The Pain of Pursuing a PhD as a Young-Old Adult by Elizabeth Harris

I’ve always known I wanted to help people, to understand their “whys” in an effort to better understand them. So, naturally a career in psychology was the perfect fit. Yet I had no desire to become a psychologist and wasn’t aware of any other available avenues to realising my goal until I found neuropsychology and neuroscience; since then, I’ve never looked back. Except I didn’t happen upon this career path until I was in my thirties. I didn’t find the career that fit without going through a number of jobs that didn’t fit. So, here I am starting a PhD in my mid-thirties. Inevitably asking myself if I made the right decision. Sceptically asking myself if I’m capable of completing a PhD. And constantly asking myself if pursuing a PhD at this point in my life is even worth it.

Academia

I’ll admit it: I love academia. I love to be around people who want to help other people. I love to find out why things happen the way they do. And, ultimately, I love to learn. But coming back to academia in your 30s is not all fun and games. Learning new stuff is hard. I have a background in professional writing and philosophy. I’m currently completing a PhD in psychology and neuroscience. Can you see the problem? Switching from the humanities to the sciences was a major change for me, a change I’m still getting used to and one for which I think I’ll always feel ill-equipped. It has taken and continues to take a lot of time and effort to train my brain to think in a scientific way and to understand things that I may have learned in high school (but who can remember that long ago, really?). As a result, I find myself working extra-long hours to compensate for this lack of knowledge in a new area. Working long hours leads to taking less care of my physical and mental health, to more cognitive fatigue, and of course to a higher level of constant stress. All because learning new stuff is hard.

But… do I really lack knowledge or is it more a perceived lack of knowledge? I feel I ask myself this a lot more than when I was at university in my 20s. I feel I should know more than the younger students surrounding me because I’m older. I feel insecure because I don’t know as much as the early career researchers (ECRs) who are the same age as me. It’s like some kind of academic purgatory, a middle ground where I can’t quite claim ignorance (like I could in my 20s) but where I also don’t have the expertise to claim seniority (like I could if I was an ECR). I’m aware that feeling insecure about your lack of knowledge is commonplace in academia (just don’t say it too loudly), but couple that with feelings of inadequacy due to being in academic age limbo and you have one paralysed PhD student. Which makes it hard to get any work done.   

Life

I’m lucky enough to have an understanding partner by my side who has been there through my previous two Master’s degrees and still wants to stick around for the PhD. But he’s really my only proximal supporter because I have moved around a lot in pursuing this passion and my family don’t live close by, which is also hard. There’s no mum to have coffee with when I need a chat. There’s no dad to come help me out with whatever it is I need. The sweet, sweet, laughter of my nieces I can only hear online and watch from afar as they grow up before my eyes. And while I know being apart from family is something that is difficult for everyone, in my 20s the world was a big adventure just waiting to be explored; but in my 30s exploration is not as appealing as the excitement I get from being around close friends and family—to those that matter most.

Which brings me to… family. Sure, I wanted a family when I was in my 20s, but that was something I didn’t have to worry about then; it was a future dream. In my 30s, however, that dream is a bit more… current. A PhD is stressful and life-changing enough without having to also consider whether it is the time to have children. On the one hand, I don’t already have children who depend on me and whose wellbeing I need to take into account, so I’m able to fully commit to my PhD. On the other hand, if I wait until after my PhD, when I will be 40, pregnancy gets infinitely more complicated. Fertility decreases while miscarriages and birth defects increase. Yet it’s not just the health complications that worry me. I have a passion for what I do and want to continue doing it for a long time. If I have children during my PhD, this will inevitably prolong the PhD; but if I have them afterwards, when I’m presumably completing a postdoc, it is hard to know the impact they will have on my career. I don’t want it to be a choice between kids and a career, but with each passing day I fear the choice may be out of my hands.

But…can I afford it? I’m sure all PhD students have to consider their finances throughout their course of study. It is inconceivable that PhD students are paid below the minimum wage in most countries (Australia: PhD vs. minimum, United Kingdom: PhD vs. minimum, United States of America: PhD vs. minimum). I can’t speak for those pursuing a PhD in their 20s, but I feel considerably less financially well-off receiving a PhD wage in my 30s than when I was on minimum wage in my 20s. Living in a share house was great when I was younger but I really need, and love, having my own space as I get older—which is costly. I love being in my 30s, but I also realise that my body is nothing like what it was in my 20s, and as such, needs a lot more attention—which is costly. And unlike when I was in my 20s and could live on cheap meals and sleep on lumpy hostel mattresses for a spontaneous weekend getaway, unfortunately my 30-year-old digestion and back will no longer let me do this—which is unfortunately also very costly.  

