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Caitlin Naylor
Careers and professional development, Education, Teaching and learning, Trainees and training

People not papers

Caitlin Naylor with two visions of the PhD process.

03 January 2023

Throughout this first year of my PhD, I have spoken to many early career researchers (ECRs). I have heard stories of triumph, of misery, and everything inbetween, and I’ve learnt so much about what works and what doesn’t. That’s not to say I’m claiming there’s a perfect approach to ECR training; actually, I’m arguing somewhat the opposite. What works will change from person to person, situation to situation. Still, the one sure thing is that the best approach will recognise that behind every PhD, there’s a person. Yes, papers matter, but we’re all psychologists – we know that the best behaviour, the best results, come from a person at their best.

So, if we know this, why don’t we practice it? Why don’t we consider individual needs? Why do we force the same approach, the way ‘it’s always been done’ on everyone? Why don’t we shape each PhD around the person? Maybe we just don’t realise quite how much of an impact the environment, the lab culture, and the supervisor can have on our ECRs; how the smallest of changes, the most basic acts of human kindness, the slightest indication of interest, can grow both our research and our community.

Well, to convince you of that impact, I’ve written these diary entries. Two streams of thought assimilating all the discussions and stories I’ve heard, to show how an ECR could be feeling right now. Which outcome do you think we should aim for in our future training of ECRs?

Entry A

Coming up to the one-year mark of my PhD, I feel overwhelming disappointment. Of course, like everything in life, there are moments of joy and frustration, doubt and elation, but I guess I expected that all of that would lead to a better me. And it hasn’t.

I feel devastated. Devastated to have worked so tirelessly to be at a point where I’m no longer excited by my research. I know people don’t understand – if the project is on track, what’s the problem? But it’s taken so much to produce that work: I feel lost, overworked, and undervalued. Moving with no direction is still moving, but it’s inefficient, unsustainable. There’s so much pressure to produce that there’s no room to explore, be creative, or even try new ways and develop. How can I be excited by what I might find when the focus is on how much you can do rather than what you can do with it? They say science is magic that works, but I’ve lost the magic.

I can’t help but feel like a failure. There’s so much talk of training that I thought I’d develop as a researcher, figure out what I look like as a scientist. But I’m stuck. Stuck for where to begin, where to look, where to focus. It’s like I’m playing a game, but I haven’t been given the rules – I can make every move, but I won’t know whether I’m winning. I can’t help but feel it’s about completing requirements, box-ticking, rather than growth. Everyone else’s time is too precious: listening to what I’m searching for and pointing me in the right direction, giving me the initial push, it just can’t be a priority for anyone. There’s no time to understand that I’m maybe a little different, but I’m just as willing as the rest. So, I guess if this is the way it’s done, then I must just not be the type of person who should be doing a PhD.

But what’s crushed me the most is that it’s changed how I see myself. I knew it would be hard to succeed with my past, my present – but I thought, I’ve got this far, right? And now I’m left feeling so alone, so defeated. I wasn’t strong enough. I began the year so confident that this path was for me, but I’m suffocating. If I go, I let myself down, I lose the one thing I was so sure I wanted. If I stay, I start a career that doesn’t want me. Doesn’t want someone who struggles, who is different, who tries a new way, who wants a rounded life, who is human. A career that wants clones and copies to churn out work quickly and quietly. Do I give up? Is it like this everywhere? Where it’s success or wellbeing, get on or get out, hope it gets better or admit defeat. Adapt yourself to fit the PhD. Papers not people.

Entry B

Coming up to the one-year mark of my PhD, I feel overwhelming gratitude. Of course, like everything in life, there are moments of joy and frustration, doubt and elation, but all of that has led to a better me. A me that is not only capable, but worthy of being here.

I feel so lucky. Lucky to have worked so tirelessly to be at a point where I’m still excited by my research. The project is on track, and people are happy with the work I’m producing, but that success means so much more because I’m enjoying the process. I spend everyday understanding life itself – that’s pretty cool! I’m excited by the discoveries, inspired by the reading, motivated by the problems. And I believe that’s largely because I feel like there’s room to make mistakes, so I dare to push myself. I’ve been shown that I’m not expected to know all the answers – what’s important is that I’m burning to ask the questions. Being in a group where success can be found in the process, not just the outcome, has made research a passion rather than a chore.

I thought the training was just a formality, but I’ve had so much support. The people around me have pushed every opportunity my way, listened to my interests, aspirations, and weaknesses, and helped me face them all head-on. It makes such a difference to connect with people who’ve been where I am and can pull me through, or who are where I am and can stumble through with me. And it’s not just other students – for busy academics to take the time to ask about my goals, encourage me to try new things, and give advice: it’s inspirational. I’m going to leave with incredible research but also as someone with confidence and drive. It’s left me so excited to start my career and to build that support network for others where any question can be asked, any thought voiced, any person welcome.

What surprises me the most is how much I’ve grown to like myself. It’s so easy to judge others through kinder eyes than ourselves, which is why it’s made such a difference to be with people who genuinely care. People who demand that I prioritise self-care, self-kindness; who celebrate my uniqueness and encourage me to reflect that in my work; who have shown me that to grow, we must be wild, welcome change, and nurture ourselves. I just hope one day I get the chance to create this environment for others, and that they do the same until, eventually, academia embraces the fact that the best scientist is the curious one, the dreamer, the happy one. PhDs produce people – people of all backgrounds and minds and brilliance. And one of those people will be me.

About the author

Caitlin Naylor graduated from the University of Bath with a BSc in Psychology in the summer of 2021. She began her PhD in Psychology at Bath in autumn 2021 with the CAMERA research group. Caitlin is investigating how virtual reality can help to understand and treat body representation disturbances in CRPS.