This was my first year of PhD. It is a big deal. The first year is the beginning of your personal great enterprise, that is fuelled every day by the magical sensation you felt the first time you proudly thought “See? There are people who think that a research project involving the words “pulp”, “hack-writer”, “trash” and “cadavers” is actually worth developing!”
It is also the beginning of a huge amount of work on your part, which comes as no surprise, but in the same way a killing backache after a rough tackling at rugby comes as no surprise. If, like me, you are a non-local student and your first year involved moving to another state – and moving house for the third time in five years – it may mean some additional challenges you have to face every day.
This does not mean it cannot be done. It can be done. You just need to find your own way. By “way”, I do not mean simply “your way of taking notes/managing the bibliography/writing faster/keeping more concentrate”. Well, it means all that, and much more: it means the state of mind you face your research with, the way you keep up with your everyday life with the huge research-monster growing up in mountains of scrapbooks and papers around you, and in a massive, invisible software-entity into your laptop, and all this in a new country, as it is my case.
The way I found “my own way” was a gift from Ireland, a choice that I could have made only here at the Club Day at the beginning of the year, an absolutely unexpected, dangerous choice, and the best thing I could do: I took up rugby.
Now, I can hear it already: “what has rugby to do with research?”
My answer is: much more than it seems at first sight. Let’s see.
First of all, I am not the kind of person you’d say could be safely play rugby. I’m quite small and light, and not very strong apparently. All my teammates are bigger, or stronger, or both, almost all of them run faster, and, truth to be told, when it comes to tackling, I am on the wrong side of it most of the times. And yet…
It is not very different from handling your project. The innocent, perfectly shaped PhD proposal you wrote disappears as soon as you get admitted and a hulk takes its place: a big, strong thing, growing very fast, and you have to keep pace with it. You realise that there is so much you do not know yet, so many things you have to learn, so many things to re-think. You have to change your frame of mind. So you start training.
Training is hard. Sometimes you ask yourself what the hell are you doing there: your muscles are steaming, you’re almost choking for lack of breathe, and you are absolutely sure tomorrow you’ll be sore like hell, and everybody seems to be better than you at it. So, why?, why? Because you realise you’re getting faster. And stronger. Already? Yes. Maybe not like the best players in the team, but at least you see results.
You are learning to endure a training harder than any you’ve ever done, and you’re learning to see the results, your personal small steps, every time. This is what I learned to look at, also in the research. I started reasoning in terms of tasks and goals for every working day, as I did in every training session. If at the end of the day I had achieved at least one of the tasks or goals I had set, that was to be considered a good working day.
Your goals must be feasible: you cannot be the brightest star in the rugby sky, if all you’ve done for the last four years were ballet and yoga-pilates. Research, I discovered, works in the same way: even if you had in mind a glorious picture of publishing and conferences and writing and starting side projects, it will take a very short time to realize that’s not likely. PhDs are different from anything else you’ve ever done, academically. It requires training, every day: long hours spent reading, taking notes, thinking, and that can be hard to do, especially some days. It may seem other people go faster, think better, have brighter ideas. That’s why it also requires you to be merciful and understanding to yourself, and to give yourself time and set feasible goals, and also acknowledge your own achievements.
The best thing in rugby is the team spirit: I was surprised when I noticed that right the first day some of the girls had learned my name and called me to cheer me and to push me to keep on going and finish the final run of the training. Each and every girl of the team takes it as a responsibility to cheer the others and praise them if they do a nice passage, or a good action, even me. That was what kept me trying. That was what made me say “I’ll come again to next training” over and over again through the year.
Of course, the research is playing solo. You don’t have a team to cheer you. This until you realise you are your own team, you are the one who is responsible to see your achievements and success, to cheer and support you. It is important in research that you bear in mind that relying upon yourself does not mean to kill yourself trying: it means to try, survive it, and praise yourself for the progress you made.
And finally, there’s tackling.
It will happen, in your PhD life: the Problem with capital P is on view. It may be a tough day, it may be an assignment that does not work, it may be discovering that your ideas are completely wrong and that you have to start it all over again. You may let this Problem take you down and spend a huge amount of time recovering, sitting on the floor and sobbing; or you can run away.
Or you can run onto it head first.
The first time I saw one of my teammate tackling someone, it was unreal. I thought “oh well, one day, maybe…” And then the coach said: “Ok, two rows, even groups, let’s practice”, and I got hit for the first time. It was not a proper tackling, that would not come until several weeks later, during a particularly nasty training involving rain, mud, and a sore in my ribs lasting a fortnight. Yet, I had been hit, and that was a revelation: the Problem will always hit you, unless you hit it first. Believe it or not, my attitude towards research changed. I started seeing problems not as Problems, but as challenges to tackle. You don’t necessarily have to be cheerful when it happens, but you absolutely need to be strong. There is no time for “one day” in research. You will start working at once, and you’d better be ready for any challenge that you’ll have to face, even if it is only another rainy day in Ireland.
Oh, speaking of which: you do not necessarily need to be a potential suicide like me and take up rugby, if you weight the same as an overweight cat, but I absolutely advise for outdoor sports. In Ireland? Precisely. Research involves a lot of “indoor”. And I mean a lot. Whole days at the desk. I can guarantee you that you will start enjoying the rain on your face, at some point, and stop wondering that “it’s always rainy in Ireland”. Most of all, you will enjoy the smell of country, wet soil and grass, you will bear better the cold, and you will get sick less easily. And, most of all, when you’ll be back at your desk the next day, your work will come more fluently, easily, and cheerfully than if you spent your whole time indoor with no sports at all.