To be very honest with you, deciding whether or not to post these lessons was a real struggle for me. I had to search deeply within myself to find reasons to post. Inspired by the award I got during the AfrIBOP course for sharing on how COVID-19 has impacted on my life as well as how I discovered blogging as a way of expressing myself during my PhD program, I decided to share this just in case even one person can benefit from the lessons I have learnt. This exactly is the essence of my blog – to share my life experiences on my journey to self-discovery. I realise that I am not perfect (I make far too many mistakes), but I know that I can inspire others through my imperfections. This is my legacy… Quite often, I receive emails from all around the world from people who have been inspired by my write-ups. I derive a lot of strength from such messages. Also, I want my future students to read about my experiences (in the rare event that I forget all my struggles) and know that I have been through the full complement of the PhD experience and so, I can empathise with them. I want them to hold me accountable.
My PhD journey so far has been a roller-coaster. From venturing into a new area of research, I had zero experience in, to dealing with the challenges of self-learning completely new concepts within a very short time, and then dealing with grief caused by losing a loved one and being unable to say my final goodbye because the funeral was a week to my PhD qualifying exam…falling in love (for the first time in my life) with a man I had never met, getting married to him and dealing with a long-distance relationship. Then…discovering that I was pregnant somewhere in between and later on, having a baby at the peak of a global pandemic with limited options for childcare, all of these were happening while I was also coping with the challenges that are typical of PhD programmes. Phew! It has been an odyssey… As you can tell, I have had really high moments and very low ones too. The learning curve for me in the past few years has been really very steep. The beautiful thing, however, is that through all of these experiences, I have learnt so many lessons (and I am still learning) … In this post, I share some of these lessons, and I hope you can learn from them as well. (Previously, I had shared lessons I learnt in the first and second year of my PhD programme; you might want to check them out).
- Life happens during a PhD. In Michelle Obama’s book “Becoming”, she shares on how she thinks the worst question anyone could ever ask another person is “what do you want to become in future?” because we never become just one thing. We keep acquiring new skills, new experiences and evolving…and as a result, we keep becoming different dimensions of ourselves every day. For me, I think the one of the worst advice anyone can ever give is to ‘concentrate on your studies and do every other thing (your marriage, entrepreneurship, passions/interests) later’. I say so because that is not reality! The fact remains, there is never a perfect time to do anything. There are so many things that happen (and would happen) in life that you would have no control over. You have to accept it and deal with that. This explains why balance is such a beautiful concept; it entails making adjustments to ensure that you can effectively juggle all that you need to do. These days, I am learning how to be more effective in dealing with the unexpected and creating a balance in all that I do. I am learning to compartmentalise my life to make room for everything that demands my attention.
- Identify your source of strength. In recent times, I have drawn so much strength from my relationship with God – you might have noticed that a lot of my recent write-ups have been faith-based. There have been times that I felt so overwhelmed that I asked myself, “Who told me doing a PhD was a good idea? How did I even get here? Can I even continue with this? Will I ever finish?”. I have understood that I have these feelings when I tend to rely on my strength and efforts. In times like this, I have learnt not to rely on my strength (which is bound to fail anyway) but to draw my strength from my source. I have learnt to cast my cares on God and let Him encourage and comfort me.
- Life is a marathon. One of the most profound life lessons I have learnt in recent times is that life is a marathon – and everybody’s track on this marathon of life is different… A similar way to explain this concept is that life is a test, and everyone’s test question is different. Many times, we see life as a sprint. We want to run very fast and move on to the next phase; we over-exert ourselves thinking that our strength would carry us through the sprint. It is no surprise that the word of God says that “the battle is not to the strong, neither is the race to the swift”. In the same vein, the PhD life is a marathon… Consistent, daily, progressive steps are cumulative and are crucial to success on this journey. When the going gets tough, keep moving one step at a time; don’t lose momentum. The most important thing is that you get to the finish line – no matter how long it takes. Just be consistent.