Health

My physical health has never been that great. I’ve had Crohn’s Disease, a chronic illness, since I was a child. It’s been under control for years but being under control and being healthy are two different things. PhD-induced (inevitable) stress results in a sore stomach and higher anxiety. PhD-induced overwork with (inevitably) associated unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, and lack of sleep, results in a sore stomach, lethargy, and fatigue. PhD-induced insecurity results in even higher anxiety and even lower self-confidence, which again results in even longer working hours and perpetuates the entire stressful cycle. To be honest, there is nothing new in what I feel as a result of these stressors compared to what I felt in my 20s in response to similar stressors. Except that I’m tired. My 30-year-old, consistently sick body is just tired. So. Very. Tired.

Nor, I think, has my mental health. I’ve always been the angry one, the grumpy one, the sensitive one. I am definitely a pessimist but also a perfectionist. And my body is almost always in a state of stress (at least half of which can be attributed to my physical illness). Unhelpfully, these negative tendencies appear especially when I am stressed. Because I want things to be perfect, I think about them constantly to ensure I’ve considered every possible potentiality. But I know I can’t know everything or anticipate every possibility, so this just perpetuates my perfectionism-stress-pessimism cycle and eventually leads to being overwhelmed and to inevitable inaction. Anxiety perpetuates anxiety. Depression perpetuates depression. I know this. Yet knowing something and acting on this knowledge is not easy. And so, in this perpetual cycle of stress, anxiety, and negativity I stay. 

It’s not just my emotional health that suffers. I find that I quite often lack focus and concentration; no matter how hard I try I just can’t pay attention to what I want to do. This is difficult when you are learning new things or have multiple things to get done. So again, I work more hours in an effort to get at least the minimum amount done. The persistent brain fog that seems to be more prevalent in my 30s than ever before again causes me to work more hours in an effort to get more done and adds to the ever-pervasive fatigue that permeates my body and brain. 

Having to deal with both physical and mental health stressors on top of the typical stressors of going back to university and doing a PhD in your 30s is definitely not something I want to keep doing. 

How do I make a PhD enjoyable?

Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. But there are a few things that I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me immensely and that I think are worth sharing: 

  • Repeat this mantra: It’s ok to not know things. Ok, so, it doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it’s something I always keep in mind when I don’t know something because it a) spurs me into action rather than paralysing me into inaction, and b) reminds me that I need to address this thought now before it spirals and affects everything else. I’m only human and I’m beginning a PhD—now is the time to non-apologetically feel stupid (yes, even in my 30s) because I can do something about it. Keeping this in mind has made me a habitual question-asker and drives me to figure things out for myself. Realising that the expectation to know more than I should is purely coming from me—and that I can do something about it—is liberating. Of course, I have periods of inaction, I think it’s only natural when you’re approaching new things daily. But I lean into them and sooner or later I get restless and want to work again; they’re nowhere as paralysing as they used to be. And if all else fails, take on board these words a wise woman once shared with me: If you don’t trust yourself, trust the judgement of those who hired you. And speak to your mentors, supervisors, colleagues about how you feel. Chances are, they’ve experienced exactly the same thing.

