*A PhD is just a job*

I could not disagree more with that statement.

Curiously, I hear it regularly here, in the Netherlands. In France, it would not come to any PhD student’s mind. Let me explain. The dutch system considers the PhD students like “researchers in training”, and treats them with a decent salary, and employment conditions anybody could ever dream of. In France, you’re paid more ore less minimum wage, you’re neither an employee, nor a student, and don’t get advantages from the one or the other.

Should I mention that dutch PhD’s are generally healthy and happy until the end of their thesis, sometimes built families, have kids, hobbies, and lives outside the lab while during their thesis. Situation in France (but I can talk only about my experience) is faaaaar away from that.

But … (there is always a but …) PhD student in the Netherlands are often older then their french counterpart. They have never-ending deadlines, and a very very relaxed study plan. Therefore, some master’s students from the lab are older then me, a second year PhD.

Also, the fact that they are considered like employees makes them  think that they are just employes. 9 to 5 job. A pay at the end of the month. Results to deliver. Working late in the evening or during week-end is more exceptional then normal. Métro-boulot-dodo like we would say in French. (Literally translated as subway-work-sleep)

And this is exactly what a PhD is not (at least in my opinion). I would never count my hours of work and stop when reaching what stipulates my contract. I work at night, and sometimes on week-end. And I don’t spend a day without thinking about my research.  Even after a 3 week vacation break, I have to admit. And sometimes I dream about perfect experiments and ideas that I forget in the morning. And I like it that way. I feel “tied” to my project forever. I love that feeling. Being “tied”, and paradoxically also free. Being paid to think, to be creative, to try things, to speculate indefinitely, to organize things just like you want. Of course sometimes you get angry, or doubtful, and hope you would not care about it that much and forget things for a few days. But this feeling never last very long, honestly.

I just hope it’s not some kind long-lasting “honeymoon phase” that will break like a bubble. I started my PhD 1 year and a half ago, (although it feels like yesterday), and hope this state will remain permanent. I cannot imagine myself doing anything else right now. And these are all the reasons why I would never call my PhD a job. A regular job does not obsess you that much, does not bring that much excitement, eagerness, motivation, and satisfaction. Waking up every day for something that you love and care so much about is such a gift. I hope I never loose this feeling. Otherwise, I’ll aways have this blog post to remember what it felt like. Some days, life feels just so sweet.


The 4 phases.

Sometimes, on the though path to the PhD,  problems, deceptions, or frustrations can arise. I noticed after this almost 1 year and a half of experience (already …) that I always go through the same 4 phases. Let me explain …

Phase 1 : Disappointment and discomfiture.

Duration : 2 to 4 hours. 

You got some reviewer’s comments back and your article is not publishable yet, your experiment majestically failed for the 3rd time, you just ended a crapy work meeting … and you enter the world of dissapointement. You just stare at the emptiness in front of you, or eat chocolate, and black-out. What the hell are you doing here ? Why did you ever go to research ? Or  even to university ? Are you really good enough for it ? Are you an impostor ? You start dreaming about  a 9 to 5 job, about opening a bakery in France, or raising goats in the mountains. Going back to a simplier life, because life in the lab went suddenly from nice to sucky. You wish you could go home, wrap yourself up in covers, and look at a feel-good movie. But no, your are still stuck in the lab for a few more hours. Time for phase 2.

Phase 2 : Anger and fury. 

Duration : 2 hours to 1 day 

Who the f*** this reviewer thinks  he is ? Why the hell is this experiment failing over and over ? Did somebody mess up the reagents ? The machine you’re using was probably built before World War II ? Why is this colleague suddenly so annoying ? Why is there always so much noise in this lab? Your computer runs on Windows ? … ? Yes, every.little.thing. makes you angry. Vapor gets out of your ears, and bubbles out of your mouth. And you blame everything on the others. People see it and leave you alone in your angriness.

Phase 3 : Acceptance or resilience

Duration : a few minutes 

Doing a PhD is exhausting enough, and the little energy you had left, you spent it on anger. You’re left with no other choice then accept the situation. Maybe that reviewer has a point. Maybe you should take a look at the protocol and at the literature, again. That meeting was not the worst after all. Maybe you contaminated the reagents yourself. It’s just human. Happens to everybody. You have to cope with it anyways. Life goes on.

Phase 4 : Re-motivation and blissful optimism.

Duration : A few hours (if you’re unlucky) to a few weeks (if you’re a lucky b*****d).

Suddenly, you can see the positive side of things again. You see the glass half full rather then help-empty. Suddenly, you grab your pipette and try this experiment again. You address the comments of the reviewers and think in your head “There, you’re happy now  ?”  In a gesture of complete altruism, you decide to put some order in the reagent stock. You make the most awesome PowerPoint slides ever. You write an entire page of organized “TO-DO’s” and truly think you can do it in 2 weeks. You consider coming in this week-end, and you actually do it. You love all you colleagues and feel blessed to be in such a great lab. Salty bubble, the famous song from the movie “Whatever works” is in your head. Enzymes digest DNA, antibodies catch your favorite protein, qPCR looks great, you repeat you experiment 3 times in a row, and nail your work presentation.

Sadly, life in the lab is hilly, and made of embushes. All you have to keep believing in is that after Phase 1 comes phase 2, phase 3, and phase 4. Again, and again, and again … until the END.