Well, this is it: the beginning of my blog and potentially the (premature) end of my PhD. Strange place to start? Possibly.
Up until a few days ago I was a third year life sciences PhD student in the midst of what The Thesis Whisperer has so fittingly termed “the Valley of Shit”. That was until I quit. Well, sort of. Technically I’m on “a break”. How much of a break this actually is I’m not sure yet. At the moment I’m using the time to research potential careers and to put together all my data in an attempt to make an MPhil out of it (oh, and to start a blog, play my piano/guitar, watch Greys Anatomy and generally procrastinate).
At some point though, I’m planning to take a proper break from science. If I’m stuck for something to do, I might head out to the Alps and spend a month working as a chalet host and snowboarding all day long (going up a mountain to get out of the Valley of Shit!). The problem with that plan is, I doubt if there’s any coming back from it. I imagine if (heaven forbid) I decide I’d quite like to finish my PhD, it would probably be too late – I doubt if my brain would allow me to voluntarily subject myself again to 7 day working weeks filled with constant fear of failure. That’s probably a good thing.
I’m not actually sure that not going back is my biggest worry. At the moment the memory of PhD pain and psychological torment is reasonably fresh, but it’s fading a little. Eventually you start to just remember the good bits. Like air punches and dancing in the lab when an experiment (actually) worked or my one-and-only Tear Jerker (a term borrowed from a fellow scientist I met in Baltimore, meaning an experiment that makes you so happy you actually cry). As Tali Sharot says, humans are natural optimists and I’d be a little concerned that this (possibly misplaced) optimism might land me right back where I started.
Whatever happens, in my case this break is definitely needed and I probably should have done it sooner. I can look down on the Valley of Shit (I imagine myself to be sort of hovering above it) a bit more objectively and see that maybe changes can be made to make it doable and worthwhile. I’m actually looking forward to things again. I think so far out of the experience my advice to others would be, don’t leave it as late as I did. It’s easy to lose all perspective if your PhD is becoming too much. Talk to your supervisor and take some proper time off. Whether I finish or not, I don’t think I’ll regret any of it. People say “but you’ll have wasted the past 2 years”. Rubbish. The last two years has been the biggest challenge and steepest learning curve of my life! Does that sound like a waste of time?