Earlier on in my PhD, I developed a bad habit, though I didn’t know it at the time. As well as habitually googling, ‘reasons not to do a PhD’ (although I knew that was a bad idea from the outset), I also tried ‘advice for a PhD student’. Though seemingly harmless, asking the internet this question actually had pretty terrible consequences for a worrier like me.
Every blog post or web page I stumbled upon described, in minute detail, all of the trappings and pitfalls a supervisor, department head, administrative team, piece of lab equipment, software component or even partner could conceivably lay out for you to stumble upon throughout the duration of your studies. Reading these posts was, understandably, a terrifying experience. How on Earth could I insure myself against ALL of these perfectly feasible ordeals? Maybe I should try and delay my enrolment and take time out to ‘prepare’… maybe, if these things intimidated me so much, doing a PhD was not the right choice for me…
It wasn’t long (thank goodness), before I found a blog which wasn’t quite so intimidating, but was still realistic about all the challenges which lay ahead of me. The blog offered up this sobering “advice”:
The only way to learn how to do a PhD is to do one. All advice is therefore useless.
Back then, I took some comfort in these words, and have since stopped trolling the internet for vague PhD “wisdom”.
I hadn’t thought about the quote for a while, but after last week with its repeated mysterious experiment failures, I retreated back into the depths of my brain for some explanation as to why I couldn’t shake this feeling of PERSONAL failure every time an experiment failed.
The past few weeks have felt pretty slow and pointless because I am just not getting any results. I have been trouble-shooting and reading a lot, and trying to figure this all out on my own. Every time I cave and ask someone for advice, it makes me feel stupid. Why can’t I just be as smart as these people, and have as much insight and expertise?
Then I remembered that sodding “advice”. I can have the smarts, and I can have the insight, and I can have the expertise. I just have to learn how to do a PhD: and we all know there is only one way to do that.
In other words:
- Asking for advice is OK (the good, specific kind, not the vague, horror inducing, tell-me-all –the-ways-I-could-fail kind)
- Sometimes things don’t work, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to figure out how they do work.
In other, other words:
- Shut up and get on with it.