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"Surviving the PhD" Panel

On 7th April 2014, a panel discussion on the topic of ‘surviving the PhD’ was held at The University of Melbourne. Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Constance Chung
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On 7th April 2014, a panel discussion on the topic of ‘surviving the PhD’ was held at The University of Melbourne. There were four speakers on the panel: Justin Denholm, who completed his PhD and who currently works as an infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Australia; Phee Lep Yeoh, who received his PhD from the University of Sydney in 2012 in engineering and is now a recipient of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award; Julia is in her second year of her PhD in literature. The fourth speaker was Alison McDonald, a school chaplain with Melbourne University Christian Union. Alison had previously worked as a psychologist in the field of educational and developmental psychology. The discussion was mediated by Lay Tan, who is in the last stages of her PhD in economics.

Here are some highlights of the discussion:

The PhD journey is difficult and challenging, research can be slow, and often, students feel isolated from their friends and are consumed by their work. For the most part, it is going to be difficult, but with an awareness that other students may also be going through the challenges we face, we can help one another make this journey a rewarding one.

One of the common challenges that students may face is the consuming nature of their work. There is a tendency for students to spend more than ‘full-time hours’ on their work. The challenge of maintaining motivation can also be difficult. When we feel unmotivated, we feel terrible. We compare ourselves with our colleague, who comes in to work before 9am each morning and never seems to leave his or her desk when we take breaks. Our supervisor is constantly busy, and we can spend the entire morning reading the abstract of a paper when really, we should have read the whole paper and learnt something new.

Some words of comfort: it is fine to have unproductive days or weeks. It is fine not to make smooth and steady progress all the time. Periods of drought are normal. In fact sometimes it is better to have some space and time to think.

But there are strategies to overcome these periods of dryness. Apart from taking some time off, making small goals and rewarding ourselves can be effective in generating motivation. Ticking off a to-do-list can be fun! Rewarding ourselves with a cup of coffee after we have finally finished reading that abstract can help too.

On how to maintain good mental health:
• Set firm and flexible boundaries between work and play. Our work can be consuming if we let it and it would help if we made a conscious effort to contain it.
• Take care of our physical health by eating well and exercising regularly.
• Maintain networks outside our PhD circles – this also helps to remind that our PhD does not define who we are. And even though it does not seem like we would have any energy left to consider others, serving or volunteering, making time for others, can be a good way of taking the focus off ourselves.
• If we had a spiritual faith, keep it up because it can be an important source of motivation and inner well-being.

Finally, remember that you are not alone in this journey. It is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed, but it is important to have some strategies to keep motivated. Stay healthy, and gaze upon the skies because there the light is shining.