…by Bérengère and Sinéad / / PhD students at The College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine/
From what I understand thus far, a PhD has the potential to be a decidedly solitary experience. Much of your days can be spent falling down a rabbit hole of articles or agonizing over horrible but necessary statistics. Depending on what your project is like, much of a research based PhD is done alone, with nothing but an empty tin of biscuits for company. Personally, I like my own company and the solitary nature of the work is one of the things that appealed most to me. Having said that, over the past 4 months I have learned what a remarkable difference other people can make. This is not an article about my wonderful supervisors or incredible friends and family, as that’s really a different article entirely. This is about the people that you work alongside, or maybe even directly with, and how I’ve learned the true value of office mates.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have always worked with good people. I’ve never really had any major disagreements with colleagues and over all I’ve found my work environments to positive. But when I started my PhD a mere 5 months ago, I found myself in a unique situation, buried in the depths of the Department of Psychiatry, surrounded by nothing but awe inspiring, hilarious, and capable women. From my primary supervisor, my lab partner in crime, to all of my office mates, we are in an environment that we lovingly refer to as “fiercely female”. I swear it’s not on purpose, the strong levels of estrogen arose purely by chance. While we do have the wonderfully stereotypical elements like office hot water bottles and drawers full of chocolate and tea, we also have an environment of shared passions, drive, and understanding of the particular challenges that we’re facing.
We get it. We get what it’s like to receive a condescending comment, to read the schedule for a lecture series featuring no female speakers and to be asked about our plans to balance academia and motherhood (when all any of us are thinking about at the moment is how many cups of tea can one drink before it becomes a problem).
It’s more than that though; we understand each other’s world and we empathize. I truly think that most of this understanding goes beyond all being women. I think that it exists because we are people with similar goals. We’re co-existing in a world of early researchers, academics and doctors, and we’re experiencing all the lumps and bumps of that simultaneously. We know what it’s like to be in a field that’s not very common, or to battle for hours with a coding program that is supposedly “more intuitive”, or to constantly feel like the dumbest person in the room. These are frustrating experiences, and it’s comforting to know that we’re in this together and that none of us have to face these challenges alone.
We all need a team, a tribe, a community, and I am reminded daily of my gross ignorance in underestimating the importance of a support network. If I can offer advice to anyone reading this article, it would be seek out good people and keep them close. I am aware that not everyone is fortunate to have colleagues that they like, and often work environments are less than ideal. In those scenarios, it becomes that little bit trickier, and probably even more important, to outsource that support. So go and find that group of people you can bounce ideas off of, who you can ask for help and who have either paved the way before you or are currently hacking at it alongside of you.
I’m keenly aware that as an early, and only somewhat cynical, researcher I stand on the shoulders of giants. What I didn’t know is that some of these giants stand right next to me. Not a day goes by where I don’t ask a colleague for advice or insight and I’ve yet to receive an answer that doesn’t challenge or widen my view of my own work. I think that that, along with all of the camaraderie and laughter, makes the tower a very special place to work indeed.
P.S. And to my colleagues. Thank you. Thank you for the squeals and high fives when my husband and I got our passports back. Thank you for the hugs when my friend called with bad news from Canada. Thank you for all your messages checking in to see how things were going. Thank you for your patience, your laughter and your endless supply of support and encouragement.