I thought this month I would write about how I’m preparing for the upcoming online viva, but considering how my preparations are going, I shall not. Or rather, I shall only write about how I’m preparing for a common “viva ice breaker” question: “Could you tell us about something you’re proud of in your PhD?” My first automatic response would be “Getting through years 2 to 4”, but I’m afraid that’s not an appropriate answer. So: what can I be proud of?
There can be quite many challenging and/or stressful times during the PhD, with struggles and failures popping up in so many shapes and sizes. When you feel particularly stressed or down, it can be hard to put things into perspective, and there is one very important thing you might tend to forget: you’ve already accomplished SO MUCH!
During the PhD, I went from one struggle to the next, rarely taking the time to even “notice” my successes. Like many others, I was seeing the whole journey as a long list of problems, while I should have seen it as a long list of problems I had managed to solve. Yes, the struggles were constant, but that’s because I was not there for the pretty “Dr” title, I was there to learn, I was there to challenge myself. Struggles happen when you challenge yourself, when you decide to learn new skills (I’m looking at you, R), new methods or analysis (I’m looking at you, multiple linear regression!), new practices (I’m looking at you, registered report!), when you decide to go one step further with your research (I’m looking at you, MRI study!). Be proud of yourself for doing so! Remember all the challenges that you’ve tackled, and all the problems you’ve solved, all your successes, and you’ll see that you CAN face the difficult time you are going through, because you’ve already overcome similarly difficult times.
I would actually go beyond this, and advise you not only to keep in mind your academic and PhD successes, but also any other personal or professional achievement. When doing so, feel free the set the bar as low as necessary for the current situation. If like me you tend to be much harder on yourself than you are on others, a good technique to prevent yourself from doing this is to turn the question around: if a friend with a background similar to yours had achieved X, would you be happy for them and congratulate them? If yes, then you should let yourself be proud for achieving X!
I rarely (understatement) feel proud of myself and what I have accomplished, generally telling myself I could and should have done more/better, or that the thing I went through was not “objectively” hard and there’s no reason for me to celebrate it. As always, it’s Maggi who had to point out to me that I had achieved stuff I should be proud of. A few days ahead of the viva, with the PhD anxiety coming back in full swing, I’m realising that I dearly need to tell myself “Girl, YOU CAN DO THINGS!” So here is a list of 15 (academic and non-academic) things I can be proud of (in no particular order):
- Moving to a new country I had never even visited before, where I didn’t know anybody, for an undetermined period of time, while not being fluent in the language …
- To enrol in the hardest and highest possible academic degree in a multidisciplinary project (while having no knowledge about any of the involved disciplines, i.e. having to learn about each of them) …
- While being self-funded and therefore having to juggle between a full-time PhD and a part-time job in lieu of entertainment and self-care…
- And therefore: tutoring undergraduates and supervising MSc dissertations in fields I knew virtually nothing about (i.e. having to learn about these fields as well), and having students actually nominating me for a Teaching Award
- Writing an entire PhD thesis in my 3rd language (in which I was good but absolutely not fluent before the PhD)
- Receiving a British Federation of Women Graduates prize for my research
- Facing my absolute phobia of stats and coding, and running complex analyses on R
- Facing my mediocre social skills and imposter syndrome, and enrolling into ALL the conferences and community/academic events I could find (and ending up at the University’s 3MT final)
- Leading (chaotically and unskilfully) a team of 50 people to organise a science festival
- Riding a bike from Glasgow to Edinburgh for charity, while being dramatically unfit
- Changing this unfitness and ACTUALLY getting into (and maintaining) an exercising routine
- Reducing to almost 0 my yearly purchases of fast fashion, and actively reducing my use of plastic
- Persevering, even when all I wanted to do was switch for easier solutions. Persevering with R, persevering with recruitment, persevering with the MRI study. Persevering with this blog even when I thought nobody cared about it and there was too much going on
- Accepting there is so much I don’t know, learning things not relevant in any way for my research. Forcing myself to question my own views and consider others’ (still working a lot on that, but proud to have started the journey)
- Queuing like a true Brit, but not drinking like one
During the low points in the PhD, please, don’t do like I did. Try your best to take a step back from it all, and think about all the astonishing things you’ve already accomplished. You’ve made it so far, you deserve to be here, and you can do this. There is so much you should be proud of.