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4 min read

When I was applying for doctoral programmes, I was struck by the programme descriptions on some of their course pages. Many of them had unabashedly grim accounts of what to expect, along the lines of ‘your life is going to be miserable, you’re going to be poor and lonely, working with monastic discipline in writing your thesis’. It speaks volumes of the collective masochism of postgraduate students that despite such terrifying and foreboding warnings, they apply en masse for the programme. But two years into my PhD, having seen some degree of truth in this statement, I am really glad for things that buck this trend. My school organises an annual PhD student retreat to Firbush, an outdoor recreation centre the university owns, and this has quickly become a much-anticipated annual highlight.

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Sailing on Loch Tay

When you take PhD students to an outdoor recreation centre for a couple of nights, you can expect one extended debauch. And by debauch, I mean getting viciously competitive over a pub quiz, far too invested in a round of werewolf, or stuck into board games quite intensely. We’re PhD students: this is the level of decadence to which we’re accustomed. It’s either this or getting stuck in to kayaking, sailing, rowing, mountain biking, and doing outdoorsy stuff like we were supposed to. I even wandered around Killin taking pictures of the Falls of Dochart for an afternoon (and fell into the river while attempting to do so). We were all shattered and sore after this massive bender. This is a world away from the nasty, brutish and short life that I read about previously.

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Falls of Dochart

What I cannae fathom for the life of me, though, is why some folk still insist that the life of a PhD student has to be this way. These conditions make PhD programmes hostile towards students whose circumstances might make them incompatible with these kinds of lifestyles: PhD students with families who might not be able to get by on a meagre stipend, students with caring commitments which would limit the time they can invest in much of the unpaid career development they’re encouraged to do, students with mental health difficulties that would only be aggravated by the isolating and strenuous conditions of the programme. While it is important to be honest to prospective applicants about what to expect, and not to mislead them or encourage any false impressions of what doing a PhD is like, I cannae help but feeling that this attitude that doing a PhD has to be like this — as if to valorise hardship and suffering — is just toxic and distressing. It can hardly be a surprise that a recent study in Nature Biotechnology found that rates of anxiety and depression amongst graduate students are six times higher than the general public[1].

This is why I love going to Firbush so much: it shows that the experience of doing a PhD is something we can enjoy, that we are part of a community, and that it doesnae have to be so bad. We were there as a community that went across different cohorts and subject areas. Given how isolating and lonely research is on a day-to-day basis, it was nice to be out of the usual routine and sharing our experiences and fears with each other. Besides the mandatory academic support and community-building at the start, we were all there to have fun. And some folk took time out of the revelry to read or catch up on work while we were at a scenic retreat. (Or just catch up on sleep.).  We were happy to take time off from our research and enjoy ourselves, and we did so without guilt or shame, and that’s what made the trip so refreshing. It’s nice to have a reminder every once in a while that doing a PhD doesnae have to be so bad.


Notes:

[1] This resonates with findings from findings in the Nature graduate student survey last year, which I wrote a post about some time ago.


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Hetty, Anahit, and all the organisers of Firbush for making the trip what it was. Our department is a much nicer place thanks to them.


All photographs in this post were taken by me, for which I reserve all rights. For more of my photographs from Killin and Firbush, see my album on Flickr.