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  • Writer's pictureAPECS Belgium

BETWEEN LONELINESS AND EXCITEMENT: THE ROLLERCOASTER RIDE OF PURSUING A PHD

A thirst for learning, an insatiable curiosity, the desire to teach, to combat important issues such as climate change, or sometimes only a twist of fate. When asked about it, these were the reasons our members cite for starting a PhD in polar science. But after one, two, four or six years of doctoral studies, how do they cope with the challenges of scientific research? We went around the table to paint all the colors of the emotions that our PhD students felt along the way. And if there is one thing they all agree on, it's that it is nothing less than a real rollercoaster but that they would all be willing to do it again.

"It is a job that satiates your curiosity. It’s about problem-solving. I started my PhD at 21 and then scientists felt like real-life superheroes." - Anonymous

From challenging, exciting, rewarding, fun to overwhelming and confusing, our members ran the whole spectrum of feelings when asked to describe their PhD in only three words. But three words were not enough for us, we wanted to know more: what are their motivations, how do they keep up the drive through the hard times, how do they maintain a good work-life balance? We unveil it all here, and unfold some of their best advices for you if you too have embarked on the wild adventure of a PhD.

Words used by our members to describe their PhD time. Credit: the penguin template of Holl.S-B is applied https://wordart.com/qzmruquvoi7b/penguin


CONTRIBUTING TO A BIGGER CAUSE

What motivates APECS Belgium's polar science PhD students? One recurring reply is that they feel they are contributing to something more important, that they are providing knowledge that will support a cause, and that by doing so, they are doing valuable work.

“I love the fact that I am contributing knowledge to something that has yet to be fully understood, something that will hopefully happen somewhere in the future. When it happens, I can say I contributed to that.” - Lotte De Maeyer

Credit: By Shraddha Mishra, published December 12, 2022. https://www.firstcry.com/intelli/articles/all-about-childrens-emotions/

I like the excitement of research. Every study feels like solving a problem (even if it’s a minor one) and is mentally stimulating. Also, research makes me feel content about my life that it would benefit someone else at some point of their life.” - Anonymous

CELEBRATING EVERY LITTLE VICTORY AFTER STRUGGLING THROUGH THE HARD TIMES

It is common to find yourself frustrated because the research is not progressing as well or as much as you would have hoped, there are times when it seems that your study is stagnating and no further progress is being made. Sometimes we don't feel up to the task, not smart enough to understand the scope of the subject, not good enough. In fact, all the people we asked said that they had felt imposter syndrome at least once during their PhD.

Credit: Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

“Of course! I think it’s a completely normal part of being a researcher, and an even more normal part of starting a career, in any field. I’ve learned to manage my imposter syndrome and be kinder to myself. I try to recognize the progress I’m making and remember I’m here to learn. No one expects me to know everything already.” - Constance Lefebvre
“The worst moments are when I feel like I don’t understand anything and I’m not good enough to be here. You have to talk to your colleagues to realize everyone feels like this. Talking to postdocs and senior researchers is especially helpful because you realize that even the most competent and accomplished scientists you know started out exactly where you are and still feel this way sometimes. I push myself to ask for help when I need it and keep going, because even if it isn’t my best work, I’m still making progress.” - Constance Lefebvre

Difficult moments are an integral component of the process of obtaining a PhD, but they are not determinant. Everyone struggles. Talking about your difficulties to others, to colleagues, to supervisors, is essential to understand that you are not alone and that others have been there before.

“During my PhD, I think the worst moment was when I was in the middle of it and I was feeling like I was not progressing. I just wanted to finish it as soon as possible and was frustrated because I still had more than one year ahead. Talking to other PhD students and young postdocs was helpful, but it was even better to talk about it with my supervisor. There was no real “shortcut” but it helped to feel understood and eventually I managed to go on and had a happy PhD after.” - Bianca Mezzina
I was asked to change my topic 2 years after starting. I didn’t cope with it well. I overworked (sometimes about 14 hrs/day) for the next 5-6 months, and that affected my health. Then there was COVID, and the university servers had some issues as the technical staff were also on leave. I lost some of my processed data and that cost me about one year of time. If it is for someone else, I would say that is how research works and failures are part of it.” - Anonymous
“When I have tried a lot, but still cannot tell the story. I started to question my ability and efforts. If this happens, I will have a break, talk with my friends and family, and enjoy real life outside the science part to gain the courage to continue.” - Xia Lin

But the difficulties and challenges of the path make the successes shine all the more brightly: a code that is finally running, the publication of a paper, a presentation at a conference, all these small victories until you reach the supreme achievement: the publication of the thesis. We asked them what were the most beautiful moments of their PhD.

“The best moments are probably when you submit a paper, or when it is accepted? And of course, when you finish your thesis! In general, all those milestones where your work becomes “tangible”. I love to celebrate with the people that helped me go through, whether colleagues, family, or friends, and maybe with a couple of well-deserved days off! But I think it is also important to celebrate smaller things: the code is not crashing anymore, I gave a nice presentation, or I just had a particularly productive day.” - Bianca Mezzina
“When I find something new and try to tell the story. Those moments of making progress. I enjoyed the time celebrating with my colleagues and friends very much.” - Xia Lin
“The best moments for me are of course field campaigns, although they can be a bit stressful to prepare and once you arrive, there is a lot to do in little time but being in the High-Arctic is a unique and wonderful experience. The silence and the incredible nature and the boredom when there is nothing to do but wait is all very peaceful.” - Lotte De Maeyer

Credit: Lotte De Maeyer - Koen Sabbe. Pictures of sampling different sampling campaigns in the High-Arctic, Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard during summer and winter.


