“How’s the PhD going?”, the Dos and Don’ts of having a PhD friend
You have a friend who is going through the last few months of their PhD (or PhrienD, for short), but you don’t really know how to manage them? Fear not! Here is a handy guide of the Dos and Don’ts of having a PhrienD! (highly inspired by my friends, who are generally rather amazing people)
If you are reading this, then you are a good friend who cares about your PhrienD. However, you might have noticed that sometimes, when you try and ask them how they are (because you care), you are received by bluntness, anger, apathy, or even void. Why?? You meant well! This happened because there are things you should not say to a PhrienD! Luckily, there are easy swaps you can do to still show your PhrienD you care, based on how much flexibility you have. Read on!
- Know your PhrienD
Not all PhDs are atrocious, and some are just a bit more stressful than a 9–5 job. You know if your PhrienD is going through one of these if they still do daily physical exercise and can be seen in the wild at least 3 evenings a week, and even sometimes randomly having coffee in town in the middle of the day while (important point) not working on their laptop (yes, it is possible). In that case, no special adjustments are needed (lucky you!), except the paramount Don’t 1. Unfortunately, in all likelihood your PhrienD is not in this category, and is probably more or less a wreck. They may, or may not be themselves aware of this, and even if they are, they may, or may not, show signs of it. In doubt, follow the rules below.
2. DO NOT
Don’t 1: “How’s the PhD going?” Used by everybody when meeting their PhrienD, this one can cause drama. In all likelihood, the PhD is most certainly not going well. Your PhrienD could tell you at length why it’s not going well, but let’s face it, you don’t actually want to know about it, and they know it (and understand you), so the only acceptable (and totally false) answer will be “oh, F!n3”, replied while being reminded that everything is a disaster. EXCEPTION: Maybe you actually do want to know! Maybe you are asking because you want to tell your PhrienD they can cry on your shoulder as much as they need. In that case, invite your PhrienD over (the comforting step will be much harder to achieve by text), give them a cup of (G&)tea, and ask them “how are things?”, explaining you want the honest answer.
Don’t 2: “Shouldn’t you be done soon?” Your PhrienD knows they should be done, they know they are not done, they know it is a problem, they don’t need to be reminded. A PhD is not a neatly traced linear path. Unlike literally all other degrees, when it starts, you cannot know when it will end. While the outside world in the UK or Europe believes a PhD lasts 3 years, it is actually rarely the case.
Don’t 3: “When are you finishing?” If your PhrienD does not have a set date, this is probably a source of great anxiety, because not knowing, as often, does not help. If your PhrienD has a set date, this is probably a source of even greater anxiety, like a ticking bomb reminding you how many days you have left to try and wrap up that mess in something tangible. Again, they don’t need to be reminded.
Don’t 4: “What will you do next?” Honestly? Cry, sleep, drink heavily, and turn into a sloth for a little while. After that… Some PhrienDs will have managed to sort out a post-PhD job, and they might be excited to talk about it (any post-PhD plan is exciting to talk about), but (in case you’re not in academia) the job market for PhrienDs is a lot like Jumanji (the original, 1995 forever) and your PhrienD might not have had the strength to face that yet. Again, they don’t need to be reminded they do not have a plan. They know it. Instead, ask them what crazy hobby they will start after handing in (they probably have a long list of things they would like to do once they are free again), or what is their next goal after achieving something as impressive as a PhD.
3. DO ad libitum
Do 1: Be in the room. Especially if: you have literally no time because you have too much work too, just being physically present in the room can make a difference. Countless times friends have just come and sit next to me reading a book while I was working just so that I wouldn’t be alone, no chat, no nothing, just there.
Do 2: Tiny things help. Especially if: you have very limited availability. Like, share a meme. It says you saw something that made you think of them, that you thought they would enjoy, and that, my friend, brightens up a day. I have friends who send me daily memes with nothing else attached when they don’t have the time for a proper chat, and that helps. In the worst of the PhD, anything slightly annoying can cause major distress, and anything slightly amusing can cause uncontrolled laughter, use that to your advantage.
Do 3: Give them the time they don’t have. Especially if: you have a bit more freedom, force some break time upon them by giving them your time, one to one. Take them out for coffee (down at the library café because they will fear leaving their stuff alone for too long), for a drink, or just sit 30 min with them somewhere away from their laptop. And take that time to talk to them about LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE than the PhD. They might not engage much, you might end up doing all the talking, but you’ll have given them 30 min of thinking about something nowhere close to their work, and that’s can change a day.
Do 4: Organise stuff for them. Especially if: you’re too nurturing by nature / you have too much free time on your hands. Plan cool activities to do with them once all of that is done, something to look forward to, and make the submission date less fearsome. No need to go full “let’s go on a week-long road trip”, anything that requires more than 2h (the maximum they can give right now) will do. If you need to unleash your nurturing side at this very second, bake for them, or cook them something nice they will probably end up eating while working. It’s likely they’ve given up on cooking actual food a while ago, so that always helps. Though be aware this might cause totally overdramatic tears (the other day a friend got me chocolate to see myself through another Sunday at the library, and honestly, I could have cried).
Do 5: Listen. Especially if: you are the personification of patience. As I said, do not mention the PhD (except if you want to know the real deal). But if your PhrienD feels like talking about it, listen. If you have done a PhD, you know very well there’s nothing you can respond that will actually fix their problems. If you haven’t done a PhD, I’m telling you, there’s nothing you can respond that will actually fix their problems. But if your PhrienD needs to spend a while venting, be the person they can vent to knowing you’ll still like them (even though they’ve said awful things about the entire universe).
If you’re still here reading, it means you care about your PhrienD, and you want to help them, you’re just not sure how. Keep on offering them to do things you know they can’t do just to show them you’ve thought about them. Give them a real hug that says “I’m here”, not the weird mechanical one Brits use to say “Hello” (note: my friends reading this, don’t hug me. I’ll punch you. You know I will. I’m saying this for OTHER PhrienDs, not me). Just be patient, be there, and if you are that kind of person, tell them why you like them. That always works. Just STOP asking them how the PhD is going!