Doctoral study has been getting a lot of bad press lately. Many of the criticisms are legitimate, but it’s easy to get lost pointing at problems. If you only read online articles you might get the impression that doing a PhD is humorless, isolating, stressful, and boring. I’ve consequently made a list of things to do to make your experience more enjoyable.
Part of succeeding in doctoral studies is going through many try-fail cycles in a controlled environment. People are going to watch you fall flat on your face, tell you so, and you’re going to get up the next day and go through the same thing again. Failing, if it leads to eventual success, is a pleasant process, but some people have an easier time grasping that than others. If you’ve done any sort of martial art or sport, you will know what I mean. Take Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). If you’re not familiar with BJJ, it’s like wrestling, but it includes submissions on the ground like joint locks and chokes. When you first go to a BJJ class, the smallest and weakest people will make you submit or “tap” over and over again. To quote Sam Harris, it’s like drowning. For many people it’s humiliating to lose to someone smaller and weaker than they are, especially if their ego is really tied up with being powerful and masculine. If they can’t get over the failure, then they will likely quit after a few classes. Kids don’t have this problem as much as adults. Kids feel failure just as keenly as adults, but there’s one important difference: kids fail all the time. Most of your childhood was spent trying things, screwing up, and then succeeding, whether it’s learning how to walk, do your times tables, or climbing a tree.
If you approach your PhD with a sense of play, and without all that baggage that’s attached to failure, it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes I see PhD students enjoying themselves, and they seem embarrassed, like they’re not supposed to take pleasure in work. Sure, your average Jane is probably not going to get turned on by digging through google scholar, reworking drafts of papers, or hunting for the obscure and misunderstood. But you do, and that’s all that matters.
Doing a PhD involves two of the most pleasurable and rewarding activities that humanity has come up with: writing and teaching. Even if you spend your days buried under a pile of formulas, electronic parts, and code, you have to write and teach. Neither activity should be joyless, even if they constitute work. When did we all decide that struggling is suffering? You have to go through periods of uncertainty and struggle to get to the good stuff. Once you accept this everything more or less falls into place.
3. Lighten up
Doing a PhD is not that hard. Lighten up about it. PhD students tend to lack perspective about the difficulty of their work. If you play a video game on easy or normal mode for years, then when you are confronted with a new difficulty level it seems like you’ve just climbed Mount Everest. But for players who start at hard or hardcore difficulty, the lower modes seem like a piece of cake. Doing a PhD is challenging and risky, but it should be compared to other challenging and risky career moves.