PhD tips

PhD Nonsense #2: “Sleep? Rest? What’s that?!”

This is a new mini series featuring a some of the stupid, crappy things I’ve heard or been told throughout my PhD and my responses to them >>>

I am SO BORED of seeing 6834 new memes every day about just how tired every single PhD student is.

I get it – it’s hard work, there’s a lot to do, it’s challenging stuff. Of course it is.

But acknowledging that something requires hard work and effort is not the same thing as normalising, permitting – or even glamorising – exhaustion, sleep-deprivation and chronic stress.

Two things happen when we constantly proliferate, believe and, in turn, repeat/perpetuate/reinforce these messages of exhaustion:

1. Exhaustion becomes the accepted norm. We think, ‘Well, everyone is experiencing the same thing and that’s just how it is.’

Rhetoric like this – even if said in semi-jest – ‘allows’ the higher-ups in academia to continue overloading their researchers, and weakens and dilutes PGRs and researchers’ ability to ask to rest, have time off or appeal for fairer working conditions.

2. Exhaustion becomes aspirational. If everyone around us is overworked, hasn’t had a holiday in x years, and scoffs at the mere suggestion of taking a weekend off, then it’s not long before we start to think that there’s something wrong with us if we only work a set number of hours a day, take the annual leave we’re entitled to and enjoy our weekends.

We begin to equate the quality of our work and our worth as a researcher with how overworked, frazzled and tired we are or are not.

And I ask you, my friends, what the kind of life is that?!

Listen – I’m not denying that a PhD is hard work. And I get it that these memes are a way of blowing off steam. But folks, c’mon. It can’t just be an endless joke-moan, laugh-cry about how shit things are, without us moving towards an alternative that’s better and healthier – for us and our research.

Remember that a PhD last 3-4 years (or more, depending on where you’re doing it) because you should actually be able to complete that amount of work to the expected standard within that time.

And ‘that time’ should constitutes normal, decent working hours. It shouldn’t be that you’re trying to do 8 years’ worth of work in 3-4 years. It should absolutely not be the case that you should be working 20 hours a day in order to complete the PhD within that time.

If you are – then something is very wrong. Either you’re being asked to do far more than is reasonable, you’re setting yourself unnecessarily and exceedingly high standards, or you need support and help to better manage your time in ways that will work for you.

This post isn’t meant to castigate and ‘blame’ you if you are struggling and having a hard time. But it is so important to also realise and remember these things:

(1) It is not okay, not acceptable to be experiencing, as a result of your PhD/research, physical and mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation, mental health struggles, lack of rest, breaks, evenings or weekends off.

(2) If you are experiencing this, that it’s perfectly okay and acceptable to speak up about this and ask for help and support to find better, more comfortable ways of working.

(3) There are many PhD candidates and researchers who enjoy well-rounded work hours, a healthy, fulfilling work-life-family-love-Saturday-night-disco-everything-else balance AND also produce excellent, innovative, insightful, thoughtful research.

(4) Suffering ≠ better research or better self-worth.

THAT is what I want you to take away from this, please. And not, as has become a worrying increasing tendency, to merely joke away the overwork and tiredness.

For the sake of all researchers, and all the magnificent research that’s bubbling away in the world, let’s start normalising the experience of rest, play, holidays and nourishing sleep so much that the tacky jokes about 16-hour lab days and not-sleeping not only diminish but become as dated and ridiculous as the notion that women shouldn’t read.

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