PhD survivor

How to survive a PhD? Just follow these 15 simple steps:

  1. Choose the university that gives you the biggest scholarship for the longest possible time. Preferably, unlimited funding without deadline.
  2. Choose the supervisor not based on your common research interests or expertise, but based on the time it takes him/her to answer your emails. Track and measure it during Year 1.
  3. Do not make any attempt to find PhD alumni and ask about their post-PhD career paths. In fact, do not ask anyone at the department about that. The less you know, the better you sleep.
  4. Choose to live in the dorm close to fraternity houses. There will be many loud parties, and this will remind you to study harder to be able to finish sooner and finally have a life.
  5. Build your survival food system. In year 3-5, you will especially need emergency food. Fill your pantry or kitchen cabinets with instant noodles, canned food, crackers, nuts, peanut butter (lots of it!), and protein bars (brain food, you know).
  6. Start cutting all close relationships with people before Year 2. Your thesis will become your best friend, your partner … and sometimes your enemy too. The faster you cut contact with human beings, the sooner you will develop relationships with papers, articles, and books. This all will speed up the defence and graduation.
  7. Prepare to develop distaste for reading. In fact, stop reading anything a year before PhD. In this case, you can trick your brain into developing an interest for a new activity – boring reading.
  8. Do not spend money on anything. Save up and spend all your money on the best printer on the market and the most expensive chair. Office chair would especially be nice as it will give you an illusion that you are working in corporate business and making a difference in the world.
  9. Buy glasses and eye lenses in advance. Consult with your doctor on the possible trajectory of eyesight getting worse from year 2 to year 6 or 7.
  10. Apply for various grants and go to as many conferences as possible. Free travel, free food, free pens and note-pads.
  11. Visit the Buddhist monastery before starting a PhD and learn the secret of patience. You will need that a lot while waiting for the committee feedback on chapter 1,2,3 and so on.
  12. Buy a set of clothes 2-3 sizes bigger than your normal size. You will start noticing changes in Year 3.
  13. Buy subscription for all stupid comedy TV shows. It will be the only way to relax your mind and get distracted. Best mind therapy.
  14. Sign up for boxing classes. Stick the first page of your thesis on the punching ball and beat the shit out of it. It will help with anger management tremendously.
  15. And last, always remind yourself you will have a cool title “Doctor” at the end, even though you cannot really save or help anyone. It will still feed your ego and make you forget all the troubles you went through.

You can do it. I did it, so can you. I am a PhD: Proudly half Dead 🙂

In search of a mentor

I have recently attended the I-Work Conference organised by the University of Alberta for those international students who are finishing their studies and getting ready to enter work industry. I was struck by the idea and importance of finding a good mentor. Someone who can be your role model in the professional field. I knew about that before, but I never took it seriously enough to purposefully start looking for a person who can be my guide. I thought it would happen naturally: someone would appear in my life and unintentionally inspire me to do greater things. At least that is how it happened before.

Looking back to my childhood and adolescence, I realise that I had 3 important women who guided me through years and made me a person I am now. First and always first, it was my mom. She still is. A hard-working judge and a primary breadwinner in my family, she always made it clear to me and my sister that education was the most important thing. She told us never to depend on anyone in life. To stay firmly on the ground. To make our own money and always work hard. I never saw my mom cry, complain or be hesitant in decision making. Whenever a problem arose, she would take a night to think it over and wake up with a fresh decision none of us would have even thought of. She was never scared of anything. At least I never saw her scared or even worried. She hid it all inside. She made me feel like the world was safe. Like there is always a way out. Nothing is ever hopeless. The new day would come and you would figure out your problems. My mom was and still is my rock, my idol, an example of wisdom and inner strength. I could not wish for a better life mentor.

My two other mentors were my teachers. English teachers. One became my English tutor during my teenage years. The second one was my university professor. Elena, my tutor, was the one who believed in me first. I was studying at a regular school up to the age of 12. When my mom decided to transfer me to the best school in the city, specialising in English, I was struggling a lot. I was getting “F”s for all my English assignments because I was never taught English properly. Elena, my tutor, gave me all the fundamentals of the English grammar without any fancy textbooks: she was an old-school teacher. She would just take a pen and a paper and start drawing the structure of an English sentence. She was strict and uncompromising. During my 5 (!) years of taking her tutoring classes, there was only one time I came unprepared, and it was only because I was doing my homework till 1 am the day before. Elena listened to my excuse and said one sentence to me: “If you come unprepared one more time, I won’t be able to tutor you anymore.” Even to this day, I remember the feeling of being ashamed. And it was not because I was scared of her. It was simply because I respected her so much that letting her down was the worst feeling ever. She inspired me to be knowledge-hungry, inquisitive, patient, and disciplined. Never again I came to her class unprepared.

Finally, my university professor. Ludmila Mikhailovna. You know, each department will have rumours of the most intimidating professor who fails students left and right. She was one of them at our department. She taught Mass Media in English. There were rumours of students failing her class and dropping out of university completely. I was intimidated by her too, but, as it turned out, not by her personality or strictness – rather I was impressed with her way of thinking, her vision, independent view on politics. She was not afraid to share any controversial opinions. Or criticise anyone. She appreciated hard work, public speaking skills, and an ability to form our own opinions on matters. She was the only professor at the university who inspired me to make a presentation to the class that openly criticised the Russian government. I felt like we had some sort of hidden connection: she would not say anything to me, but I saw the approval in her eyes. And that was enough for me. She was the one who encouraged me to become a translator for foreigners coming to our city. She was the one who pushed me to apply for educational programs abroad. She believed in me. She believed in my future.

I think I am quite lucky to have had such mentors during the fundamental years of my life. I am finishing my PhD now, and I cannot wait to enter the work industry and try myself in the areas outside academia. I am now in a search of my next mentor. And maybe one day, I can give it back to the world and become a mentor for someone else.