The Story of A ‘Stupid Boy’ – Battling the Common Enemy of PhD Students: Isolation and Loneliness

This academic year, I was asked twice (!) by the University of Southampton for sharing my thought and experience in front of new PhD students. The first one is for the new PhD students in the Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) department, around 30 students. A relatively small audience and it was a more of an interactive session. But the second one is in front of the 150+ new PhD students from various faculties across the University! Well, personally, I don’t think that I’m sort of a model PhD student that has stellar achievements or a very inspiring result. Honestly, I don’t have any of those. Although, if they invited me, it means I did something right, I suppose. The thing is, I always said, “I don’t know why I’m being invited here”, every single time, but the truth is, I probably know what the reason they invited me.

 

I’m probably one of those PhD students that have a quite late realization about what you should and should not do during your PhD. Last academic year I could say that it was the year when I am being “out there” the most. That was the year where I participated in a lot of activities outside my work in the research group. Probably the year when I enjoyed my PhD the most. Got some awards, presented my research in front of the public, went to some conferences, my articles got published, met a lot of new people, finished my first half-marathon ever, participated in a lot of events in Doctoral College Festival (this is why the Doctoral College invited me!), and probably a lot more than I have mentioned. It seems like everything comes to place quite nicely, but first, let me tell you a story about a stupid boy.

The Stupid Boy

Do you know what is the Earth’s circumference across the equator line? The answer is approximately 40,000 km. It means that the longest distance between two points on planet Earth is approximately 20,000 km. So, if someone asks you ‘what is the definition of travelling half-way across the globe’, the answer will be a 10,000 km journey.

This stupid boy’s hometown is 12,500 km from Southampton, UK. He was quite naive and ambitious in a very innocence way. He thought that if he enrols in a PhD programme somewhere in a top university in the world, he will probably help make the world a better place. He finally decided to fly 12,500 km from his hometown to the UK, after securing a place in the University of Southampton as a PhD student. I honestly do not know what is inside this boy’s head. He never spoke English to a native speaker before (well, once with a tourist and once during an IELTS test, but I don’t think they are actually counted), the English skills he gathered since elementary-school was tested based on a test where somehow everybody is named Alice and Bob, and he never stayed abroad for more than two weeks. Travelling half-way across the globe to a land full of strangers and stay there for four years, was kind of a stupid decision, considering all of those circumstances he had. But, he flew anyway with all of his courage and confidence anchored by the belief that he would change the world after he finished his PhD. What a stupid boy.

Unfortunately, reality hit him soon enough after he landed in London UK, face-to-face with the immigration staff at the border control. He could not fathom a single English sentence pronounced by the immigration staff. She practically had to spell them out for him. Well, not actually spell them, but she had to say it really, really slow after he said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you” three times. A question as simple as ‘What… are… you… studying???’ sounded really bizarre to him. He thought the rest of the UK will treat him just fine. But, boy oh boy, he could not be more wrong. His first visit to Sainsbury’s Local was equally awful. The employee had to repeat the very popular phrase ‘Do you need a bag?’ three times, because he always said ‘I am sorry, I don’t understand you’. Do you see now? Such a stupid boy. The UK is not always the land of milk and honey, but it is definitely always the land of incomprehensible words. JK!

depression

He still thought it couldn’t get any worse. But, here is the problem. For a PhD student in the UK, the first 9 months is arguably the worse time. It’s the year of absolute confusion. At least, that is the case for him. He felt like he was thrown in the middle of the ocean, reading anything without any specific direction, he felt he didn’t know anything. Every presentation he made looked stupid, every presentation he delivered sounded stupid. All of those things that happened in a very short period made his confidence and his courage practically went to the drain. That’s why he started making a terrible promise for himself that he will not do anything outside his PhD because he was here for a PhD and only a PhD, nothing else. He will now dedicate all of his time just for research. And that’s my friends, how the isolation from the outside world began. In a good day, he went to the office, maybe did some reading, or some writing, or made some presentations, probably met his supervisors, and after everything done, he went home. Doing nothing else. In a bad day, he stayed at his rooms, doing nothing, or started thinking if he actually had the capabilities required for being a good PhD, or drowned in disappointment why couldn’t he understand anything, wondering if he was good enough as a PhD student. Sometimes, he would be in his room for a day, or two days, even once three days, talking to nobody, isolating himself from the world, and alone.

Isolation is probably the worst enemy of any PhD student. It can be manifested as social isolation or academic isolation, and either can be very catastrophic if we don’t stop it. That was what he learned during his isolation period. Instead of being very productive, his isolation period had given him the most unsatisfying results. Practically, nothing can be processed in his brain. The more he isolated himself to read some articles, to do some works, to write some codes, the more he felt that he was worthless. As the result, the more he tried to ignore the world outside his office space, the more he ended up deeper in the dark hole of desperation. As you may notice by now, it turned to a very vicious cycle. He was depressed because he could not understand anything, and he could not understand anything because he was too depressed. Learned it in a hard way, he finally decided that enough is enough. He needed to do something to end this endless cycle.

Given that all of his confidence already went to the drain, the amount of courage he required to break-down the wall of isolation was monumental. He started with something simple, met another PhD student by attending some events outside his department. Now, the only anchor he had was his own naivete and simple jargon “I have done a lot of stupid things, just let do some more. What’s the worst could happen anyway?” He was not the most sociable person on the planet Earth so it could go wrong on so many ways.

But, he was doing not so bad. Well, the first one was not so bad, because he met a few people, had a little chat here and there, and had a pretty good time. After that, he went to some more events. Learned how to be more sociable, even though sometimes he failed so miserably. Why did he keep going? The reason was simple, it was exhilarating. And today, he is still craving for some more.

