Top of Tops — PhD edition

My PhD adventure is soon coming to an end, which is both liberating and terrifying. In the midst of the intense write up that is currently filling up my days, I have to admit I didn’t give much thought to the blog. Luckily, I can always count on my wonderful friend Maggi to give me some ideas. She judiciously (because she is so naturally wise) suggested that, as I’m now at the end of the PhD journey, I could reflect upon this experience and identify key elements, like “the top 5 best moments of the PhD”, or “the top 5 worst moments of the PhD”. Unfortunately, I could not identify enough points for the former option, and I identified too many for the latter, so we kept on brainstorming. In the end, I decided to go for a top of tops of the PhD adventure.

(Disclaimer: these are all very personal to my own PhD experience, and many may be extremely unrelatable for other students. Bisous.)

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Top 1 bad advice I’ve been given

I MUST have a good PhD/Real life balance, and it is wrong to prioritise the PhD. I am not saying everybody should prioritise the PhD, and I definitely agree that students should try and achieve a PhD/Life balance that works for them, mostly for things like, you know, happiness, mental health, etc. However, your balance is probably not my balance. We all come in the PhD for different reasons, through different experiences, with different outlooks on life, with different priorities and different constraints (i.e. a part-time job during the “free time” left by the full-time PhD). Your PhD journey is your own, you know yourself best, so follow what works for you.

Top 2 worst moments of the PhD

- Attempting (and failing) to write a registered protocol for a study in a widely understudied field without having anything I could actually use to guide me. This registered protocol delayed my data collection of MONTHS and it was definitely the start of the deep misery phase of the PhD (did it end though…). Retrospectively, it was actually useful, as I reused a lot of the writing for the thesis, but still. Nah.

- Trying to teach myself R, knowing fully well that the weeks I was spending trying to clean the data would be weeks added at the end of the PhD (while still being self-funded). Intense levels of guilt added to the general R struggles.

Top 3 best moments of the PhD

- At each conference I attended so many people came to congratulate me for my work, and told me how much it mattered. These people kept me going.

- Seeing people take part in my research. I research bilingualism in autism in adulthood (surprisingly this field is basically not studied, I wonder why), and in my wildest dreams I was hoping to find maybe 10 people willing to participate. But no: 208 participants for my first online study, 39 for the in-person study, and 17 of them who agreed to spend 1h in an MRI for me and my wacky ideas. Admittedly these numbers probably seem ludicrous for most researchers, but that’s also for every single one of these participants that I kept on going.

- Reading my thesis. I have still way too much to do before submission, and I know I’ll get hundreds of corrections anyways, but when I think about where I started and I compare this to the massive book I’m almost done writing (even though I still feel like a chimp when I write in English), I have to say, I’m quite proud (the feeling is generally short lived, and vanishes when I remember I have literally no plan for after the PhD)

Top 4 things I wouldn’t change in my PhD

- Working alongside the PhD, even though it meant taking longer for the PhD. I started tutoring only because I needed the money, but I’ve learned as much tutoring and supervising as I have studying for the PhD.

- Suffering through R (yes, even after what I’ve said above). Checking, re-running, or repeating an analysis with a new sample is so quick and easy! The plots are gorgeous. You can share scripts. It’s just the best. These were tears well spent.

- Adding an extra study to my PhD (I’m looking at you, still unfinished MRI chapter!), thus adding another x months to the whole thing (I don’t want to know how many months. I can’t face this information). Sure, my thesis is now a proper chunk and I’m feeling quite sorry for my examiners. This study will definitely have been stress and struggles from start to finish, but thanks to this extra project I’ve learned extra skills, and the story I tell in my thesis feels complete.

- Jumping into a project in a field I knew literally nothing about. After 5 years studying Biology and Physiology (and selling lingerie), almost everything about my project was new to me, from the main topics (autism, bilingualism, social cognition) to the methods (what do you mean working with HUMANS?? Bring me a rat and a lab coat!). It was a bit scary, definitely challenging, but the rewards of interdisciplinary research are worth it.

Top 5 take-home messages

- However hard you thought the PhD could be, it is harder. It is meant to be one of the most intellectually challenging experiences, not a 9–5 job you can forget about at the end of the day. Really, most of the time, you’re miserable. But in spite of that…

- You can do this. You might not believe it, but you can do this. Some days, you will be passionate about your work, and other days you’ll hate it. And by “other days” I mean “more often”. Still, you’ll get to the other side.

- When you are a perfectionist by nature with the leech as spirit animal, the balance between pushing yourself to achieve your best versus not letting the PhD take over your life is tricky (impossible) to achieve. Don’t blame yourself, there are phases like that, but they will pass.

- Take every single opportunity you can to learn and try new things: new information, new research methods, new translational skills unrelated to your PhD (like public engagement). The whole point of the PhD is to learn. Actually, it is your last good chance at being a student, allowed to try random things and potentially fail. Make the most of it! Don’t stick to what you’ve mastered, don’t stick to the plan, instead challenge yourself, be adventurous, explore, try!

- One day, the PhD will end, and after a sometimes (most of the time) really quite unpleasant (or properly awful, if like me you have a tendency to surpass yourself even when it’s not necessary) journey of 3.5 years, you will have achieved something stunning. Plus you’ll get to add “Ph.D.” after your name.

Bisous from afar,

Bérengère

The Chronicles of Morningside: The Tower, The Farm and The PhD