Insecurity, Heartbreak, and the PhD

Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.

As I am now nearing the end of the first year of my PhD at the University of Cambridge, I’ve allowed myself some time to reflect on everything that has happened this year – probably as a way to not think about everything that I still have to do.
Doing a PhD anywhere is not an easy job (I say job as if I’m getting paid, but you catch my drift). Doing a PhD at Cambridge can add another level of difficulty.

The great thing about working here is that everybody is working on such a high level, and the atmosphere is buzzing with ambition and (academic) creativity. The Faculty and College are here to help you get through this in the best way you can, and people are simply wonderful.

That said, PhD’s are lonely. Because I set up my research myself, I am the one in charge of my progress and my ideas. My supervisor (Professor Maria Nikolajeva – I still cannot believe how lucky I am with that), is absolutely wonderful both in supporting me academically and mentally, but it is simply not her job to do my research for me. Getting started, and knowing what you have to do, is impossible at times. On top of this, as if the project itself isn’t enough for and I am not already feeling guilty all the time for every minute of free time I allow myself (this blog post is a rare luxury, but even now I am listening to a talk on literature and ethics as I write), you are seriously expected to do a lot of extra work.

Thinking of everything he has to accomplish before winter break, the grad student feels the weight of the world crushing his entire being” Lego Grad Student

Getting a job in academia is not easy. Producing an excellent PhD at the end of your three years is simply not enough for you to secure a position. You need to publish, attract funding (in children’s literature, somehow), go to and organise conferences, do academic book reviews, set up outreach and impact initiatives. All of this work is exciting and interesting, and I want to do all of it.

But I also need to live. I want time for myself where I get to switch off – and how do you switch off when your work is necessarily philosophical in nature, and exists solely in your mind? There are rarely times when I am not mulling about certain problems with my work, rarely days where I fall asleep with ease, rarely days where I do not feel guilty about all the work I haven’t done. Writing is hard, and stressful, and I never feel like I’m working as much as I should. I have been informed that this is a classic Cambridge thing, so at least I’m blending in.


Doing a PhD affects your life in many ways. I take joy out of my work, and I must admit that at times I marvel at the importance of my work and take great pride in the fact that it hasn’t been done before (hubris alert). I get to meet interesting people working on fascinating projects, I get to live in a beautiful city in a college where people are expressly hired to make sure the students are okay, and I get to dedicate myself to what I find interesting for the last time until I retire.

My life has also become very small. I rarely leave college grounds; the library is here, the faculty next door, and I work either in the library or in my shared kitchen. I do work for college in the library and invigilating exams, and I teach a course or two – at the faculty next door. My closest friends all live in the city, and even then I only really see the ones who live in college.
I moved to this city with plans for my project, but mainly with plans for the after: I was in a loving relationship which would be long-distance for a little while, and the plan was that we would both finish our PhD’s and then try to get a postdoc position in Florida and settle down together, all huisje-boompje-beestje. All of this, all of the “after” of the project, has vanished *poof* into the abyss.

Catching sight of a junior faculty member in a familiar position, the grad student is chilled by what little change his future could hold” Lego Grad Student

Long-distance is a hard game to play, especially between two PhD students. You see, PhD students, or in fact all Cambridge students as I’ll argue, are odd creatures. We are obsessive about something nobody else really cares about, we hardly talk to anybody else (without talking about work), we drink too much, eat, live and sleep in weird rhythms, and are constantly on edge because of our pressure and drive to perform combined with the necessarily blind nature of our work. For us, it unfortunately proved to be too much.

It’s hard. It’s hard to break ties with someone you loved. It’s hard to let go of your ideas and plans for the future, especially when they were tied to a person that you can no longer be tied to yourself. It’s hard to push yourself beyond feeling, to work. How can you focus on work when it lives in the mind, and the mind is tied to the heart? Especially when this is combined with other personal tragedies (family stuff), it gets hard to keep going. I found my way through, but the way it went was not necessarily something I recommend (read: lots of long late nights with friends, Bojack Horseman, and whiskey). To quote J. K. Rowling (note that this is not me outing myself as a Potterhead, I am a literary scholar after all): numbing the pain for a while will only make it worse when you finally feel it.

In the end, it’s important to know that it will all be fine. I know the way I work, which is very much with high peaks and low valleys of productivity, and I know objectively, my work will be fine. I know the way I love, which is rapidly and completely, and I know that my heart is fine. I know the sun will rise tomorrow, I know my new primary sources will arrive in the mail later this week, I know that I am capable.
And this, I think, is the key to surviving a PhD: know that you will be fine, and have faith in your work. At the end of your three years, you will be the expert in what you are doing – nobody else will be as informed as you are. And if this doesn’t convince you, and you have a bit of a nihilistic streak, also remember that none of it really matters, most people will never hear about it, so why break yourself over it? Do the best that you can, but do it for you. Take breaks when you start to crumble.

Know that you are capable.

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