Don’t do a PhD*

It’s 20:05 on a Saturday and I’m on my way home from the lab.

I’m not about to complain (seriously)- had I not been working today I’d be in my room, mindlessly watching YouTubers doing 30,000-calorie challenges, or chefs struggling to make taramasalata.

It seemed like yesterday that I left everything, everyone I knew and moved to Italy for my PhD. Yesterday I strolled casually through the alleys of Rome, eagerly exploring the city that I shall call home. Yesterday I dismissed remarks at my first TAC meeting that I had an overly ambitious project.

Somehow I’m already in my final year- here’s how it’s going:


It shouldn’t come as a surprise that PhD students are at high risk of developing mental disorders. In the case of students and researchers who’ve moved abroad primarily for work, it often meant that work is the pivot of our lives. When experimental results (or the lack there of) are discouraging, everything is confusing and stressful, it’s easy to lose sense of it all- what am I doing? Why am I trying to go through all this?

Yes- we’re supposed to have friends and hobbies. I’m immensely blessed to have close friends in the lab who are my life support, and an extremely supportive and tolerant supervisor. Still, language and cultural differences, and irregular, exhausting working hours render it almost impossible to develop strong bonds with people outside of work, or with the city. Maybe I ought to try harder- others have managed before me. This thought doesn’t help me feel less like a failure or less isolated. I’m not working nights and weekends for brownie points- there’s just no home to gravitate to.

I’ve been trying to find some things to do outside of lab work. One of these things is distance running.

Here’s how running a half marathon typically feels like to me:

  • 0-8km: warming up, a bit effortful but no pains, don’t feel like I’m going fast
  • 8-14km: limbs are finally in the right gear! Everything feels right and I seemed to be picking up pace
  • 14-18km: increasingly tired… not sure if I can finish the race running, small aches start, counting down km by km
  • 18-20km: what’s the worst that can happen- I walk pass the finish line. I hope I don’t get cramps.
  • 20-21.095km: so close to finishing! just keep going

This is how my perceived pace compare to my actual pace:

At ~17km, I’m no longer squealing in excitement to encouraging-looking data, but at the same time, I’m not demotivated by experimental failure. I am learning to be critical, to objectively follow up leads, to rationally break down problems, to stay organised, to focus on small to-do lists instead ambitious goals.

At times, I’m envious of the enthusiasm and curiosity of new students. Some of my peers have published good papers. But hey– I’m not shooting for medals.

I just want to finish the race running.

*Unless you’re good at not giving up


Extended reading: Analyse the migration of scientific researchers

Author: Emmy Tsang

Final year PhD student at the Gross lab, EMBL Rome, interested in high-throughput approaches to achieve systematic understanding of neural circuits underlying instinctive behaviours; runs the science and society club to badger everyone about open publishing; baker by night.

14 thoughts on “Don’t do a PhD*”

  1. This is so encouraging. I recognise my own PhD in every word. It did feel like running a marathon at the time and in the end I did not care about coming first, I only wanted to be able to drag my feet over the finish line. Thank you for reminding me that I was not alone on that journey

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Emmy. It’s refreshing to hear such an open and articulate account of how hard the human/personal experience of research can be. There’s a lot of strength in that candour. I’ve not done a PhD – or run a half marathon – but I’ve observed the struggles of many friends and colleagues who have from the sidelines. Huge props to you all. Don’t give up!

  3. Don’t worry Emmy- you can do it! I’m just after finishing my third year too, writing up and I’ll be in the lab tomorrow (on a Saturday). I also know the feeling of being in the lab just because it’s there and your closest friends might be there too at the weekend. I’ve heard a lot of PhD horror stories too so don’t worry about some experimental failures.. it happens.. a LOT! It could be a lot worse. And you seem to have made progress so I don’t think you should worry. And, as I’ve heard a million times, everything works in the last few months!! 😛

    1. Hi Joanne- we’ve just had a PhD student in the lab who after 4.5 years of struggle got beautiful results in half a year… (See the blog post before mine :)) Hearing these stories comforts me half the time and scares me the other half- there’s always the big IF if doesn’t happen… anyways, if we give up now it will definitely not happen right? (: Just gotta keep going. Good luck with the writing and stay strong!

      1. Oh wow- that’s amazing! I definitely need to read more of these EMBL blogs! And I’ve also heard some brilliant stories of PhDs that were very rocky but worked out really well in the end. My friend in UCD (Dublin) who I did a summer placement with during my undergraduate degree, took 7 years to finish his PhD. He was a computer scientist who moved into Bioinformatics and had to learn all of the Biology from scratch. I thought learning programming AFTER the biology bit was hard but he assured me it was also hard coming from the opposite angle. He also had a lot of personal turmoil to go through in the last few years. But in the end he got a brilliant PhD and is published with some major collaborators in breast cancer research (triple-negative breast cancer). I saw him struggle and he kept at it.. and now he’s a published scientist in a very complicated area of Biology. We can all be like him if we persevere! 🙂

  4. I started a PhD in a foreign country, then after an year and a half I quit – because there was no supervision, no project and no one was helping. Now I’m doing a new PhD. I moved with the idea that PhD is a hard path, in which you’d be surrounded by highly motivated and competent people – but then you realised that yes you’ve met lot of nice people, also outside the lab but it’s not sufficient!! I moved for my job, to improve my skills and knowledge – this was the aim!

    PhD is tough, yes it’s true but it’s even harder when you’re not happy about your job anymore or about the environment that surrounds you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve met new friends or the love of your life – when you’re not happy the only thing that you can do is to change!

    I really appreciate this post, never give up Emmy, if you really think that this is your job, your future and this is the only thing that makes you happy – find a place where you can be happier and then make the best discovery ever!!!

    1. Luca you ask deep questions (: for me it’s always hard to know whether this career path is the best option for the rest of my life (this probably needs to be another blog post ;)). I admire your courage to say “that’s enough” and start over. I guess what I learnt in this process are my likes and dislikes regarding jobs, countries, etc. And from there on it’s just trial-and-error! I hope you’re enjoying your PhD work, even during the tougher times, and that you are at ease with your environment.

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