If you follow me on Twitter, you will know that I was recently awarded my doctorate.
Nearly 4 years after finishing my undergraduate degree, I had completed my PhD, I had received the accolade of my mentors, I was no longer a student. In a few weeks, I would be a research fellow.
After the first wave of excitement, I started feeling… inadequate. And I posted this tweet.
(Thanks to all that wrote supporting comments, it was very much needed.)
I then realised I was making the wrong comparison. Indeed, I am no different than I was yesterday, but I am not the same person I was 4 years ago… and honestly the more I thought about it, the more I realised I kinda dig the woman I have become.
So to do her justice, here is how my PhD changed me, not just as a scientist, but as a person. I hope that my congratulating myself on how far I've come will also be an opportunity for you, dear reader, to look back at the past few years of your life and give yourself the credit you deserve for the challenges you have overcome. And with a bit of luck you can also relate to mine.
Stress is a part of life. There is a lot of talk about the unnecessary, or remediable, stress put on academics and PhD students, but even ignoring this, there is some canonically unavoidable stress. Whether it be a job interview, an outreach talk, waiting for that referee report, or simply dealing with the random hurdles of life. Not everything will go smoothly all the time.
As for me, let's just say that 4 years ago my stress management was... poor. I really struggled with the unexpected, or sudden changes of plan.
I am happy to report that I have successfully developed healthy coping mechanisms (yeah!), which was easier said than done. I'm still working on it everyday, but God is it worth it! I don’t smoke everyday, I don’t drink to make myself feel better, and I have not self-harmed in 3 years (taboo subject, I know, but let’s be real)! Instead I do yoga, I talk to my friends, or I make myself a nice meal and wait for the sad the fade away.
I am so close to being a well-balanced individual, I can’t even believe it.
If you ask my friends if I'm a patient person, they will most likely laugh in your face. On first impression I strike people as being "lively", or “bubbly”, but not patient.
Fortunately for me, I've had plenty of opportunities to practice this during my PhD! It has allowed me to develop patience for myself and for others, in a way I never even came close to manage when I started. A few months ago, the unthinkable happened… someone complimented me on my patience, un-ironically. I still have a way to go, but I’m on the right track.
Facing problems with "no answers"
This actually goes hand-in-hand with the first two points I mentioned. Problem solving is the biggest element of research, and until I started my PhD I’d never really faced a problem that didn’t have an already defined solution. At least not one I couldn’t solve within a few minutes to a couple of hours.
When I first encountered more difficult tasks, coping with the initial feeling of “I suck, I can’t do this, I’m an idiot” was very difficult, but also critical to my self-development. My thoughts had been riddled with a negative inner monologue for most of my life, but now I had to actually do something about it. Either I would give up, or stop berating myself, learn and do the thing.
Well, I did the thing! Bye-bye low self-esteem!
Being comfortable with myself
One of the biggest victories for me as a person after those 4 years was to finally become my own best-friend, and being comfortable being by myself.
Living alone for 2 years, but also facing challenges I’d never imagined before, have helped me tremendously in this. I’ve been able to work on being kinder to myself, learning about self-care and actually practising it, as well as being honest with myself. The latter point is so important for personal growth, and in my mind it is two fold:
Learning to say “Actually I’m pretty good at this” or “I did a good job!”
Learning to distinguish (without castigating myself) which flaws I need to work on and which ones I need to let go of.
All in all, I am proud of the woman I am today. I have a lot more growing to do, and I have realised I will never, and should never, stop evolving. I will stumble and fall, but everyday I will try to be a better version of myself, and bring something positive into the world and those around me.
How did your PhD years change YOU?
Comment down below!
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Picture Credit: NASA/ESA