The Loneliness of PhD Life

Dr. Robert Chase: “How’d you like it if I interfered in your personal life?”
Dr. Gregory House: “I’d hate it. That’s why, cleverly, I have no personal life.”

-Gregory House & Robert Chase, House M.D.-

This time, I’ll discuss something which was a little bit bothering me when I started my PhD study and I’m really glad to say that I’m finally able to start getting over it a little by little. Let’s start the story!

Before my departure to University of Southampton, I heard that PhD life is a lonely life, even my high-school senior told me the same thing, and it appears to me that it was some kind of “sacred message”. At that time, I wasn’t very sure what that was all about, but after almost three months spending my time in research laboratory, I can finally relate to what the message actually means. You may think this sacred message means that as a PhD student, you’ll have no personal life, ergo you’ll be lonely. Well, I can’t 100% deny this kind of stereotyping, because most of the PhD students spend most of the time in their office, or with their papers, or with their researches, but in my opinion, the main idea of this “loneliness” is not only applicable on personal life. So what is it, what does the word lonely have to do outside the personal life? The idea of lonely life of PhD life is more in context with the concept of “Knowledge Loneliness”. Knowledge loneliness is the condition where you have no one to give you a tutorial, a guideline, or a easy-way to understand things, or even a discussion partner in your particular research field, or the time when you have to figure things out all by yourself or the moment when you have tried everything you can but none of them worked. One may argue that you have your research group partners and your supervisors to help you, but you will realize, first, they have another business to take care of and you can’t expect them to show you how to solve the problems step by step or give you a slow-paced tutorial because you are expected to be a “grown up researcher”. Second, you are expected to be an expert in your very particular research field. You may have partners in the same research group, but there are a moment when even your partners or your supervisors only have a little insight about what’s going on in your works because the person who should know the problems more thoroughly is yourself, because those are your researches, those are your works, those are your problems, and you’re the one who discover the problem in the first place! I used to feel a little bit left-out because everyone seems doing fine meanwhile I was in my cubicle scratched my head figuring what could I possibly do next. However, when you finally find out the solution or when you finally solve the problem, believe me, it feels really, really, really, good. Trust me, it works! For you, maybe another PhD student, who also feel the same way, you are not alone. The first thing to get over this feeling in the early year is just to admit it. You will never get rid off “the thing” if you don’t admit if “the thing” actually does exist in the first place.

A bit short this time, but I hope it does still have some meaning for all of you.

“Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day and you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who the f*ck are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter, and you know what? You’re right, you don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”

-Sam, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), 2014-

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