What I learned in my PhD life so far

If you know me already, or have visited my About page, you are aware that I am a PhD student at the University of Geneva. I study the large-scale structure of the Universe, that is, the properties of galaxies when considered from large distances over hundreds of megaparsecs, and how the general theory of relativity agrees with such observations. But don’t worry, that is not what this post is about. This post is for anyone who wants to pursue, or is in the process of pursuing a PhD, in any topic under the sun. And if you are a non-academician, you can still go on reading this, because some lessons learnt in life are for everyone alike.

I have been here for eight months now, and I have had my share of ups and downs already – not too conspicuous, but important to me personally. So, somehow I feel the need to shed my inhibitions and share what I went through in these eight months.

Studying abroad was my dream since I finished high school, and it turned real only until now. I was on cloud nine when I got this offer, and could not wait to move to Switzerland, one of the most coveted destinations. But life isn’t so easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy when you move abroad for the first time in your life, alone. I had been terribly homesick for the first few months, about which you can read more here. I was under the impression that living all by myself will be a great adventure, and I happily moved into a studio apartment as soon as I arrived. Terrible idea! Mistake No. 1.

I was miserable. I hardly cooked my dinner, I slept through the lonely evenings when my contacts back in India would have already gone to sleep. On weekends, I would sleep most of the day and study a little, and seldom go for a walk, although the autumn weather was beautiful and I had the whole city to explore. Whatever imagination I had in my mind about my new life was somehow fading in front of my eyes. Finally I decided to move to a shared apartment, and I went back to India for three weeks in January, which provided me the much needed rejuvenation.

Lesson learnt: You may think you are brave enough to face the world alone, but that can be a very cunning misconception. But when you learn it the hard way, you learn it better.

The next issue was with my research. It isn’t that I am stupid. It might rather be that I have been over-confident – something that, ironically, led to the destruction of my confidence in no time. Everything seemed new to me – the subject, the discussions, the new scientific terms, the tools. And I was afraid to question. I thought that I am expected to know things already, so I tried to hide my ignorance. It seemed to me that everyone around me knew a lot, lot more, and that scared me – something that I could have actually used to my advantage. I made attempts to rummage my way through oceans of information – research papers, books, articles, Wikipedia – and I didn’t know where to stop, or what to conclude from them. My head was harboring a mess of data and equations, and I was afraid that it was going to stay that way. Mistake No. 2.

I knew it couldn’t go on like that. I had already started working on a project with my group members, and most often I couldn’t make sense of what was being discussed. As I tried to grasp the concepts, my mind started drifting off to trivial distractions. I started spending more time on social media, and also devoted more time to blogging, because they helped me stay away from the harsh reality that I was living. Only that there was no escape. I could not leave my PhD and go back, although my parents did sense a discomfort from my side and said that going back was always an option (believe it or not, parents know everything, even from thousands of miles away!)

But I decided to fight.

Lesson learnt: Ask questions. Clear your doubts. No one knows everything, but there are people who know more than you. Talk to them. Curiosity should not hurt your ego.

In the process, I had gotten depressed. Not clinically yet, but might have been if it went on for few more months. I skipped work quite often – at least once a week to be precise. Again I slept a lot and ate less. Fortunately I was living with other people now, so I had people to talk to. I guess what saved me was that I didn’t stop myself from letting people know that something was wrong in my life. I talked to my flatmates, few friends and my boyfriend, and told them what was bothering me. They couldn’t offer direct help, but they were there to listen. I acknowledged the fact that I needed help. Enough with the ego already.

Then I decided to talk openly to my supervisor. Very good decision!

I am lucky to have a supervisor who listened to me patiently, and said she was proud of me for opening up to her – something that many students would not do. She told me that it was okay if I took my time, and she was there to help whenever I needed it. I felt a lot better after that.

Lesson learnt: (PhD) life can be really, really difficult. Be open about your insecurities. Talk to people you can confide in, and you will find help for sure. Hiding your fears will simply worsen things.

To add to all of this, a part of me was disappointed with myself because I wasn’t travelling much. I mean, who does not travel once they are in Europe? Frankly speaking, I don’t have the guts to travel alone (I cannot even read Google maps properly, duh!). All of these factors started lowering my feeling of self-worth exponentially.

Then one day I fell sick – (probably) chicken pox. Not a big deal, but it kind of brought me a weird sense of enlightenment. I realised that I wasn’t sad because I couldn’t go out or travel, I was sad because I terribly missed work. Something that I was struggling to understand all these months was clear to me in a week, because I couldn’t step out of the building. I discovered a new me, and since I re-joined work, I have not missed a single day, and have been working hard like never before in these eight months.

Lesson learnt: Do not jump into conclusions. Give yourself some time, and a second, third, fourth chance. If you believe in yourself, if you believe that the better version of yourself that you were before can reincarnate, it is bound to happen sooner or later. You never know what wakes up the best part of you and when. You just need to hold on to yourself. You can.

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24 thoughts on “What I learned in my PhD life so far

  1. I can say only that this post served a great lesson beforehand for me right before going abroad for Ph.D. Many thanks for writing and highlighting the mistakes you have faced and possibly I may face in the coming days. I may have to return to this post in future too to rejuvenate myself by the lessons you have learned already.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, Great that you shared your experience, I think you are being tough on yourself by calling them mistakes. Also, it is nice that you could come out and give yourself another chance. Happy Self Exploration πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey Basundhara, its really nice that you shared what you have experienced and you made an honest declaration of mistakes and things need to lean. i really loved this post πŸ™‚ very much positive and inspiring. Thanks for writing this !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Moving away and facing challenges really teaches us more about ourselves and our sometimes unconscious tendencies. Looks like you are learning far more than the formidable study you have undertaken at the university. I enjoyed this post, very insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brave of you to share your emotions and inspirational that you found a good lesson in this. Thanks for sharing and I wish you the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You shared some honest insights about living in another country. The isolation you described does happen during depressive states. I’ve been travelling since age 18 but I still went through an experience similar to yours when I became an expat in Southeast Asia complete with my first and only chicken pox attack, lol. Making friends and opening up does go a long way to help ease the psychological pressure. And you do discover very interesting aspects of yourself and other people. Thanks for sharing these useful lessons. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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