Sei Shonagon (c966-c1013)
Nobody working in higher education would have been surprised to read this in the Guardian this week. It has apparently been discovered that "University staff battling anxiety, poor work-life balance and isolation aren't finding the support they need". No shit Sherlock. I think that we could all have told them that.
It's a strange life as a PhD student - you're doing something that you absolutely love (most of the time), and because of that, it takes over your life completely. Yes, our actual "working" time may appear to the un-tutored eye (no pun intended) to be relatively short. Personally, I find that I don't spend every waking hour of my life shackled to my laptop, even if it feels that way sometimes, but I very rarely stop thinking, planning, worrying about my thesis. I know that this is true of all my friends at Uni.
But, add into the mix the teaching that we do, and other paid work (invigilating next term for me), and suddenly our working weeks start to look a lot longer. And, without PhD students picking up this teaching and invigilating or marking examination papers, the university would really struggle.
Then, there's the pressure to get a job. To do that, you don't just have to write a fabulous thesis, you have to get published. You have to provide evidence that you can act collegiately, that your future research will impact positively on the REF and that there's something about you that makes you stand out amongst all the other bright shiny new PhDs. Being a great teacher just isn't enough.
Possibly one of the greatest sources of stress for the PhD student is our relationship with our supervisor. I have a huge amount of respect for mine, but she drives me to the very edge of reason. She's a typical academic - flighty, brilliant, and slightly divorced from the reality of the stresses and strains of the nearly-50-year-old student who's worrying about her future, and whether she's going to be able to get a job and crucially access to a contributory pension scheme. It's one of the most intense and frustrating relationships I've ever had. My whole self-definition now and for the last five years has been as a PhD student - very little else has mattered in my life (family notwithstanding), and so much of that is caught up with the feedback that I get from her. If I feel that she's not reading my work, or giving me comments to help me improve, that can thrust me into a black hole of reactive depression.
We have to develop coping strategies to try to stop slipping down into a pit of academic despair. For me, that's been my family and the voluntary work that I do. It takes time out of my potential working hours, but I think that it's worth while, from my own selfish point of view. If I stop hammering my brain incessantly, I'm giving it time to recover so that when I get back to the laptop, it works better - simple as that.
I have never worked so hard in my life. I've held down highly pressurised jobs during the course of my career, and I've worked extended working weeks for no extra pay (life in the public sector's always been hard). But, when I've been employed to do a job, it's been what I do, not what I am. The job title's described me during my working week - at the weekend I could just be me.
But now, I'm a PhD student. It's what I am and it's relentless. Only another 9 months or so to go before my registration ends and I have to have submitted my thesis. Then, I have to become something else.
Wow. That's pressure.