I came out of the room drenched in cold sweat and glanced at the clock; it had been nearly four and a half hours. My viva was finally over.
In the next room my lab had filled a unicorn-shaped piñata with my favourite sweets, and had my favourite pizza ready for me to inhale. My delight at this sheared off some of the queasiness I felt from the trauma of the last few hours. We stood around awkwardly with my two examiners, drinking champagne mainly in silence whilst I smashed up the unicorn with a broom and devoured the pizza.
The months building up to my viva had left me with a single-minded purpose: to pass the PhD. I had even given up my usual events and talks with Talent Factory to focus on this task. I felt like Frodo, and kept running over what Galadriel had said to him: ‘This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will’.
That was the way it was, and if I hadn’t obsessed and pushed myself, would I have passed?
I didn’t want to party. I didn’t want to drink. On the way home, my district line train took over 40 minutes to turn up. I got home and sank into the sofa, and pretty much stayed there for the next 3 weeks. I felt numb. What had I just done with the last 4 years of my life? Had I helped anyone? Had I changed anything?
Perhaps strangely, I think if I went back in time I would still decide to do a PhD. I loved science, and doing my own original piece of research was so exciting to me there was nothing else in the world I wanted to do. But I wish there was something I could do to change how I managed my mental health during that time, and change how I coped with the many characters around me to get the most out of my PhD.
I still don’t know what advice I would give myself. Maybe going mad is a prerequisite for doing a PhD?
Now I’ve got a PhD, I feel much like Frodo after he destroyed the ring. ‘How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on?’.
After a lot of thought I’ve realised that for me, going on means leaving academia behind, diving into a new field and studying graduate medicine. It took me about 3 years to make this decision, but now I find myself in a place where I’m genuinely excited about the future and to embark upon the journey towards becoming a doctor. Or perhaps surgeon.
I do have one recommendation for those embarking on a PhD: find a hobby, and embrace it. During my time as a PhD student, pottery, running and science communication kept me sane. Succeeding as a runner and a science communicator (my pots were of variable success) allowed me to pick myself up during my darkest times.
by Char Mykura