What to educate your family about before you embark on a PhD journey

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What to educate your family about before you embark on a PhD journey

I was recently having a casual conversation with my aunt, when I mentioned that my day was a bit relaxed and I didn’t have much lab work. I was genuinely taken aback when she replied, “PhD students do not have much work anyway, right? It must be relaxed for you quite often.”

My aunt is a Chartered Accountant, who is doing very well in her career. Like her, many others in our family are in professions that demand highly qualified personnel. However, when it comes to what a PhD in the sciences involves, they are all quite ignorant, irrespective of whether they’re highly educated or not. And who can blame them? All parties involved in a PhD journey – PhD students, their supervisor, and the research institution – mistakenly assume that the PhD students’ parents and family will put up with anything and everything that comes their way along this journey.


Challenges in communicating the struggles of PhD life to your family

PhD life is both time- and effort-intensive, and can be quite hard on the people closest to graduate students. Since a graduate student’s family members usually find it difficult to relate to their struggles, it could eventually result in frustration for both the students and their family. Such circumstances can result in poor mental health in students who bear the brunt of scientific pursuit on both the family and work fronts. On one hand, they struggle to make progress in their research, and on the other hand, they struggle to tell their family and supervisor what they are going through.


In my opinion, most graduate students, at some point along their journey, realize that their families are not aware of the demanding nature of their course. This can pose a problem for the students. So, how can this be addressed?


I can think of two broad solutions –

  1. A short orientation could be organized for the immediate family of graduate students by their research institution/university.
  2. Graduate students themselves can educate their families on what to be prepared for and what not to expect from graduate students in the sciences.

I understand that the former might be difficult to implement, considering the innumerable graduate students who are admitted into PhD programs every year/semester. This leaves the student fraternity with the responsibility of educating their families before they bid adieu for a dedicated 4-6 year term of research. If family members are still unwilling to understand the struggles of PhD life and provide support accordingly, graduate students could request their to-be-supervisor or mentor to intervene. This might seem difficult and a little farfetched. However, this is exactly what one of my fellow graduate students did and it worked well for her. Her supervisor did intervene and was able to help her family see how much their support would mean to her. So, in cases where the supervisor is willing to go the extra mile, this approach could work well.


Misconceptions about PhD life

If not educated about PhD life, close family can hardly comprehend the kind of pressure to perform and prove oneself, experienced by most graduate students. In order to provide the right kind of support, it is imperative that the graduate student’s immediate family understand the sweat and toil that goes into earning a PhD. It is not “just another degree” like many seem to think. In reality, it is a paid profession that can consume you 24*7, leaving you with practically no time for family. Burnout and imposter feelings are quite common during PhD life. So those who need to know this, just need to know!


Another misconception that family members often have is that a PhD mostly involves reading, referencing, and writing. This might be true for the humanities and other fields that do not involve experimentation or extensive field work. But for a PhD in the sciences (unless it is theoretical science), 80% of your time is spent on experiments in the laboratory, and only the remaining 20% is devoted to referencing, reading, and writing.


If the graduate student’s family members don’t know how challenging, time-consuming, and effort-intensive their work is, it can result in a series of misunderstandings – they might wonder why you’re working long hours, they might be aghast to see you come home at unearthly hours, they might seem confused and displeased about you having no time for your family, and they might often be annoyed that you have to work on most weekends in a month. I don’t think one can blame the family in such a situation. They didn’t know anything about the schedules and lifestyle of a graduate student. This isn’t something they signed up for.


In my experience, in relatively conservative societies, such as that in India where I currently live, I see female graduate students finding it even more difficult to pursue a PhD. Often, they are expected to commit to matrimony and their PhD, which can take a toll on their physical and mental health. In some cases, their family members might complain that they’ve invested so much time and energy in the pursuit of “just another degree” with “no returns”, while their peers in other professions are doing much better for themselves – they’re earning a good salary, are “well-settled”, and they’re also raising a family.


As graduate students, we often fail to convince our families that a PhD is completely different from any other degree we’ve earned, and that it demands a specific caliber to accomplish it. I feel like this also applies to the “family-to-be”, especially if a graduate student is considering marriage during the course of their doctoral journey. Having an informed partner can help ensure that the graduate student receives the support and understanding they need from their partner. This could go a long way in enabling smooth completion of the thesis and also the defense thereafter.


  • PhD realities your close family should know  

So, what can graduate students (especially those pursuing a PhD in the sciences) tell their families to educate them about PhD life? Here are some of the points that I think they should cover:


  • The hours are unpredictable.

Working days or nights, weekends or week days, on festivals or national holidays – this is all normal. It’s important to understand that they are very passionate about their work and motivated to make progress. So, as long as they’re sleeping enough and making time for self-care, you don’t have to worry.


  • We design the experiments, but they don’t always go our way.

Science demands experimentation at varying levels and/or countless hours of field work. The term ‘experiment’ is quite apt, because one cannot predict the end result of such an endeavor – it could be successful, but it is also likely to result in failure to the power of n. Even the brightest minds in the world have encountered many a failed experiment. No experiment has set protocols that ensure success at the very first attempt. It’s quite possible that a month starts with one experiment and we’re still working on some iteration of it at the end of the month.


  • Failed experiments can be extremely demotivating and demoralizing.

What follows are feelings of frustration, doubt, sadness, anger, confusion, etc. During such difficult moments, having a supportive family works wonders to bring back any lost self-confidence. This support is crucial to reduce the chances of graduate students experiencing imposter feelings. Moreover, words of motivation and wisdom from close family and friends are fantastic for firing-up creativity and this, in turn, helps while taking on experimental challenges at work.


  • The PhD journey can sometimes feel very lonely.

Timely reassurance and support from one’s family can go a long way to help graduate students anchor their mental health and fend off their negative thoughts.


  • A doctoral journey in the sciences is a commitment of time, money, energy, and other resources, much like a marriage.

A marriage is a relationship of mutual trust, commitment, and responsibility; and one that requires both partners to invest resources, money, energy, and time. Quite similar to that is a mentor-mentee or supervisor-supervisee relationship in a PhD journey. Completing a PhD journey is no cakewalk. Drawing parallels between a mentor-mentee relationship and a marriage, while talking to close family members about PhD life, could help them gain a thorough understanding of what’s in store.


Finally, I believe that graduate students should conduct a self-assessment in the first year of their PhD to estimate their potential for navigating other commitments along with their PhD journey. These additional commitments could be marriage, starting a family, caring for an aged or ill family member, investing in a home, moving to a new city or country, etc.


It is also essential to account for self-care while juggling two or more of these demanding responsibilities. So, if you feel like you won’t be able to manage other big commitments while pursuing a PhD, it is important to convey this to your family, be it your parents, a spouse/partner, or other close family members.


Having said all of this, I also want to add that these suggestions will be useful ONLY if the PhD-to-be has enough knowledge about the basic tenets of a doctoral journey. As a graduate student, it’s important to ensure that you know what you are jumping into, and then also educate your family. This will help you swim with the tide, instead of against it.

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Published on: Jul 29, 2022

Passionate about teaching, writing, mentorship, philosophy in science and daily life.
See more from Gayatri Ramachandran


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