Did I work hard enough?

As many of you will know, @Chemjobber and @Vinylogous are hosting a kind of blog conversation called “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?”, with many other bloggers out there also giving their opinion on the matter.

As a Brit, I feel like these posts aren’t really aimed at me so much. Although I found the PhD process somewhat stressful, I can honestly say I enjoyed 99% of it (I even enjoyed my viva!). I had a great boss who knew the important of social activity within and outside of the group. He also encouraged us to pursue sporting achievements, in moderation, which for me, involved competing in national ballroom dancing competitions. We were also allowed to take a few weeks holiday and the odd day off, if required. I loved (and miss) the mad research I was doing and I can say that met some life-long friends as well as my boyfriend of three years.

My experience of the UK system is that we work from around 9am-6pm with the working hours getting longer as the end of the PhD draws near (most PhDs are between 39 and 48 months). I worked weekends but only when I wanted to catch up on reactions or set reactions up for the week ahead. I also found weekends a relaxing time to do columns as my favourite (communal) glass column would be available for use and I could control what radio station was played. I was also, of course, productive during the week, except maybe when the Ashes were on. I spent my time between reactions writing up experimental and planning my next reactions.

I am aware that the UK has research groups and departments that do expect much longer hours. I know people at these groups and some of them have told me they stay late just because they are expected to and that their productivity in a day is no higher than if they had done an 8 hour day. I know some academics that require their students to put on a certain number of reactions a day. My view is that chemistry just doesn’t work like that. I am also of the opinion that, because I worked somewhat sensible hours, I kept my passion for the subject that I loved and my sanity.

I was recently of the thinking that I should have gone to the States to get the best PhD that I could have done but I now realise staying in the UK allowed me to become a much more impassioned and motivated chemist. I may not be the best in the world or have millions of results, but I can say I still love my subject.

I hope that this post does not appear to you like I am trying to rub it in your face. I just thought I would share my point of view.

** I feel that I should add that there were plenty of days, especially in my second year, that I thought I was a failure, nothing was working etc but I got through it. It seems most people suffer from “second year blues” so I dug deep and persevered.  I am also not a stressed out person generally. I tend to take whatever is thrown at me and deal with it. I have a somewhat easy going temperament which probably would have not been the best personality to have in a huge, cut throat lab elsewhere.

5 thoughts on “Did I work hard enough?

  1. I had the same feeling about studying in the States. In the end I stayed in Mexico for my PhD (go figure) for something that turned out to be not-so-good a reason. Live and learn, I guess. Still I get to do my own little research although I will always wonder what if I’d gone get it in the US or the UK.
    So you like cricket, huh? I’ve tried to understand it but to no avail, perhaps you could point to a good tutorial website.
    Have an awesome year!

  2. I guess we all wonder where we would be if we had chosen something different. In a big, stressed out research group I would not have survived. I needed the small, friendly, fluorine-loving community I was in to thrive.

    p.s come to the UK and I will teach you the joys of cricket!

  3. I think whether a PhD causes stress and mental health depends a lot on the PhD, the PI/group and the student. I enjoyed most of my PhD, although there were dark times, and found it very rewarding. I know others who have suffered mental illness during their PhD, but whether the PhD was the cause of the illness or not I cannot say. Perhaps that same person would have suffered if working in another profession? I do not know.

    I think PhDs are a peculiar working situation- you’re still a student but expected to work like an employee and the “employment” contract can be very vague regarding working hours, rights and holiday entitlement. I was lucky that my boss’s approach was “you do the hours you think is necessary to get the work done”. I was determined that I’d approach my PhD as a “9-to-5 (well, more like 6), Mon-Fri” as I thought this would set me up better for when I worked in “proper” jobs afterwards. However, many peers worked all sorts of strange hours and shifts, usually allowing themselves lie-ins!

    I think an important outcome of these debates isn’t that we get overly self-pitying and say that PhDs are somehow more likely to make people suffer from mental health issues. I don’t think they are (I know people in many walks of life that suffer from stress, anxiety or depression). What is important is that the PhD students and researchers work in environments with suitable pastoral care and support that allows them to be open and seek help if problems arrive. There must also be flexibility in work programs that offer acceptance and support for those who have busy personal lives as well. This is not just a matter for the PI (who needs support and training to be able to help with this), but the University research structure as a whole.

  4. I’m not a chemist, but a Palaeoclimate PhD student, 3 years, 3 months and 11 days into it, so probably in a good place to think about it all.

    A PhD is at times the greatest most elating experience, there is nothing better than an accepted paper, an exciting significant result or achieving what needed to be done. But when your experiment doesn’t work, or your model doesn’t run (mine spent 9 months sulking and not working) it can feel like you are in a burning spitfire in a WWII movie, plummeting to certain failure and fearing the humiliation of not finishing the PhD.

    But, you keep going, the community in your department, or your research group gets you through. I’m pretty certain if you put 1000 PhD science students in a room, at the end of their final year, they’ll all say something broadly similar.

    For me personally, despite it being one heck of a rollercoaster ride, at the end, I’ll think back to March 2009 when I signed on to do one, that given the choice, I’d go back and sign on again.

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