It’s been over a month since my last blog, and a lot has happened in the last four weeks. I’ve made some of the biggest choices of my life and struggled through some tough patches of serious lonliness and doubt.
So what has happened? In short, I’ve decided to leave my PhD and embark on life in the outside world.
I guess for a lot of people this probably doesn’t seem so big, most people don’t have PhDs and leave education far earlier than 24, and plenty of people leave their jobs after eighteen months.
My entire life I’ve wanted to study for a PhD, my parents met when they shared an office as they both studied for PhDs in Computer Science at Cambridge in the 70s. All I ever really wanted was to be like them, to study hard, fall in love, build a home, have a family and never stop learning or striving to improve myself.
As I grew up and maths became my passion, it always seemed logical to me to keep studying. When I went into a book shop I found myself enchanted by the titles of the maths books, and once I got to University the college library only fueled this desire. What is “topology”? How do planes fly? What creates turbulence? Why can you run on custard but not on water?
My undergraduate degree uncovered far more questions than it solved. I found myself intrigued by geophysical fluid dynamics, of writing equations that could govern the world around us, I had learnt how to describe the motion of a glacier, to predict the wave height and extent of tsunamis, but this still wasn’t enough.
So it was without a shadow of doubt that I took up my place at Bristol University.
But almost immediately something was wrong.
I struggled to make friends, I felt isolated from the other new students who all seemed to fly through the transition to graduate study. Whilst I was reading and learning about the field for my studies, of non-Newtonian fluids, I enjoyed the work immensely. My project, to describe how a temperature dependent fluid, such as lava, flows around an obstacle on an otherwise smooth inclined plane, fascinated me and my trips to Earth Sciences to watch the experiments were thrilling.
But the experiments and the lava were a long way from what I was doing. Instead I discovered that PhDs in fluid dynamics are primarily computation based. I had never programmed in my life and was now expected to learn languages and techniques from scratch and with little or no support.
I struggled to make progress, and I admit I made the mistake of running away from my problems. If things were tricky with my code, I would simply take the afternoon off to cycle in the sunshine.
As my work lagged my relationship with my supervisors fell apart. I found them harsh and threatening, and when I explained that my depression was severe and I couldn’t focus at work, they were rude and completely non-understanding. I became stuck in a viscous circle where I was too scared to go and talk to them or ask them for help, but too stuck in coding to progress.
By the time of my first year review, I was seriously unhappy and seriously behind.
The last six months a lot of things have changed. Getting diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress-disorder made a huge difference to my life. I am on a targetted medication and have weekly cognitive behavioural therapy. I understand why I find my supervisors, two large, loud and confident men quite so intimidating, and the panic attacks at the thought of being trapped in a room with them are now few and far between, even if mild butterflies remain.
I have been working a consistent and good four days a week, I haven’t fallen asleep at my desk for months and, best of all, I have made some amazing friends.
So yes, I am coping, but no, I am not happy.
I’m not the sort to give up easily, I prefer to fight to the bitter end to complete any project I start. It’s like running a marathon, there are times when it gets hard, your body hurts and there seems to be no end to the tunnel. But you push through, because some parts, like running past your cheering friends and family, or thinking of each person who sponsors you and believes in you, are completely amazing. And when you finish, you feel exhausted and brilliant, overcome with emotion and pride, and get to take a well earned break.
But there are the other kinds of races I’ve had, maybe there’s a little niggle in your knee joint that plays up a bit when you run, or maybe your stomach is playing up and you’ve got a touch of the runs. That’s when you don’t finish the race, you pull up to rest and recover. Not becasuse you can’t finish, but because if you do, the consequences on your long term health are not worth it.
This last year I have been deeply unhappy. I don’t want to be spending all my time staring at a string of nonsense code, banging my head on the table, not interested or excited by my project and scared of my supervisors.
My PhD has become like a triathlon I did last year. I’d had a dodgy stomach leading into it, struggling to eat in the week leading up to it. I threw up after the swim, just about managed the cycle but then spent the entire run either with diorreah or being violently sick. I kept at it, refusing to give up. I spent the next two weeks on antibiotics and bedrest having damaged my stomach so badly. It was six weeks before I was able to do any sport without intense pain in my abdomen.
I have the option to finish my degree, and I know that if I set my mind to it, I can complete it.
But I see no point in spending the next three years working with people who don’t respect me, in a job I don’t enjoy for a qualification I don’t need.
This is my advice to anyone reading this who is in a similar place: don’t give up when things get hard. Believe in yourself and always take on new challenges and adventures. Battle through the tough patches and you’ll come out all the better for it on the other side.
But don’t damage yourself on the way. It’s ok to not enjoy every station on the road, but the journey itself should give you joy.
So what’s next for me? Well, I’m going to write up the research I have managed in the last eighteen months for an MSc. I want something to show for my time. I’m going to move back to Cambridge so I can be closer to my family. And then I’m going to look for jobs where my knowledge of maths and love of geophysics and the outdoors can be put to use.
Most importantly? I’m going to do what I always really wanted to do, to be like my parents. To study hard, fall in love, build a home, have a family and never stop learning or striving to improve myself.