The up and downs of a PhD are well known, but the extent of these is different from one person to another. Inconclusive results, personal problems and many other things can affect this “crazy” time of our life. But despite all the drama, I do believe that having the right support from friends, supervisors and colleagues helps to get through this tough time. I have seen so many students crying and shouting, desperate because of lost or finished funding, fights with supervisors, administration problems and all sorts of other troubles.
I am in my third year of PhD and I have to say that it hasn’t been a normal one. As one of my friends pointed out, I have had a particularly weird experience. Lets just say it feels like living in one of those awful movies where tons of bad things happens to the main character and you sit there thinking “come on these things don’t happen in real life”. Well, yes this has been my PhD so far… starting with drowning my laptop in hot tea, losing my luggage after a flight, funding problems, and lately being physically threatened by a housemate and later having my card cloned. Really I am starting to laugh at myself but it’s been quite an experience, all adding up to #PhDlife which for me includes feeling not good enough, feeling like I have not achieved a single thing and feeling that one day both my supervisors realise that I am not worth the time.
What I have realised during this time is that I am growing personally. I am feeling stronger and I would really like to be able to help other people. And this is why I am writing this post. By talking with other students and also postdocs I realised that there are some common points and struggles for all of us, and what I would really like is to open a discussion and have us all reflect on how we think about others as well, and checking if everything is all right. By this I mean we need to truly listen to someone else. Think about the change in their voice, the look in their eyes, pay attention in changes on how they behave. Because we can get the answer “Yes, I am fine.” but there is often hidden meaning behind these words. How often do we talk to a colleague that is not in our office? How well do we know the new intern or the situation of the foreign student in the lab? Have we done something to help that person to integrate and understand their new working environment and, often, their new country?
This is not something I write easily but I have realised that most of us, in various times are too tired or too ashamed or too polite to answer “How are you doing?” truthfully. Or, in my case, I don’t want to bother someone with my trouble (yes, sometimes it does happen that even I don’t want to talk!). I am very lucky in many ways: I have been through quite a rough path in my life, being in and out of hospitals since I was 14, dealing with my Mom’s ill-health (she has been suffering her entire life with various conditions such as spondylitis, arthritis, fibromyalgia to mention few), my Dad has had heart surgery. Finally both my sister and I have had to deal with a positive HLAB-27 test result for autoimmune disease, and both of us are now starting to show our Mom’s pathology. But, as my Mom has always pointed out, we have been lucky. There are people that suffer from worse, and, having seen two of my grandparents dying from excruciating cancers, I can say we are lucky. I feel lucky. And I feel I have to explain that I feel lucky because I have a family that love me, I have a second family in the USA that wait for me to go back and lots of friends, some of which made all the difference in my life. I feel lucky because I know that if something bad happen I have the strength to support myself, and because I have manages through the years to make amazing friends.
So you may ask yourself, “Why is she writing this?” Well it all started after talking with a researcher, someone that I met multiple times during my time in South Africa, and something that he told me really touched me. Last week I spent two days in his lab for some experiments (It was great to be back in the lab and have a break from bioinformatics!) and I was describing my 16 months in South Africa. At one point he told me that he never thought I could have been having such a hard time, because I am always smiling and happy and extroverted. He thought I was surrounded by friends and having such an amazing time. I have been told various times now that I come across as a happy, extroverted person, which for me is quite hilarious since I had to struggle through all high school with massive shyness and being very introverted. But then I remembered reading about comedians; it was an article in some magazine, about Jim Carey, Jim Belushi and Robin Williams, and it was exploring the fact that some of the best comedians suffer from depression. With this I don’t want to say that I am depressed, but that sometimes we underestimate what another person is going through, and that sometimes trying to compensate with too much happiness is actually a request for help.
Regardless of how well prepared you are for these experiences, there is an enormous need for support. A PhD can be a challenging time, especially if you are in a foreign country. Exactly the same day the researcher spoke to me, I found a link on Facebook to an article on how to spot people that suffer from hidden depression (http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/8-things-people-with-hidden-depression.html). Because of this I decided to share some thoughts, because I realise that there are so many people that just assume a colleague, friend or student is fine, when they are actually not! When you are away from home, family and long-time friends it can be very overwhelming. Even small things sometimes can be challenging and affect your sanity.
I am glad I have friends that support me, and tolerate my requests for help and talkative dinners when I am in need but I know we are not all the same. Some people are not able to ask for help, and this is why I am writing this post because this wants to be a reminder for me as well. I know we are all super busy, but if we pay a bit more attention to the other person when we talk to someone, then we can actually make a difference and improve someone else’s life, as well as our own.