People are different and labs are different. No matter what you are up against – don’t forget to build yourself your own safety net of supporters at work.

Some of you might be lone wolves – for others, like me, working alone can be hard. There are labs where you get thrown into a large group of people on your first day. But sometimes, it’s just you, helping your supervisor build up a new group, working remotely from home, or not being able to connect with the few people around you.

I was lucky enough to end up in an environment that perfectly fits my needs. I started my PhD in a group with more than 30 people. Soon I found those colleagues that would fit my personality best. For the first time in my life, these weren’t just people my age, but people in very different life settings. Now, 4 years later, I call them close friends. In the last years, there were several situations when these friends were the ones that kept me going.

Window cleaners on building facade
A PhD can be tough. Your colleagues at work will know exactly what you are going through.

No matter what you are up against – don’t forget to build yourself your very own safety net.

You are not alone in this.

Starting a PhD can be exciting and motivating. It would be amazing if this feeling would stay through the whole period. But normally it won’t – and that is totally normal!

There is a reason why people normally don’t deal with one particular topic for a long period of time. Even the most exciting project can be annoying after a while. Things can go wrong. And they will go wrong. And that again is totally normal.

But not just research can be hard on you. Life happens. A breakup, health or family problems. For me it was all of it. Life happened – during a time when research did the opposite.

I was frustrated by work and it felt like I won’t ever make the PhD happen. On top of this, after work, there was more frustration waiting at home. I felt like life won’t ever happen like I hoped it would. I was depressed and felt extremely lonely.

During that time, however, I was surrounded by great people. My friends took care of me, trying to encourage me to be hopeful again. Surprisingly, what helped me the most and kept me going in these times was the group of people who supported me at work. Not because they were better friends (they are great, but so are my “outside” friends), but because they were there, surrounding me during the day.

Three women working on same laptop

Why you need to build a safety net at work

I bet most of you have friends and family for situations like this. People who look after you in tough times. But those people have jobs, too.

During the day, they won’t be able to make things easier. And, especially concerning PhD-related problems, sometimes it’s hard for them to understand the frustration without going through the same thing. For this reason, a safety net at work can be worth its weight in gold.

Make your safety net as big or small as you need

For all these lone wolves out there: your safety net doesn’t have to contain a large group of people. It can be just this one colleague you like, the group secretary, someone you have lunch with. Having a safety net also doesn’t imply that you have to talk about everything on your mind. Sometimes distraction is worth everything. Being able to ask for distraction – no questions asked – can sometimes be all you need.

Where to find your supporters

For most of us, it will be natural to create a safety net with the people working around us on a daily basis. Others may not be so lucky, maybe because they can’t make a real connection with their coworkers, or maybe because they are working remotely. Here are a few ideas on where to find your supporters.

  • colleagues in the lab or in your research group
  • a group leader outside of your group that you trust
  • fellow PhD candidates from graduate school courses – Ask your colleagues or the PhD representatives of your institution if there is any program set into place where PhD students from different institutions meet regularly to exchange.
  • a meetup for PhD candidates in your city
  • an association of your university or academic society for researchers with similar interests (e.g. sustainability groups)
  • an association of your university or academic society for researchers with similar backgrounds or similar challenges (e.g. for queer academics, PhD candidates with children, etc.)
  • an online community (e.g. the PhD Support Group on Facebook)

It’s not just the research – it’s also the people

This all leads to my advice for all of you: While searching for a PhD position, always keep in mind that it’s not just about the research.

It’s also about spending three and more years with a group of people. In good and in bad times. You don’t have to be friends with all of them, but you should build a safety net of supporters with some. 

Picture Credit: Matthew Waring, Nuno Silva, John Schnobrich via Unsplash

About the author

When your safety net is with you at your conferences: Janika with one of her favorite colleagues.

Janika started studying Molecular Life Science in the small university town of Erlangen, Germany, in 2010. In 2015, after a detour to sunny San Diego for cancer research, she started her PhD in Molecular Medicine.

This December, she will submit her thesis on “the influence of the RNA binding protein HuR on melanoma development and progression” – and is incredibly happy about that, even though her future plans for a science communication/marketing career will mean that she will have to say goodbye to her favorite coworkers.

How did you build your own safety net at work? How important is it for your PhD? Leave a comment below!