  • Understand that having life experience is a good thing. One of the ways I’ve found to combat my lack of academic knowledge in the workplace is to get involved in other ways. It is in my nature to help people and my organisational skills are second to none, so I have made it a point to get involved on numerous committees (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion), to equip myself with skills that can be used in the workplace (being an LGBTQIA+ ally), and to help out and drive seminars and public engagement events. This makes me feel useful but more importantly it allows me to use the skills I have already gained throughout my life which serves to remind me that I can and am still contributing to things going on in the workplace.
  • Get out of the house. And seek out your fellow PhD-ers. It’s hard to make yourself leave the house for fun in your 30s, when you’d rather be at home reading a book or curled up on the couch (or is that just me?). But the more I talk to my peers, the more I realise that even though we may not share the same life stage, we can share the positivity and pitfalls of our PhDs because we are going through them together. We can be uncertain about what we know (and don’t know), together. And we can be insecure about what the future holds, together. I also feel I have to mention that ECRs are friendly, too. Again, if I realise that it is my insecurities and inadequacies holding me back, then I’ve found that I’m able to have great conversations with ECRs and have found we have lots in common. Essentially, the more people I meet, the greater my chance of finding people with whom I connect and that are indeed in the same life stage (if not the same age!). 
  • Do things you enjoy. Another thing I make a point of doing when I move somewhere new is to make a point of doing what I enjoy—dancing, baking, playing boardgames, so at least I am meeting people with the same interests. I’ve also joined meetup groups and friend apps to meet people with the same interests, something that’s worked with varying success. I find making friends in my 30s much more difficult than in my 20s—but it’s not impossible. And it all starts with getting off the couch and out of the house.  
  • Empower yourself. I know the questions that I need to ask myself: What about having a family? How can I live and eat in a way that’s healthy for me? Do I have a choice? Of course I do. And I’m thankful I’m a born planner. Sitting down with my partner, we’ve worked through all potential family and career scenarios based on our wants and needs right now. We’ve also made a budget to account for the things we want and a savings plan for anything we can’t foresee. Don’t get me wrong—this wasn’t as easy as just sitting down and making a plan. I do sometimes wish I had happened upon this career path earlier, and didn’t have all these additional stressors while completing my PhD. I’m earning significantly less than I would be at this age if I’d completed my PhD in my 20s. I may have to have kids during my PhD for the sake of the health of both me and my children. But I knew what I was getting into and I chose it because it is my passion, and with that came the need to shift my priorities to account for my life as it is now. Rather than dwell on the time I have lost or the choices I no longer have—and believe me, I have dwelled on these things extensively—I made the choice to do something about my situation rather than let the choice be forced upon me. Do you have questions that concern you, too? You are a researcher and can plan and figure out answers to choose your destination. And choosing your path, whatever it may be, is empowering.
  • Take care of yourself. I remember when I would finish work late, rush home to change, head for a night out, and then be back at work the next day, nice and fresh… unfortunately, that hasn’t happened for years. I’ve noticed that if I don’t look after myself since I hit my 30s then my body lets me know a hell of a lot quicker than it used to when I was younger. I need to be mindful of what I put into my body because it has become more sensitive to unhealthy food. I need to get enough sleep every night otherwise my focus and my mood is terrible the next day, and my performance suffers. For me, routine and good time management is key. Putting things into a schedule makes me more likely to keep appointments and making things that I have to do fun also ensures I’m more likely to do them. As does doing things with friends. I’m more likely to go to a 2-hour dance class than to a half hour gym class just because I enjoy it. And I’m more likely to go for a walk if I’m walking and talking with a friend than if I’m on my own—and I end up with both a fitness and a mood boost! To be honest, I still have days when I’m sick and I can’t work, but I let myself have those days and try not to feel guilty about it. I’ve been sick enough times to know that I need to focus on getting better, before I can properly focus on other things, regardless of how important they are.  
  • And if you’re like me and can’t help worrying: Designate worry time. Another thing I’ve recently learned to help manage mental health is worry time, where you write down your worries when you have them, and then put them away to worry about at a later time. It’s something to get used to, but I find when I postpone my worries to a later time it really frees up my mind to focus on the moment and on being productive. I particularly like this technique at this point in my life for reducing stress and rumination and for refocusing my attention to the present moment. I’ve tried many cognitive behavioural strategies over the years—it’s inevitable being in the field of psychology, but sometimes they just didn’t stick. I don’t know why they stick, but I find that when I want a solution, and I encounter various solutions to try, I will often find at least one that resonates with me and which I can incorporate into my daily life. A small change is all it takes. I try to schedule in things to do after work, a dance class or gym with a friend, to stop myself from working overtime. If I do work overtime, I try and make up that leisure time the next day. I’m thankful academia is flexible like that but essentially, it’s all about balance. But if it all gets too much, I let myself just feel and I lean on those around me. I can’t do this alone, and why should I? 

My problems are not novel and my solutions not new. But maybe like me, all you need is some self-reflection and to try out some things that might help. I’d have liked to have learned them earlier but now is okay too. So, give them a go. Perhaps it’s in your 30s that things will finally start to stick. Who knew a PhD could cultivate such a rich process of self-discovery?

 

Elizabeth Haris

Elizabeth Haris is a first year PhD candidate in affective neuroscience at the University of New South Wales. Her research focuses on understanding the functional organisation of the human brain, using precision medicine to inform diagnostic approaches and tailor treatment options to individuals with anxiety, mood, and stress/trauma related disorders. She is passionate about equality and empowering individuals to be the best version of themselves. Importantly, she loves to dance, and is an avid baker of all things gluten and dairy-free.

Daisy is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research is focused on semiconductor spintronics, specifically looking at InSb based materials for spin injection into quantum technologies. She holds an integrated master’s degree in physics with first-class honours from the University of Surrey (2014-2018) where her master’s research project involved developing High-Speed Electroabsorption Modulated Lasers (EMLs) for long-haul telecommunications.