Pursuing a PhD was one of the most monumental, rewarding, and downright challenging experiences of my life. My name is Hannah Broadbent, and I am a PhD survivor.
Objectively, Un-extraordinarily, Average
Upon my acceptance onto my doctoral training course, my exhilaration was matched with apprehension about the upcoming four years. I recall the cold sweat that would break out when I was asked about my thesis topic during my first and second years, as I struggled to form an intelligible response to somewhat meet people’s expectations of a knowledgeable PhD student. Questions from family like, ‘How long will your thesis be?’ or, ‘When will your Viva be?’ or the dreaded, ‘So, when will you be a Doctor?’ would send my heart rate soaring. I would usually sidestep these by quickly shifting the focus off myself. This anxiety has often been dubbed ‘imposter syndrome’.
But the truth is, I do not possess superior intelligence, nor am I an eccentric academic with an unwavering passion for research. I went to a good school and came out with average grades, missed out on my first-choice university, and continued a life of mediocrity with no opportunity to invoke the ‘late bloomer’ card. I am objectively, un–extraordinarily, average. This reality felt like a deficiency as a PhD student, making the onset of crippling imposter syndrome almost a logical consequence of my shameful mediocrity.
Surviving the PhD: Taking Breaks
The second year of my PhD journey marked a significant turning point. I found myself despising my subject, my research, and to be quite frank, my life. I took time away from my PhD to recuperate, but every return spiralled me back into that abyss of despair.
Why am I sharing this? It feels important to recount my personal journey through my PhD because such experiences are not uncommon, and it’s crucial that we feel comfortable sharing them more openly.
I call myself a ‘PhD survivor’ because there were moments when I doubted I would make it through alive.
I submitted my thesis last week, 2 years after working full-time, and 7 years after the start of my PhD journey on a 1+3 doctoral training course. I realised submitting my thesis didn’t demand exceptional intelligence, nor did it require me to be a late bloomer or someone who can wax eloquent about their thesis endlessly. My thesis submission was the result of sheer perseverance. I didn’t publish a plethora of papers, present at an endless stream of international conferences, or win any awards. I simply persevered, taking one step at a time, and having to take a step back at times. An average or below average PhD student is still a PhD student. It’s an ultra-marathon, and no one can take away your participation medal if you decide to take it slow, pausing for breaks along the way.
Life Beyond the PhD
This should hopefully come as no surprise, but it became increasingly apparent that a career in academia was not my path. Despite enjoying research, I knew I couldn’t stay. I recall expressing this confusion to an academic staff member, struggling to make the decision between ‘staying’ or ‘leaving academia’ for an industry job. The most invaluable advice I received was to avoid seeing the situation in black and white, as ‘stay or leave’, but instead to itemise exactly what I enjoyed about my PhD and what I didn’t. The list was surprisingly even. I genuinely enjoyed learning and investigating unexplored research areas, despite experiment failures and a niche as narrow as a needle hole. And I genuinely felt like I was good at it. But the isolation, both socially and experimentally, the blurred work-life boundaries, and the absence of a team of peers were detriments to my enjoyment.
This was my starting point for job hunting. I considered both postdoc positions and industry jobs, and instead of ‘choosing’ to stay or leave, I sought jobs that fit my criteria, disregarding whether it was a company or university. In the end, I discovered my current role through an email sent to my lab group. I now work as an Electro-Optic Scientist (a fancy term for a vision researcher). It’s an industry job with a focus on research, an incredibly intriguing one. Before applying, I called the email sender. We discussed the role at length, I wanted to find out if this was the collaborative team environment I desired. Tick. I asked about opportunities for learning new skills and conducting research with practical applications. Tick. I inquired about work-life balance and team expectations. Another tick. It ticked all my boxes, making it the good fit for me. For the first time, I was ensuring a job role was a good fit for me, rather than trying to force myself to be a good fit for a role.
Choose Your Own Path
There are days when I wonder if I was too quick to abandon academia. But then there are days when I am in awe that I am paid to do what I love, research. Choosing your own path can seem overwhelming when there are numerous paths you can take, but remember there’s just one path after your PhD – yours. You’re not required to know if you’re ‘staying’ or ‘leaving’ academia, and you’re certainly not bound to that decision. Some return to academia years after graduating, while others transition to industry after years of post-doc roles. It’s never a case of either/or.
You still have valuable things to contribute within academia and beyond. Lose the pressure to conform to the perfect PhD student stereotype and prioritise your own satisfaction instead. And remember, being distinctly average is extraordinarily fine.