Not so smooth sailing: starting my PhD

I started my PhD in pretty choppy waters.

Posted by Danny Schnitzler on January 09, 2021 · 5 mins read

The months before I started my PhD were a great big fucking tsunami. After I graduated from the University of Aberdeen n MSci in Biomedical Sciaence, I was in limbo. I knew I wanted to do a PhD, but I could not find the right one. I applied for projects that I thought were what I wanted, but ended up turning down two funded projects. I finally applied for a project that sounded perfect, and it was the first one that I was rejected from after the interview. I felt very dejected and disappointed. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t want me, someone with lab experience, a First Class honours degree, and a prize for my dissertation. Still not knowing what I would do, I packed up my things and moved to Edinburgh. Once here, I finally rallied. I asked the supervisor for the project I was rejected from (which had not been his decision) if we could apply for fiunding for a project. One thing led to another, and he arranged a paid position for me in his lab as a research assistant, allowing me to gain experience in his lab and work on funding applications. It all sounded great. However, the job was not what I expected, and, coupled with my living situation (a room in a friend of a friend’s of a friend’s neighbour’s house) the whole situation was fuelling my anxiety and depression. My mental health started going downhill. At the same time, I was dealing with personal issues from my past that had finally caught up with me. I started going to therapy, which was definitely the right decision.

Early 2017, my boss mentioned that a friend of his had a PhD project open for applications. I met with her, loved the project, loved her, and applied. After months of feeling depressed and anxious, there was finally a ray of hope – I had been offered the position. I finished my job with my first boss, worked at the Edinburgh International Science Festival as a science communicator for the month, and then started working for Paula as laboratory technician until the start of my PhD. This better income for the few months, and the security of knowing I would be starting my PhD in Edinburgh, meant I could finally find a nice place to live, and move in to my own flat. I finally felt like life was being good to me again. That joy lasted about a month.

My boyfriend of four years broke up with me. After having even bought me an engagement ring that he had planned on giving me (officially – even though we were already deep in the wedding planning). It was easily the worst night of my life, and I felt like my last and only foot hold to good mental health had slipped away.

What followed was months of severe depression. I was unable to get out of bed, take a shower, never mind go into work. I was suicidal.

In a rare lucid moment, I decided two things, the first thing: I needed to take time off work and push back the start of my PhD. I needed to be healthy. The second thing: I needed to get a dog.

So I got my little Sid, and talked to my supervisor about my poor mental health. Of course, she was understanding, how could she not be? Especially because such a major focus of her research is on women’s mental health. A large part me still felt guilty and undeserving.

Now, almost a year later, I have started my PhD (not without bouts stormy weather given my knee), am living in a city I love, am doing a project I love, with a fantastic supervisor. I have a loving and supportive boyfriend, who also has a dog. We live in our beautiful flat in an amazing part of town. I learned how much I could rely on my friends and how incredible they are.

Even though everything worked out in the end, this is not the course I would have chosen to sail to get here.