- Prioritise self-care. While a PhD programme is vital for career progression and self-aggrandisement, we must continually remind ourselves of what is important and what is not so important. The fact remains, it is only someone alive that can earn a PhD. It is only someone healthy that can use a PhD after it is earned. Depression among PhD students is real. Imposter syndrome is more common than we can imagine. I am learning to give priority to things that make me happy and fulfilled such as eating healthy meals, devoting a few minutes to exercising daily, spending time with God praying and meditating on His word (this is very important), bonding with my family, expressing myself creatively through writing and keeping journals of my thoughts. I try to avoid anything that makes me feel unnecessarily anxious or stressed. I realise that I am in the best position to take proper care for myself in ways that no one else ever can. These days, I am learning to be unapologetic in making decisions that demand my time. Needless to say, I have lost a lot of friendships…and that is probably because only a few people can understand the phase of life I am currently in. I try not to worry about such things but to remain focused on my goals and those things that exude positivity. Thankfully, I am blessed to have a loving and supportive husband, with the cutest baby boy ever… What more can I ask for? Gratitude has always been an integral part of my life, and it has helped me to remain positive despite all the negativity around me. I recently shared my annual 29-day gratitude journey in an e-book. You could check it out.
- Take stock periodically. From time to time, it is necessary to sit back and take a reflective look at our lives, our work, our progress and have a frank talk with ourselves. I tend to do this a lot, and it helps me remain focused. It compels me to restrategise, clarify my goals, and identify time-wasting, draining activities that I can exclude from my plan. It forces me to think critically about my vision/mission and to determine whether or not I am still on track.
- Proactively seek for help. In one of my previous articles “saying yes to help”, I shared on how important it is to accept help whenever it is available. In recent times, I have learnt that help would most likely never find me unless I find it… In reality, you might not always get the help you need. I have learnt to develop systems that work for me while maximising the people and the resources that are available.
- Fight fear with a plan. Fear has become something I have come to associate with my temperament. I have realised that there would never be a time I do not feel fear of some sort – and I think everyone feels the same way. I am learning to take action steps in spite of my fears. Having a clear-cut plan where I anticipate all that can possibly go wrong and how to get around such helps to control my fears to a large extent.
- Keep doing your best each day. At the end of each day, I sit in silence for 5 minutes asking myself, “Have I put in my very best today? What have I done well? What can I do better?”. I go to bed with a resolve to wake up the next day and to do better than I did the previous day. Since I started this practice, my productivity has tremendously increased, and I am grateful for this. From time to time, I have off days, but this practice makes it a lot easier getting back on my feet.
- Don’t compare yourself with others. The PhD experience can be one of the most isolating experience anyone would ever have to go through. Without the required support, it could even feel like a suicide mission. There is a very colossal tendency to compare yourself with other people who appear to be a lot more productive than you are. The reality is that the PhD journey is challenging for everyone – no exceptions. As peculiar as each person’s project is, so is the PhD experience of each person: it is an interplay of so many factors. Comparing yourself with others would cause unnecessary strain and would hamper productivity. As a rule of thumb, I stay away from unnecessarily competitive people. Healthy competition is when you compare yourself with an older version of yourself. You must learn to accept your own journey and keep improving on your old self. One of the most profound life lessons I have learnt so far (from my dad) is the fact that experiences are individual and unique; no two persons would experience exactly the same thing in precisely the same way. I am always conscious of this fact, and it has helped me a great deal.
- Things would get worse…then it would get better – or maybe not. I recently had a conversation with a postdoc in my centre, which I have always admired, and she said something I would never forget… She said, “Things would get worse…then it would get better…”. While this statement might be right in the more significant number of cases, I also understand that things may not necessarily get better – but one thing is sure… I will get better! … better at handling worse situations, better at understanding myself, better at leveraging on my strengths.
I draw a lot of strength from God’s word and one verse of scripture I have found really inspiring is quoted below:
“A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world (John 16:21 KJV)”.
This verse resonates so profoundly with me because I have been through the experience of natural childbirth (the no-epidural kinda thing). I have felt the pain, the travail…the anguish… I came through victorious… Each time I look at my son, the excruciating pain of the birthing experience fades and is replaced with the joys of motherhood. I tell myself, I have been through the worst of experiences. I have made it through… I am strong. I am resilient. No matter what happens, life does not get any harder…
I hope you found this helpful… What points resonated with you? What PhD/life lessons have you learnt in recent times? Let’s have a conversation in the comments section…
Categories: My PhD Experience