DESPITE THE PRESSURE, THE IMPORTANCE OF MAINTAINING A GOOD WORK LIFE BALANCE

Whether it is when important deadlines are approaching, or just before a presentation or even on the quest for research grants and positions, all PhD students admit feeling stress and anxiety. Feelings that can quickly become overwhelming and prevent the proper progress and completion of the thesis if relaxing mechanisms and habits are not put in place on time.

“I typically feel stressed when several deadlines and tasks pile up and I feel like I do not have enough time, or like I am working a lot but the list is not getting shorter… Well, I just try to take a breath! Lately, I have been writing to-do lists with little tasks that I can cross out when I am done, so that I can better track and feel the progress, and I generally try to better manage my priorities. Over the years, I have also learned to delegate and communicate; for example, if I don’t think I can do something before the due date, I just send an email to ask for more time and… You know what? People usually don’t mind!” and BM continued: “I have one rule: no work during weekends. Also, no notifications about work emails on the phone (which doesn’t mean that I don’t check them, but I can control when!).” - Bianca Mezzina
“I get very nervous when I have to give presentations, especially in front of people who definitely know more than I do. I tell myself it’s okay not to know everything and talking about your research is the best way to have interesting conversations and get new ideas. To balance my life, I don’t work on weekends or in the evenings. I try to only telework at most one day per week, and only during regular work hours, and only when it is strictly necessary. I turned off email notifications on my phone, so I won’t be tempted to check my inbox out of hours. I don’t use my work computer when I’m not working.” - Constance Lefebvre
“I am often nervous or stressed for different occasions, e.g. deadlines, presentations, project meetings, etc. I think this nervousness and stress comes from a place of insecurity. I often feel like I am not clever enough, that I don’t belong among all these intelligent scientists, that my research sucks and is riddled with mistakes,.. I often wonder when my promotor realize he hired the wrong person? I had to learn how to manage these thoughts, a process that took me almost my complete hire and I must admit still not perfected. I try to ask concrete feedback and input from my promoter and definitely don’t pretend to feel confident, I honestly admit my insecurities and try to apply a growth mindset. I haven’t mastered this YET but I can learn. And yoga, yoga helps a lot with letting go and releasing stress that manifests itself in the body from the body.” - Lotte De Maeyer

THE INGREDIENTS FOR A SUCCESSFUL PHD

We asked them what qualities you need to have to be a good PhD student. Their answers? You have to be open-minded, always curious, able to adapt constantly, have steady nerves and be independent.

“You need to be able to embrace criticism and learn from it. Your drafts will come back completely red, almost entirely struck through, and with ribbons of comments, and that’s completely fine. It just means someone cares enough to take time out of their day to help you produce the best work you can.” - Constance Lefebvre
“The desire to be in research. Many of us have the question of, ‘Am I good at it?’ and the answer mostly feels like a ‘No’. But a question of ‘Do I want to do this?’ might give a better answer. Also to be aware that the answer may change over time.” - Anonymous

Aside from personal qualities and motivation, all our PhD students consider that the far most essential point in succeeding a PhD is the student-supervisor relationship.


OUR ADVICES TO YOU IF YOU’RE EMBARKING ON A PHD

Finally we want to conclude this blog post with the best advice there is, at least according to the members of APECS Belgium, when you are starting or thinking about starting a PhD. According to them, it is crucial to believe in yourself and communicate openly with the people surrounding you and yes, that includes your promotor. Prepare yourself for hardships because they are a certainty when pursuing a PhD but it doesn't mean you can't have fun and enjoy some really good times.


“Have fun! The PhD is a weird experience in which you are working and independent but also still a student and you will never have a time like this again. Also, be kind to yourself!” - Bianca Mezzina
“(1) Pace yourself! You have a lot of time. Don’t work on weekends!!! You will burn yourself out if you don’t set hard boundaries between your work and personal life. (2) If you’re only starting: go to all the conferences / symposiums / workshops, etc. You probably won’t have as much time for it later on so make the most of it now! (3) Try not to compare yourself too much to other researchers. Everyone has a different path.” - Constance Lefebvre
“Don’t doubt yourself and try to openly communicate with your promotor and/or supervisor. They are there to help you in an adequate way and you shouldn’t feel bad for asking for their time.” - Lotte De Maeyer
“Be prepared: talk to many PhD students to have their feedback, every PhD is unique. Be sure to know what it is to be in a PhD, if you have lab work: did you do lab work before you started your PhD ? And it is ok to stop your PhD. It is a job, not a contest or whatever. “ - Lisa Ardoin
“It’s not going to be easy. It would be mentally and emotionally taxing. But always take care of your health (mental, physical and emotional). Having a few friends to rely on would be great.” - Anonymous
“If you are hesitant about your choice, you need to talk to people as much as you can to help you evaluate the enjoyable and difficult parts you will probably meet with. If you really like to start a PhD, try to communicate with other PhD students at the start and have some good friends to share your life and work with. Be patient and optimistic.” - Xia Lin

We want to thank all the APECS Belgium members for their honest answers to not always easy questions and we hope this blog post provides you with some new insights. Don't hesitate to give us your own thoughts on your PhD adventure!


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