“Strong not Wrong” “Fail. Learn. Fail Better” “I am human and that is ok”
Hope Bachmann reflects on the highs and lows of PhD life, how it is ok to get help, and eating biscuits is positively encouraged.
School of Politics and International Studies
University of Leeds
When I moved to Leeds in September 2019, I left my long-term partner, family, and friends, all behind. I come from a tightknit network of hands that hold one another, and although I flew the nest a long time ago, I had a built a new one. Leeds was the furthest I had ever lived from any of my people, and I knew no one here. I was optimistic, energetic, and excited. But I was also terrified, anxious, and uprooted. I moved into a house share with a group of strangers. I thought, “better than living alone, this will be a great way to meet new people and make new friends.”
When I met the other postgraduate researchers in my cohort at Leeds University, I was mortified. They all came from professional backgrounds, had been to highly esteemed universities, and could boast about their latest intellectual achievements. I went to one of the smallest universities in Britain whose biggest uptake of students was through clearing: the antithesis of highly ranked.
I met my supervisors. All three lovely. I so desperately wanted them to like me. I had read so much online about the detrimental impact of negative supervisory relationships; I was eager to ensure that I didn’t have one. But as I climbed the stairs to every single supervision meeting each month, I would feel a panic attack restricting my chest and have to go and hide in the toilets. I would cry. Hyperventilate. Recover. Wash my face with cold water and walk to the meeting. I was terrified of that office and their judgement. I was terrified that they would see I was an imposter and regret choosing me for this PhD. I would sit on my hands at the beginning of each meeting to hide the fact that they were shaking.
By January 2020, my living situation had proven a total disaster. My attempts to move into a professional household had failed dismally, and I was sofa surfing at a fellow colleague’s flat. In a desperate attempt to save my mental health, I moved out of the house share and took on a second contract in small bedsit.
Throughout February, I felt my life begin to calm. I started to settle, to acclimatise.
And then, the pandemic hit. Well, at this point I think we can all just laugh. We all know this bit of the story, so I won’t regale you with my experience of COVID19 and lockdown!
And now, it’s September. A new academic year is fast approaching, and so an opportunity for reflection presents itself.
I recently had a speedy introduction to ABCD training by an organisation called Touchstone . The facilitator of the training said, “If you take one thing away from this training, take this: Strong not Wrong.” A phrase, I think, that is applicable to so much of life.
I no longer have panic attacks before supervision meetings. In fact, I often enjoy them now. I can talk about my thesis topic with a confidence that makes me sound qualified to be doing this PhD. I am qualified to be doing this PhD. I always have been. I am no longer scared of what my peers think of me. I am imperfect. I get things wrong. But, as a fellow colleague recently said to me, “Fail. Learn. Fail better.” I am human, and that’s OK.
Those first six months of my PhD were turbulent and challenging. Throughout that period, I viewed myself as a failure. I had been stupid to move into that house share. I should have said more in that conference. I should have said less in my supervision. I shouldn’t have sent that email. I should have worked longer hours last week.
During those first six months of my PhD, the only thing I was failing to do was to recognise the immense weight I carried on my shoulders and how little credit, love, and care I was giving myself.
There is no easy answer. There is no self-help book. Your PhD is a colossal and unquantifiable learning curve. Whoever you are, whatever year you’re in, whether you’re starting, finishing, middling… Give yourself a hug. Give yourself a break. Make a cup of tea and eat the entire packet of biscuits. You deserve it.
Editor’s note: A massive thank you to Hope for sharing this personal insight into her PhD journey so far. If you can relate to this and need someone to talk to, the WRoCAH Office is a great place to start – just email firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s schedule in a cuppa, a catch up, and as many biscuits as you want to eat. You are not alone