Is the PhD journey just one long guilt trip?

Mental health is an ever growing concern with PhD students and the increasing demands on them. Thankfully more and more grad students are opening up about their mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and tackling them, but today I just wanted to talk about PhD guilt. Looking back over my four years in grad school, I think I have always felt guilty about something. That constant guilty feeling I’ve subjected myself to has really affected my mental health and my physical health during my PhD so I wanted to share some of those factors that perhaps some of you will recognise and also what that wonderful thing called hindsight has taught me about it all that might be able to help others too.

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The Project Guilt.

As a fresh faced PhD student, I was still finding my feet in the academic world. As I was searching for my place though I kept looking to my peers who were perhaps already going to conferences, already getting their names on papers and had reems more data than me. It sent me crazy thinking about what I was doing wrong and why I was not at the same stage as them. I felt guilty that perhaps I wasn’t working hard enough. Even as much that I felt that I wasn’t cracked up for this.

What I came to realise was that this was a completely ‘normal’ part of grad student life. The majority of PhD students I spoke to all went through or are going through similar situations. At some point we all compare our own projects and our own progress to that of our lab mates and peers. But what we don’t realise at that stage is that no two projects are comparable. One student might be using methods that are well established and can generate data quickly, while others might have experiments that take 3 months+ to get one single piece of data and everything in between.

What I have tried to instill into any students that I have taught or spoken to is that you cannot compare yourself to others. Not only are your projects not comparable but it is not good for your mental health too.

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The Scicomm Guilt.

If you haven’t figure it out already, I love communicating life as a scientist and my passion for science. But it didn’t come without its own guilt. I didn’t realise that I was really excited by scicomm until the second year of my PhD after competing in the 3 Minute Thesis competition. This event sparked a whole cascade of different events that I wanted to get involved with to spread the science love. But I did feel guilty about something. I started off not wanting to do too much scicomm as my PhD was my priority, I was still learning how to communicate science and crucially my supervisor wasn’t exactly the most pro-scicomm supervisor out there. But scicomm and science outreach excited me that I wanted to do it, and obviously I did do it. I started sharing photos and insights into my lab life and going to more events throughout my PhD all without the support of my supervisor. They did not want me to do it because I should have been in the lab, but I felt guilty for not being honest with my supervisor about it and also for not being in the lab all the time. A guilty double blow!

Over time though, my supervisor has realised that this is something I love doing and actually something that I’m kinda good at so has mellowed somewhat. It probably helped that I have also proved that I haven’t let it affect my PhD work as I’ve still worked my butt off.

I felt guilty about pursuing something that I was interested in and passionate about despite those around me questioning that. But this is actually what I want to encourage in people. Certain individuals might be put off pursuing science because others might discourage them from it, but I say pursue your passions and follow your interests! You can prove those around you wrong.

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The Friends & Family Guilt.

Okay – so this is one that I still regret today, but it is something I definitely could have helped myself overcome sooner. But some days I do sit there and think why did I do a PhD and why did I move away from home and all my friends and family. My real FOMO and Whatsapp groups just make this so much worse for me. Being away and studying for a PhD means I have little time and money to go visiting all the friends and family that I want to more often. Seeing all the awesome stuff that they get up to and I’ve had to turn down because of money or time – but mainly money because you should ALWAYS make time for non-lab related things during your PhD to keep you sane! – it eats away at me constantly and I feel guilty for not spending more time with them. I’ve had to say ‘no’ so many times that I’ve even stopped being invited to things and making memories with my faves means the world to me.

But I am completely my own worst enemy on this. I then feel guilty for this guilt. I’m doing a PhD to better myself and help me reach higher heights. Your true friends will always understand and come back to you no matter how long its been. And as for family well I hope they understand too and would be proud of what I’m trying to do with my life even if it means we only see each other a few times a year.

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The Project Guilt. Part 2.

I’m a self confessed workaholic. I’ve never tried to hide that. But I push myself to the limits probably far too often. I take pride in working hard and generating the exciting data that I love piecing together into the bigger picture and figuring out what the hell it all means!

But rather than me working hard because I feel like I’m much further behind that my peers like in Part 1, I now feel guilty for working hard because my peers are comparing themselves to me and not feeling good about themselves and their work. I’ve been referred to as ‘the favourite’ all because I have more data I can talk about and discuss and have more experience in the lab so less issues. Older grad students might look like they have it all sussed but I can assure you that they have been through it all before you and are just now out the other side.

This guilty feeling might all be because I’m really tough on myself and drive myself insane over the smallest of things, and it might even sound a little bit arrogant. But I know that because I’ve worked hard and I have generated a lot of data that it is causing friction between my peers and our supervisor. But nonetheless, I can’t help but think if I hadn’t had been such a workaholic and that some of the relationships around me might not be quite as bad.

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The Thesis Guilt.

The final stage of the PhD, writing your thesis, is still not even guilt free. I feel guilty when I am blogging as a break or applying for a job and not writing my thesis! Alternatively, when I am writing my thesis, I feel bad that I am not searching and applying for jobs and sending my CV around. I’ve come to realise that panicking about all of these things is not going to help anything so I am focusing on one thing at a time.

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Time to let go of that guilt!

This guilty culture associated with a PhD has got to change. In my opinion, it is the cause of many of the mental health issues a lot of PhD students have to tackle. So how can we do that:

โ™ฅ Your PhD project is as unique as you so we need to stop comparing each other!

โ™ฅ Establish a set work day and stick to it!

โ™ฅ Keep a record of what you’ve done so you can analyse your own progress! Maybe even write a blog ๐Ÿ˜›

โ™ฅ Moreover, set yourself goals in and out of your work!

โ™ฅ Take breaks and make plans with your friends and family!

โ™ฅ ALWAYS remember the importance of your mental health

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Have you suffered from PhD guilt? Maybe you recognise some of my guilty experiences in yourself or maybe it was something else? If you feel comfortable, I would love you to share your experiences in the comments below so we can try and crack this guilty lifestyle together! Perhaps you have already overcome the PhD guilt. If so, what are your top tips for a guilt-free PhD?

Science love.

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