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Quick tips for a happy PhD experience

“What?” “Did she say happy?” “Has she completely lost her marbles?”

Yes, yes, and yes, but not because of my PhD. Just the fact that we have all chosen to undertake a PhD shows that we are not completely all there. We’re perfectionists, nerds, possibly with an unhealthy balance of introvert to extrovert, prone to anxiety, slightly neurotic with, at the very least, a small god/goddess complex because we think our research is going to make the world better. We want it to, I hope. If you’re doing this for any other reason, get out now. (The only other acceptable reason is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but knowing more can only be good).

Anyway, on with the tips. What makes me an expert? Absolutely nothing other than I’m finishing my PhD and while these four years have not been perfect it has not been because of my job. On the contrary, the one thing I could count on to bring me stability and joy was my job. I seem even crazier now, I know. And like I’m just rubbing it in. The thing is: I had a terrible Master’s experience. Just awful. And I decided, before I started my PhD that I wouldn’t do it under those circumstances again. I had to change myself and the context in which I conducted my research. I’m still a perfectionist, a nerd, an introvert, extremely anxious, and neurotic, but those characteristics do not define me and I found ways to work around them. In addition, I remained at the same department, so the only thing I could change was myself and my approach to my job. So this is what has worked for me, not some human resources manual or stuff you've seen in every single list.

1. Like your supervisor and know how to work with them

This is a hard one because most people don’t know their supervisors for as long as I did – he was my teacher when I was an undergrad and doing my Master's, so I had known him for 10 years or so. I knew, for instance, that I had to be an extremely independent researcher, because that’s how he would behave towards me. No deadlines, no demands, no arguments. Even my critiques are more of an exchange of ideas. He tags me in Facebook games and sends me hearts when I send a message telling him I got something cool done. He’s a friend as well as a supervisor. Keep in mind though, as I have told many a friend, that your supervisor is not your boss. Despite any country differences we might have, that remains the truth. They are there to help you. If they’re not doing that, then they are the ones doing a bad job.

2. Exercise

I know, it’s dumb, everybody says that. But seriously, you gotta do it. You’re getting a PhD, you’re smarter than this, than being sedentary. I have a personal trainer three times a week. A mean one. Who knows I won’t do anything else for the rest of the week and will have terrible posture in front of my computer. I’m broke, but I’m happy.

3. Get a freaking hobby

I’m learning Swedish on Duolingo and have taken up baking. These are quick stress-relievers and they seem to let my brain rest, while it’s learning something. The language bit is pretty good to do while I wait for something to process on my computer or while I’m eating. I’ve been thinking about knitting, I think I’ll save it for my postdoc. Just find something else that you can point to and say "I'm more than my job".


That’s it, that’s the tip.

5. Go out at least once a week to see people you REALLY like

If you’re far away from them, call them. I make a point of seeing friends at least once a week. I keep in touch constantly via apps. Those relationships keep me alive. It's a handful of people, some who have gotten PhDs, some who haven't, all willing to listen, but also talk and distract me. Do something you enjoy, I don't mean that you have to go out partying or that you can only go for a nice calm lunch. Just enjoy yourself.


That’s it, that’s the tip. Again, you’re too freaking smart not to do it. Also, making me broke and happy. Or, maybe not happy, but with peace of mind about everything else.

7. Challenge yourself

You have to be excited about your research! This isn’t about you teaching something to the world, it’s about the world teaching you something! You are lucky enough to know how to see and hear it, so make sure you do it in the best way possible. Learn new methods, do fieldwork, make leaps, and try different things. The reward will be so much bigger, maybe not in the actual results, but in you.

I know that each country has different formats. In Brazil, we get four years, which has allowed me time to do fieldwork, collect quantitative data, travel, participate in conferences, and publish (I might be a little late with my viva). In Europe, it’s usually three. The USA, five, but you have to teach. Do what you can. A teacher in my department once said a PhD is not time to be happy. HE WAS WRONG. And I’m so right. Oh, and drink plenty of water.

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