You Are More Than Your PhD

If you haven’t figured this out, the stupid boy I told you about, he was me. I’m not insulting or offending anybody, I was just insulting myself, so I guess I’m on a safe side here. Okay, let’s continue.

You are more than your PhD. It’s a jargon that I always carry on my shoulders and always being promoted by the University. Obviously, it’s true that if we enrol in a doctoral programme, the ultimate goal is to earn that PhD title. But, sometimes we forget that our own wellbeing is also important, even probably more important. After all of those struggles that I endured on my own, every time someone asked me what is my advice to survive the PhD, I always give this answer: “If you don’t have a hobby, find a hobby. If you have one, just continue, or find a new one. Make a room in your schedule specifically just for your hobby. In general, find something else outside your research that makes you excited every single week.” Obviously, there is a lot more useful advice for a specific subject, but arguably, I can give this advice to anybody in any PhD subject.

Isolation and loneliness are one of the biggest enemies of PhD students around the globe. I learned a lot from my own journey. When I decided that I wanted to do a PhD, my only anchor and motivation were that I love poking around thing until it dents and that is exactly what a PhD is all about. My ambition was hoping that the dent that I create will be used to make the world a better place. Well, the hard cold truth is that it may be achievable in some cases or maybe not at all. During the bad day, I only wished that I could survive my PhD. I was no longer care about the contribution that I possibly make to the advancement of humanity. It was just too much to handle. Now, we can see what was the main problem in my case. I lost the only anchor that I had, the thing that I’m passionate about that made me choose this path. Later, I arrive at this conclusion for myself: Making your only passion as the only anchor for your PhD is very stupid indeed.

Okay, that may sound controversial, but I also know a lot of great people who survive the whole PhD by anchoring to their own passion. I admire those people, don’t get me wrong. But, it does not work for everyone and especially for me. In my case, when I lost my way and I lost my motivation in research, I do not have any other way to run. I was stuck. Nothing made me excited. I also have a history of being medically diagnosed with depression, so I was definitely very conscious about how things can go totally wrong from that point.

My story here is not about me telling everybody about how to do your PhD correctly. It is absolutely not. It is a story about how I found my problems and how I tried to fix them. Because as a PhD student, we must have the perseverance, the passion, and the patient to deal with the same thing over and over again until one day we find our ‘a-ha’ moment. It is indeed not easy and surely challenging. That’s why there are a million correct ways of doing a successful PhD and be aware, the term of success itself is bounded by subjectivity. For me, there isn’t any formal definition for a perfect PhD, but there is one thing that we all can aim for: a completed PhD.

Having something we are very passionate about outside our academic life is probably the best way for battling the isolation and loneliness problem. Now, here is the question: How do we find the new thing that we will be passionate about? My ultimate answer is to try every possible opportunity that laying in front of us. After the sudden realization that I need to get my life sorted out, I started to find random things to try. As a person who has terrible social skills, it was not easy. Awkward feeling always lingered, but my willingness to break down the barrier was greater.

TEDx1
Volunteering at TEDx Southampton with the members of Mu Collective.
volunteer1
Volunteering with October Books
half-marathon
I finished my first half-marathon ever.

How do I survive my PhD

I have tried many things before I settled on several things. I tried bouldering, tennis, and squash, all of them don’t feel quite right. Honestly, I’ve tried the world of baking too, but I found out that baking was not for me (I successfully baked some delicious cakes though, I have a friend that can endorse me for this). Finally, I settle for running, volunteering, and language learning.

The Year of 2018, probably the best year I had during my PhD. It was started with my New Year Resolution (to read how to make a New Year resolution that actually works, please read here). In my New Year resolution, I wrote down: I want to volunteer, I want to run (stay healthy mentally and physically), and I want to learn foreign languages. It looks ambitious, but I managed to accomplish all of them. I was volunteering (and still am volunteering) with October Books and Mu Collective. I joined Southampton Parkrun in early 2018 as a runner and also as a volunteer. After that, I also run on my own schedule. I finished my first ever half-marathon race. I enrol in German class and Mandarin class for beginners (yes, contrary to popular belief, I don’t speak Mandarin). I managed to get my 100-day streak on Duolingo. Now, some people may raise some questions about my academic progress. Can you manage your academic goals if you have a life outside your academic life?

 

In 2018, I have presented 3 research posters, I published a journal article as a first author and several papers as co-author, I actively participated in Doctoral College Festival, including the 3-Minute Thesis (where I won in Faculty level), I got the opportunity to teach an evening class, and got several opportunities to practice my science communication skills, and so on. Well, all of those may sound not very impressive, but for me, they were precious because I survived and I was happy.

I want to conclude my random ranting here by saying that PhD is not easy. PhD will definitely make you think that you are a stupid person, but guess what? Everybody is stupid. Everybody does not know everything. If I am not stupid, hand me my PhD right now! PhD is hard and challenging, but that is not the reason why we should not feel happy about ourselves. PhD requires passion, but in order to make it stay on fire, we need to have a life outside our PhD. If you think you get stuck and you face a wall, stop for a moment and think. Find the problem and find a way to solve it. If you think you can handle it alone, by all means, please seek help from people around you. I could say that I am the lucky few people that had not reached the point that I need the outside help. However, I will not suggest everyone remain quiet and suffer alone in silence like me.

This article was inspired by the event set up by the Doctoral College, University of Southampton. I’m always not sure what to say in front of a lot of new PhD students, so I thought it will be easier if I write it. Thank you for the opportunity of letting me share my experience. Finally, I wish everyone a delightful PhD journey. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

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