The Loneliness of the Long Distance Researcher

A discussion about the emotional struggles of pursuing research and ways of tackling them.

A Ph.D. is a masterpiece, in the historical sense of the word – a piece of work by a craftsman accepted as qualification for membership of a guild as an acknowledged master (Oxford Dictionaries). The guild in this case being academia. It isn’t too surprising therefore to learn that it is a long and arduous process, during which, most people seem to disappear into a cave of obsession over the most intricate details of their research. We are meant to generate ideas that are feasible under financial, physical and time constraints, which are also ‘novel’ and ‘sexy’. They must generate interest and more funding as well as future career opportunities in an incredibly competitive environment full of perfectionists and over-achievers.

Academia is notoriously demanding and exceptionally unforgiving of mistakes. Many older researchers and Principal Investigators still hold onto a ‘tough love’ or ‘natural selection’ attitude towards postgraduate students, while others may consider taking on a Ph.D. student as a cheaper option than hiring a research assistant. It isn’t uncommon to work 7 day weeks, 10 hour days and many would argue they’re never quite able to switch off as there aren’t clearly defined lines between work and leisure time and the guilt of doing anything when our research could be furthered instead is exhausting. Despite the long hours, we often survive on small stipends and many pay their own way through it.

Several studies, media articles and blog posts like this have highlighted the growing rates of mental health issues such as depression, general anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal attempts among postgraduate students. A Swedish study found a high rate of concerns over balancing workload with family. Moreover, despite similar rates of interest in doing so, fewer women were able to continue on to work for the university after receiving their Ph.D. than men (Appel and Dahlgren, 2003), while another study published by the University and College Union found the proportion of members of higher education who found their stress levels to “often” or “always” be stressful was 39% (the rate for UK employees in general was 15%) (Kinman and Wray, 2013)

In 2014 The Guardian set up a blog – Academics Anonymous – ‘a blog series where academics tell it like it is’. In March of the same year they received a post that fired up the debate of mental health – There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia. The post sparked the debate and a host of articles addressing issues of gender bias, LGBTQIA+ discrimination and ableism in the academic community were subsequently published. Another post on the blog from the same year – Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia – highlighted the following issues to be the major factors in the increased incidence of mental health concerns among academics  1. Culture of acceptance, 2. Perfectionism, 3. Increased workload, 4. Uncaring Academic Environment, and 5. Internalised values. In 2017, Research Policy, a journal by Elsevier, published an article about increasing concerns over the potential impact of the current environment of academia on mental health. The study was conducted in Belgium and found one in three Ph.D. students are at risk of a common psychiatric disorder. The prevalence of mental health issues is higher among Ph.D. students when compared to highly educated general population and that work and organizational context were significant predictors of a student’s mental health status. (Levecque et al., 2017)

I am very lucky that I am studying at the National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology. Despite the overwhelming incidence of a ruthless and competitive environment found in academia, the NICB and many institutions like it have managed to nurture a mentality that promotes teamwork. Ph.D. students and post-docs from various groups at the institute work side by side each other. I can empathise with my peers, as well as receive wisdom and much needed guidance from my superiors. The research group I am part of does it’s best to perform experiments and run trials in collaboration. This type of work environment has been proven to benefit students significantly. However, academia still has its issue. Dr. Nadine Muller, author of the blog The New Academic, explains how the academia promotes a blurring of the lines between our professional and personal lives as most of us are in academia as we enjoy the pursuit of knowledge. I love research, with a passion.

My father was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes quite soon after I was born, and while my family never made a big deal out of it, every meal and activity for us was altered slightly. It wasn’t till I was in my mid-teens that I realised how much of a struggle my dad’s disease was for him. I suppose that’s what parents do, protect their children, save them from the pain. When I realised my aptitude and interest for science, I thought – ‘I can save my dad.’ My dream is to study, understand and cure Insulin Resistance.

Thanks to the research projects funded by the European Space Agency around muscle tissue health, and supported by Enterprise Ireland, I am studying the relationship between mitochondrial respiration, calcium signalling and the effects on insulin signalling. As a result, I am so happy that now I have the freedom to spend my time on research. What I didn’t realise then was the two-faced nature of this ‘freedom’. I have to consciously turn my research brain off and I am consumed by guilt. When I first started my course, I was going in for 9-10 hour days and almost every weekend. I often declined invitations for social events to make sure nothing distracted me. I quickly burned out. The anxiety and exhaustion caught up to me so fast, I resented every moment of it and I know I am not alone in this feeling.

Not to mention, science rarely works. Especially for a Ph.D. student. Novel ideas are prone to fail the first few times they’ve been tried, and nothing is clear cut. So, most people will probably agree that the first year of our Ph.D. programs are often just daily repetitions of the same techniques, over and over again, until we are certain we have the right answer. And at some point you have to ask yourself, do I repeat all this in the hope I’ll get it right the next time or am I just insane? And when you’re dealing with over 100 samples, pipetting minuscule amounts from one to the other, trying your best to not contaminate or spill – it can feel a lot like insanity.

So, what do we do? It’s important to combat the isolation but of course, unlike when we were in undergraduate programmes, it’s not easy to attend club or society events held in the university either. However, events like PubhD, Pint of Science and Thesis in 3 allow social interaction with intellectuals from various fields. They add value to our C.V. as well as our own personal experience, so we can socialise without feeling guilty. They also provide a platform to show off our progress, get feedback and remind ourselves benefits our research brings to society. DCU also hosts competitions like the Biological Research Society’s Annual Research Day and Tell it Straight. My fellow PhD student and colleague John Noone won Tell It Straight this year with the following video:


The NICB hosts frequent coffee mornings, and all members are encouraged to bake if they wish to, and it gives us an opportunity to interact with each other in a relaxed environment. I know a few peers who enjoy baking and like to take this opportunity to their minds of the stress of their Ph.D. and onto something they enjoy. Sometimes, musicians are invited during these coffee mornings to entertain the attendees. Music is another brilliant outlet, where we can take our minds off the Ph.D. and use it on something else we enjoy. I like to paint. I usually give my paintings away as gifts. I find it curious how when I work in science, often, despite following the protocol perfectly, I will not get the result I want. However, when I paint, despite the number of mistakes I make, or how carefree I am about the process, I’ll still end up with something that brings me and the people around me joy. And for those few moments, my mind can rest.

Sunset at the Cycle Home

During the first interview I had with my PI – Dr. Donal O’Gorman – he asked me to tell him my weaknesses. I was caught off guard. I had nothing to say. I was trained to always speak positively of myself, and personify confidence in interviews and while talking to superiors. When I started my programme, I very quickly learned that pretending that I could do everything on my own was going to help no one. Now, I try and discuss with him as much as I can, and I think that dynamic has helped me immensely to understand what is and can be expected of me. It’s important however to recognise that there are

Messy Life

institutions like this one, and PI’s like mine, that actively try to break the cycle and organise programmes in a way that will help the students’ progress. I would like to urge that professionals in academia take a hard look at the literature and try and evolve their techniques to increase productivity and decrease the number of people who drop out of the programme. I would also like to urge the people pursuing Ph.D. programmes to remember that the next few years will be hard, and it’s important to take control of this situation. Be aware of your weaknesses and your strengths and keep them on standby at all times.