait for it*…being a Ph.D. student. Again, we go back to reason 1.
  • The search for content; which has in the past been relatively easy and interesting to do, has become a chore, one I cannot find the energy to do on some days. I know content must come naturally (to personal bloggers) because we write about our own lives.  But I realized I need to be in my best state of mind to come up with interesting content that readers can relate to, otherwise what’s the point right?

So, today I remind myself of this :

Being creative
Image from Pinterest

I want to do better. I really don’t have to wait until I am free to write because writing is a form of expression. If I cannot express myself, even during those times when I don’t feel like it, then I have lost my voice.

Here’s to wishing words will keep flowing on this page and on paper; ideas will keep flooding my mind and I will stay ALIVE!

GG

A day in the life of a PhD student

 

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Credit: bitmoji app

 

8:30 You know life is real when you wake up in the morning to get your first cup of coffee before attempting any heavy lifting; which for me includes any mental/brain activity; then try to decide if you should shower first or check emails first. It’s a tough decision because usually once I check emails I am stuck at my desk for two hours at least; dealing with this and that…it just never ends. So today, I went with the shower option, because I really was feeling sluggish already. I thought maybe the shower will wake me up so that I can get back to work. You see, I slept at some few minutes after 2 am last night; and that was only with the help of a sleeping tablet….I know, I know it’s unhealthy but I had to force myself to sleep.

Anyway…back to the shower. I lazily remembered that I need to send a text to my cousin and that one friend I haven’t said hey to in a long time. I promised myself I will do it as soon as I get back in the room, but of course I forgot again.

When did I become this person who forgets to text people?

I make a mental note to do better.

After the shower I decided to take some Vitamin C because I really needed a boost. The coffee didn’t work. I sat down to check emails and true to form, I spent a good two hours on that because one of the emails reminded me of a campus report I need to write and submit by tomorrow. I recently got a position as a Junior Research Partner in the Division of Graduate studies at my university (as if I don’t already have a lot on my plate). It’s good experience since I will be working side by side with a Professor on a research project which is a plus. But, it is extra work!!! Oh, back to the campus report…

11:00 So I finished the campus report and got started with my literature review chapter. I have been writing this chapter since January and, yes I will be writing it for the next 2 1/2 years. I worked on that for a while because I had to send the edited version to my Supervisors in preparation for our appointment on Thursday.  When that was done, I felt relieved that 2 of the tasks on my long to-do-list were done.

2:30pm Time to take a break and I realised I hadn’t eaten anything since my cup of coffee and some crepes I had for breakfast.  I prepared a quick meal: chicken soup since I really wasn’t feeling too good with rice on the side and lots of mixed veggies.  Proud of myself that I only had one cup of coffee today, but I guess that is also because I couldn’t really taste it. I think I am coming down with a cold or something. Or its just fatigue.

I noticed some sunshine streaming in from the kitchen window, and since I hadn’t ventured outside today I decided to soak up some sun from there. This made me feel even more tired and sleepy. I decided to nap for an hour and convinced myself I will be more energetic when I wake up…

4:00 -I have a fieldwork presentation for the study I am doing on “The social and academic adjustment of African students in Hong Kong”, on Monday next week. I started working on that  so that I can edit it throughout the week. I will blog more about that project and why I decided to do it. It is separate from my PhD project but I feel it is an important study.

6:00 Dinner time …made some steak with rice and mixed peppers (sorry I forgot to take a picture of my food). No glass of wine with my dinner today, I still have a lot of work to do although I really wish I could just quit and go on holiday forever.

7:00 After dinner I came back to my desk to look at some papers for my presentation. I just remembered I need to practice my Mandarin since I missed my class today. Good thing I now have an app that I can say things in Mandarin and it plays them back to me until I get it right. Another mental strain I got myself into, but its fun to try.

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9:00 Still staring at my computer reading academic papers.  Confirmed my appointment with the supervisors for this Thursday. That means I have to prepare something for that meeting. I will do it tomorrow…

The say procrastination is what PhD students do best.

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As I am blogging right now, I know I am also procrastinating but I needed to update you all about what I am up to. I must say, the one thing I love about doing a PhD is that I can pretty much plan my own schedule and work at my own pace, although setting deadlines is good because I do need to be able to complete the PhD on time.

11:42 I am hoping to sleep early tonight. I finished all my tasks for today and even managed to blog so today was a good day.  After I publish this, I will close this laptop and try to relax so that sleep will come. Tomorrow is another day in the life of a PhD student…