The postgrad: An unexpected journey

“We are plain quiet folk, and I have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, and uncomfortable things.”
― Bilbo Baggins

There are times when I prove to myself that I care about my general well-being. Registering for a PhD probably wasn’t one of them. Having just obtained my MSc, a looming sense of regret haunts me for jumping straight into a PhD. It is orchestrated by the familiar symphony of self-doubt, including hit titles such as “You are not prepared for this”, “Three more years, seriously?”, “It’s going to be hell” and my personal favourite; “What am I doing with my life?”.

I often feel like Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien’s wonderful novel “The Hobbit”, who was offered the opportunity to do something truly meaningful with his life by a great wizard (basically the fantasy genre equivalent of a Prof), if he would only leave the comfort and predictability of his normal life behind. I could probably settle down, find a job and sit in traffic each morning meticulously planning my 2 week leave, but I’ll always think to myself “What if?”. What if I continued with cancer research and made a truly novel contribution to the field? What if I was really on to something? Even worse, what if I end up being that guy who tells everyone the sad story of how someone else got credit for his ideas? The classic album of self-doubt will keep playing in my head regardless, the songs will just be in a different key.

After reading many PhD survival stories, one thing became apparent. The students were usually intellectually capable of completing their aims, but failing to take care of their mental and physical health was most detrimental to their research. Spending every waking minute doing experiments, writing articles and reading anything related to your research interest leaves little time to even contemplate eating healthy or even worse, doing exercise. As a result, the lack of sleep combined with the constant anxiety manifests as depression and lack of motivation. Tunnel vision ensues and you lose track of the bigger picture at hand, which makes the whole experience feel worthless.

There will most definitely be times when one has to place your life on hold in order to meet deadlines and complete your thesis. However, you cannot expect yourself to function under burn out over the course of 3-4 years. Fortunately, one can easily maintain a moderately healthy state of mind if there is a solid routine to fall back on. Even though I used to mock people who valued exercise above everything else, I have come to realise the great value of being physically prepared to function under exertion. Cultivating the habit of meditating or stretching for 5 minutes each morning and doing some moderate exercise in the afternoon (jogging, walking, weight training) can be the difference between giving up and success. Research has shown that whether you are under physical or emotional stress, your brain reacts to the release of cortisol (the common stress hormone) in much the same way. Therefore, if you condition yourself to operate under these conditions on a regular basis, you will be able to function under stress more efficiently. This goes further than just the work environment and can improve emotional decision making as well.

So who knows, maybe cultivating healthy habits is all I need to survive this PhD. That and a magic ring to help me disappear when times get tough.

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