Support Systems

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

It’s been a bad month. Your research/field work isn’t going well. You have started to wonder if you’re on the wrong track. Maybe you worry your research question is the wrong one. Or that your methodology doesn’t support it. You feel overwhelmed by the amount of work you need to get done before your next advisor/supervision meeting. You feel stressed and anxious. You aren’t sleeping well. You routinely procrastinate or overwork (or both). You cancel plans with friends because ‘you don’t have time’, but you still aren’t making progress.

But hey, you tell yourself that it’s all part of doing a PhD. That everyone goes through this. Or you tell yourself that it’s just one more reason you aren’t cut out for this. That you should just quit. It’ll be better for everyone.

You know something is wrong, but you can’t quite figure out exactly what that is. But you’re embarrassed to talk to your coworkers, or feel that you’ve complained too much to your friends already. Or you worry what your parents will say if you admit to them that you think this is just too hard.

First, forget about other people. Their opinions in this are not what your focus should be. This is about you. This is a time you get to be completely and utterly selfish. If something feels wrong, it feels wrong to you. And to change things means making it feel right to you.

If your family won’t support you, turn to your friends. If your friends don’t understand you (and refuse to try), I’d suggest some new friends. If your coworkers won’t listen to you, go to your advisor. If your advisor won’t listen to you, try your university’s counselling services. And if they don’t have time for you, go to a health care professional and tell them you need to speak to a professional. Someone WILL listen to you.

Being overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and feeling like it’s all too much are not just ‘part of the PhD’. And they do not mean you aren’t good enough to do a PhD. They are part of it because almost everyone experiences this, but they don’t need to. It’s not a requirement to get your doctorate, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This isn’t about ‘if you bleed enough, you’ll get your degree’. People can do a PhD without having breakdowns. Without feeling like they aren’t worthy. But I will say that those people are fewer by the year.

If you’re in the majority that are struggling, it’s okay; you are by no means alone. But you need to have a support system around you to deal with these struggles when they happen. It’s best to have this system in place when you start your doctorate.

Get your family on board. Make sure they support you from the get-go. Make sure they know how hard this is going to be; that you are going to miss family parties, that you are going to miss seeing your family when you have a deadline, that you aren’t always going to call every Monday, etc. Whatever you normally do with your family, both those you live with and those you don’t, make sure they know that there will be times that that ‘normal’ won’t work for you. Don’t apologise for this, but make them aware. Most families won’t go ‘but we come first’; but if they are suddenly confronted with you having to miss your mother’s 60th birthday party because your advisor set you a deadline in two day’s time, they might not understand. So warn them ahead of time.

Get your friends on board. Your close friends, the rest of them aren’t really going to be very useful. They are going to be the sort of people who check in in two years’ time and go ‘aren’t you done that thing yet?’ But your close friends have likely already seen you at your worst. They have been through the trenches with you. They can go through them again. And you want people who are not PhD students. You want people who have other interests and other hobbies, so when you talk to them you can have a break. But you want friends that can be shoulders to cry on, comfort on the bad days, reason and sanity when you feel you are losing both. They don’t have to understand the details, they just have to be willing to be there for you.

When you start your PhD, learn whether your advisor will be a support person. Some advisors are great at this. Some of them suck at it. Figure it out early on, by talking to other students, by talking to your advisor, etc. whether they can be there for you or not. If they cannot, you know to look elsewhere when the going gets tough.

Find coworkers. Colleagues. Other PhD students. In or outside your department. These people will understand you perfectly. Sometimes, they may not be able to be there for you, if they are having a hard time themselves. So find several people that fall under this category, to ensure that there will be someone who can listen/help/advise when you need it.

Discover who at your university does counselling services. Every university offers this in some way, whether formal or informal. Know where to go before you ever have to go. And never, ever, be ashamed to use these services. They are there for a reason. Sometimes, talking to a stranger is easier than talking to a friend.

A PhD is exhausting. Physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s not easy for anyone. And, at least for everyone I know, there are times when doing your PhD is all the energy you have. There isn’t any left. These are the times you need other people. You need someone to help, someone to give you energy.

If you are having a day, a week, a month (a year) where it is all too much, for whatever reason, go to your support network. Go to your family, your best friend, your advisor, a coworker, your university. Know that there are people who will listen and there are people who will help.

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