Somewhere along the line, I’ve forgotten to enjoy my PhD and the lifestyle it allows me. And I’ve come to the realization that the only thing standing between me and enjoying my PhD is my guilt complex. If I work for 6 hours, I feel guilty that I didn’t work for 8. If I work for 8 hours, I feel guilty for not completing the final task on my “to-do” list because I got caught up in another task and went further with it than planned. I feel guilty if I take a weekend off. I feel guilty for going for lunch time walks or popping down to the grocery shop early in the morning while it’s not busy. I feel guilty for writing a post in this blog – which is why I’ve been incredibly absent for a really long time.

Much of what I have read, much of what I have been told, suggests that a PhD is a full-time commitment that requires you to put your whole life on hold and work non-stop. I thought that by doing one in engineering, particularly a branch that my university doesn’t actually offer at an undergraduate level, it would be every bit as bad as I’d heard and then more.

But the truth is, it isn’t actually that scary. I set myself ambitious goals every week, and sometimes it does take me a whole week of full working days to achieve them. Most of the time it doesn’t. Most weeks, I’ve spent so much time unintentionally thinking about what I need to do ahead of actually doing it that it just gets done when I sit down in front of it. I know that’s not how it works for everyone, but sometimes the best thing I can do for my PhD is to procrastinate and bake some chocolate cookies, because my brain seems to work things out better when I’m trying not to think about them. Nonetheless, my guilt complex tells me that I should be sitting at my computer for 10 hours a day because that’s how tough a PhD is “supposed” to be.

Truth be told, my PhD has an easier lifestyle than my undergraduate degree! A year ago, my life was constant deadlines, late nights, so much coffee, and “quality time” with my boyfriend was a night of working on our university assignments side by side (it was the ultimate date night if we were working on stuff for the same subject). The holidays were longer, but I would get bored after a while anyway. My life today is flexible hours, writing (which I have always loved anyway), occasional meetings with my supervisor, and rearranging my schedule so that my free time lines up with my boyfriend’s (he’s still doing his undergrad, poor soul). Oh, and I’ve cut back to a more health-conscious 2 cups of coffee a day. My guilt complex screams at me “you shouldn’t have time for a walk!!” and “you can’t be working hard enough if you don’t need your second coffee yet!!”

The work is “harder” in the academic sense – I’m going it alone, I’m learning new things every day, I’m trying to make original contributions in a massive field of research that crosses a few disciplines. But I’m steadily progressing towards results, one day at a time. Sometimes those days are good days, other days they are shocking. Usually, it all balances out, and my supervisors have been nothing but happy with my progress. But if I look at my meticulously detailed record of every half-hour I’ve spent on nothing but research and see that I’ve only worked 5 hours today, I feel terrible about myself.

Last week, for example, I went into motivation overdrive and did the whole day’s work plus a bit of the next day’s in about 4-5 hours. On top of that, I had a major, major breakthrough that might change the entire face of my PhD. Instead of feeling celebratory about it, I felt guilty for not working longer. Truth was, I just didn’t have anything I could do until I ran the results past my supervisor and talked about what to do next. I tried to find other menial “PhD tasks” to keep myself occupied, but ended up feeling bored and burnt out and completely unrewarded.

As you can see, my guilt complex is a real problem.

I want to learn to enjoy my lifestyle more, but It’s going to be a struggle for me to find a trade off between my obsessive timing of the work I do and shutting my guilt complex up when I’ve done enough work regardless of the time. I should get to enjoy a lunch time walk, or baking in the afternoon if I finish my work early. I should wholeheartedly enjoy weekends away with my boyfriend. I didn’t do a PhD because I wanted to suffer, I did a PhD because the idea of working from home on a topic that means the world to me was understandably very appealing!

Perhaps I could scrap my daily “hours of work” goal and make a weekly hours of work goal instead. A bad Friday would be less demoralizing if I still met my goal thanks to a good Monday & Tuesday. Perhaps I could set my goals lower, forgiving myself for the fact that it’s not humanly possible to be creative whilst staring at a screen in desperation all day and that sometimes baking is the better solution. Perhaps, and just thinking this makes me shudder, I could give up on my “timing” goals altogether and instead just try to work from 8-4, regardless of how productive those hours are – hell, when I had a “real job”, I met my goals even though half of my 9-5 was meetings or coffee breaks!

This post is not instructional, nor was it trying to be. I’m just admitting that I’m struggling – not with my PhD, but with the guilt I feel whenever I enjoy my lifestyle. I do hope it resonates with other PhD students, particularly those also studying in Australia under similar conditions, who might feel like they’re “not working enough”. If you’re reading this and thinking that you’re not working enough – odds are, you are. Maybe you know that logically but still feel the guilt, like I do.

I’m going to try changing around my “time goals” and forgiving myself for actually having a pretty nice lifestyle. I’ll let you know what works.

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