A bumpy – emotional – ride towards a PhD
15 May 2018
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Gregorio Dias shares his personal journey as a PhD student and discusses how a better work-life-balance and spending more time with friends helped him overcome the stress and anxiety that he faced during his studies.
Working towards a PhD is an exciting, albeit challenging, narrative in a student's life. The goals and aspirations that motivate one at the early stages of a PhD project are very likely to change over time. In my view, this transformative process is much needed, as it builds up personal and scientific maturity. This journey is, nonetheless, accompanied by stress and low points and I discovered that taking time to do other things I enjoy and sharing my experiences with other students was as important as working hard to be successful. That is an accurate summary of my experience as a PhD student and I hope that sharing it here will help others in their own journey.
Aspiring to become an academic professor, I came straight from the Brazilian Amazon to start a DPhil (PhD) at the University of Oxford in the UK. I started an ambitious project aiming at answering a long-standing question in my field of study. In brief, I aimed at understanding how a particular protein of the innate immune system detects the presence of virus RNA in infected cells. Motivated by this exciting question, I immersed myself in the lab to achieve these goals. I had access to all the facilities, reagents and expertise I needed to tackle this question and never felt any pressure from my supervisors or colleagues.
However, the combination of being ambitious and anxious did not mean immediate results, and I soon learnt that top notch science is rather a slow process. It is common for several obstacles to get in the way of successful research. Regardless of all the good feedback and support you might receive from your peers, dealing with these obstacles ultimately relies on you, and how you are able to envisage a way to resolve the problems. This can be a lonely place. I sometimes felt as if I was on an emotional roller coaster, with conflicting feelings of satisfaction (when experiments worked) and dissatisfaction (when they didn’t), which could make me feel stressed and low. I soon found out that these feelings are not unique. An important first step was spending time with other PhD students. We started meeting in the pub, or organising hiking and other trips at weekends. Getting together helped me realise I was not alone.
Getting together helped me realise I was not alone.
I heard stories of how others were struggling too. Although each story had its own particularity, we all felt similarly; we had started as highly motivated students, but soon the pressures and obstacles of science made us feel low and unmotivated. Learning from other students was very helpful to me and partially alleviated my stress levels.
I also found it very helpful to decrease the amount of time I spent in the lab, (especially in the evenings and weekends) and replacing it with other activities that also required a degree of responsibility and commitment. Firstly, I started playing volleyball for the university team. Later I became captain for the second team, which allowed me to develop soft interpersonal and management skills. I also attended the volleyball-directed fitness sessions, which greatly improved my sleeping hours. My body and mind quickly noticed the importance of being part of a team sport.
I later became more involved in public engagement activities in order to improve my communication skills and ability to engage with a lay audience. As part of that, I started my own small blog to present my critical views on certain science subjects (e.g. Zika virus research). I also got out of the basic medical science research bubble. I attended talks about public health, short-film making, social sciences, and many others. These talks gave me a much wider view of the world, allowing me to connect with other people and their problems while producing science. Meanwhile I watched how the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks affected developing countries. This flow of information made me much more aware of the impact of my research and gave me an understanding that what I do is important, and my hard work is much needed in basic science. I now want to get more engaged and acquire new skills to contribute towards infectious diseases-related emergency/crisis relief. I have new professional perspectives and am going to take action to learn more about other fields, especially public health.
Back in the lab, I finished my PhD with a new sense of perspective and energy. Even before having the chance to start drafting two short manuscripts and a review (yet to be published), I was offered a couple of funded postdoctoral positions in very good labs in the United States. My friends and their friends are in similar positions, regardless of whether they have submitted papers or have published in top tier journals, showing that our hard work has been rewarded despite of the obstacles we encountered.
I now look back and acknowledge that the hard time I had during my PhD was very important and transformative. The science we produced in the lab will most likely have an impact on the lives of so many people in need. We do not want a Nobel Prize. We want to generate small but meaningful advances in our particular field of interest knowing that ultimately it will have an impact. I reached the end of the road of getting a PhD degree and I can tell you: it is very bright here. I wish that all students experience the same outcome, but it is okay to realise that sometimes the burden is too much for one person only. To help future students, myself and others at the MRC WIMM got together to create a student association.
I reached the end of the road of getting a PhD degree and I can tell you: it is very bright here.
The association provides both opportunities for students to get together socially, but also two fully trained peer supporters, always available to listen. Please do seek help if needed and take advantage of the support networks available to you within your institution. And, if you also need a stranger to talk to, I would be delighted to try to help.
If you are a student at the MRC WIMM, peer support is available to you via the Graduate Student Association and the MRC WIMM Directory of Graduate Studies. Support is also available within your department via your supervisor, student representatives or departmental harassment advisors. Your college will also be able to support you via your college advisor, Tutor for Graduates, College Wellfare Dean or College Nurse.
Support is available from the wider University via the counselling services, disability advisory service or student advisory service (Oxford SU). More information on University welfare can be found here.