You will get many pieces of PhD advice during your time. Some are good and some are horrible. For me, there was one particular advice that turned out more important than anything else.
On one of those warm summer nights, I was sitting with Ewa, my lab partner at the time, on the terrace of a half snobbish, half trashy Italian restaurant. I guess it was a wonderful night, but I really couldn’t tell you.
That’s because, at this point of the evening, I was ranting for hours already about how much my PhD sucked. How deeply and truly it sucked and how unfair I was being treated. Ewa’s face was blank. She hadn’t said anything for minutes. She took a deep sip out of her Aperol glass and, in an icy tone, gave me the best PhD advice I got:
“Stop complaining. Nobody cares.”
If you are reading this, you might be at just the same moment of your PhD than I was back then. You might feel overwhelmed and helpless. I have a bitter truth for you, the same that Ewa had for me: It won’t get better by complaining. Still, there is a way out of it.
Crying over pizza
I had my share of tough experiences. In my last half year in the lab, my project of three years seemed to have run into a dead end. It looked as if most of the work I had been doing was worthless. I was frustrated with myself and my supervisors. I was sad and angry and crushed, and I truly hated my job.
During that time, Ewa and me faced failed experiment after failed experiment. After a particularly brutal day in the lab, we both were demoralized. Fortunately, Ewa is one of the best people to have around in times of crisis. She is unbelievably curious, optimistic, and has a brilliantly dry sense of humour.
We left the lab and went to the lake nearby, swearing and shouting at the Gods of Chemistry. We laughed about our horrible day, but I couldn’t fully shake off my frustration. I started complaining – about my project, my incompetence, my bad planning. We went to have ice-cold drinks. I complained about the time I wasted. The waiter brought pizza. I complained and complained until I got so sad for myself that I sat there crying, with pizza in my hands.
That was the moment when even Ewa, who had patiently tolerated my self-pity for weeks, couldn’t take it any longer.
It’s not your fault – but it’s your responsibility
This is what she told me: Nobody truly cares about your problems as much as you do. It is okay to vent your frustration from time to time, but when complaining becomes a habit, the people around you get tired of it.
Nobody will walk into your office and magically fix everything just because they see you feeling bad. Even though the situation might not be your fault, it is still your responsibility to change it for the better.
Take it, change it, or leave it
For every difficult situation that life throws at you, there are the three famous solutions: You either take it, change it, or leave it. What does this mean for your PhD?
Take it: You accept the situation as it is. Your boss is choleric and ignores you? You deleted six months worth of data? If that’s what it is, then that’s what it is. Not everything has to be good and fair. Nobody gets treated fairly. Find a way for yourself to make peace with the situation, even if that simply means closing your eyes from all evil and getting out of there as fast as you can.
Leave it: Quit. Remind yourself that this is an option. If your PhD time makes you profoundly miserable and you see no end in sight, if you truly know that this is not what you want – leave it behind and use your talent at a place that benefits you more.
Change it: This is the one you don’t want to hear, but also the one you’ll probably have to do. If you are not a stoic no-f*cks-giver and leaving is not an option, you will have to get active. You need to take responsibility for your own well-being.
Take some time to pity yourself (you deserve it), then stop whining and look for solutions. Set a goal. Arm yourself with all the courage you have, schedule a meeting with your boss and find out what is going on. Find a way to get your data back. No matter how impossible it might seem to find a solution, know that the hard times will come to an end.
If you feel truly lost and helpless, a first step into taking responsibility could be reaching out to someone you trust and asking them for help.
Why complaining feels so good
After Ewa gave me my harsh truth, it took me a while to realize that I haven’t done much in months but complaining and feeling sorry for myself. Why do we do this? Because it feels good! Complaining gives you an instant high. It releases bottled-up anger and gives you the attention you desperately feel to deserve. You feel morally superior when explaining how others are wronging you, stepping over your boundaries, and blatantly just making horrible decisions. Complaining makes us feel liberated – but that feeling does not last long.
Why complaining will hurt you
If you don’t watch out, complaining will become your go-to defense mechanism and a serious threat to your mental health. Complaining makes you the victim, one that is trapped in a bad situation without a way out. Constantly repeating this narrative will reinforce negative thought patterns that will ultimately become hard-wired into your mind. You deprive yourself of your own power to act. In the long run, constant complaining will make you feel only more miserable than you already are.
So stop complaining. Take it, leave it, or change the situation yourself.
How do you deal with hard times in the lab? Did you take them, leave them, or change them? How? What is the most valuable PhD advice you have gotten? Share your insights in the comments below.