So I woke up this morning and the first thing I told my wife was… ‘I think I’m going to become a writer…’, to which she replied ‘after writing 2 blog posts?’… I corrected her ‘it’s 3 actually’ and then we laughed. It’s been really interesting that in starting to write this blog and create the first newsletter, I have found writing enjoyable and somewhat therapeutic (if not a little addictive – strike whilst the iron is hot and all that… or at least whilst the iron is hot and I have time to use it). In this particular blog post I am going to discuss what my PhD journey has taught me in terms of wellbeing, and more specifically about finding purpose.
Not long after I completed my undergraduate degree I was extremely fortunate to be offered the opportunity to study for a PhD, and without any real professional or personal responsibilities I was very lucky that I was able to dedicate myself to my studies full time. When looking to undertake a PhD I would be lying if the pull of becoming a “Dr’ wasn’t a significant motivating factor, as well as the challenge to myself – ‘Could I really do this?’ There was also a part of the design that was based around my love of ideas, critical thinking and the connection of these in a way that piqued my curiosity. That was in 2010. Fast forward to late 2013 and having handed in my thesis and completed my revisions, I had completed the PhD journey. Thinking back on this now I think I deep down I thought that achieving a PhD was something to hide behind. I also thought it would bring validation that never came, and a self-confidence that never grew (little did I understand that this is where the real work actually starts).
What I think (looking back now) had started at some point during my studies was what would become a deep-seated but (relatively) highly functioning depression that would take me years to process and begin to recover from. That’s not to say that my studies were the cause of my depression, but I certainly believed that it acted as a catalyst. It’s really interesting to see research papers that have been published in recent years such as Levecque et al’s (2016) paper ‘Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students’ which have discussed exactly this (I found this anonymous blog post on The Guardian website also interesting – https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/mar/01/mental-health-issue-phd-research-university). It is important to note that I do not blame my supervisors or my institution, but it has shown me first hand the power of connection and belonging above all else.
Following a brief stint in academia I felt burnout and decided to move to Thailand with my wife and what ensued was an extended period of multiple jobs and feeling deeply ‘lost’. One of the core roots of this was the shame I felt and carried for not ‘doing anything with my PhD’ and this was often compounded by (well-meaning) comments such as ‘why are you doing this if you have a PhD?’, ‘you must love a new job [laughing]’. But what I realised from this experience is (borrowing from the three pillars of wellbeing that I included in my previous blog… purpose, connection and stability) that I often felt that I was lacking in all three. Perhaps what I was mourning the most was the high-flying specialist academic career that I was hoping for where I could become an expert in an area of interest important to me.
Fast forward a few years and I am now writing this blog, and have become especially passionate about wellbeing in education, and I think that there are clear reasons why things have unfolded this way. One book that I found really encouraging in my [at least for now] retirement of a specialist-type career (the route that we’re often encouraged to take so that we can have the life we want by 30) was ‘Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’ by David Epstein (2019) which refutes the culturally entrenched [but misinterpreted] ‘10,000 hour rule’ from Anders Ericsson and that in order to become ‘expert’ in a chosen field, it requires (amongst other things) dedicated practice, and an often singular path to excellence and all of the fruits that come with that. However, what this book demonstrated for me (for probably the first time) was that ultimately expanding your ‘range’ of knowledge, experiences and detours could in fact be of greater benefit, as in Epstein’s words ‘generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel.’
In my current role I am working with senior students in order to help them decide their path (and purpose) after school, and this is a book that I would love to distil the essence of and offer to them, particularly those that may also seem a little ‘lost’. I believe that the world needs both specialists and generalists to thrive, and that it’s ok whichever one you identify with. Listening to podcasts by the Belgian Psychotherapist, Esther Perel, I very much love the concept that she uses within the context of a romantic relationship that you can have multiple relationships (or marriages) with the same partner depending on the phase of life you are in (with tends to be punctuated by significant life events such as having children, experiencing loss, moving countries, etc) and that you are continually defining your relationship with your partner. To lend this to the topic of wellbeing and careers (which ultimately plays a important part in the pillars of wellbeing), what I would guide students towards understanding is that they may experience multiple different relationships to themselves and their careers over their lifespan and that’s ok. Finding a university course that leads you onto the path that you will stay on for multiple years is ok, taking a gap year (or two or three or more) is ok, studying for a degree that doesn’t end up being related to your later career(s) is ok. What’s important is that you see and believe in the value that you gain from these experiences, as you move forwards (or sideways) towards your own sense of purpose.
Ultimately what I would tell students that I work with is that your future ‘is not my story to tell (or prescribe), but yours to write’ and that means a full acceptance of not who you will be but you as you are.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. London: Macmillan.
Levecque, L., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2016). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46, 868-879.