The PhD as an Exercise in Stoicism…

…by Theoklitos / from Greece / studying PhD Precision Medicine / 3rd Year

In this short essay, I would like to talk about the way in which stoicism is both a skill required to thrive (and survive) during a PhD project, but also a mindset which naturally evolves through all the hardships you face in that time.

Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating in Ancient Greece and Rome, with prominent philosophers including Zeno, Epicurus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. It has recently gained popularity in business and tech circles, e.g., in Silicon Valley, with high-profile mainstream media advocates including Ryan Holiday (through his books, The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and his YouTube channel The Daily Stoic) and Tim Ferriss, often featuring guests and issues related to stoicism in his podcast.

For many, stoicism evokes either images of Highland “coos”, enduring torrents of rain and gusts of wind while patiently going about their business of digesting their food for the 16th time, or ideas of emotionally flat, humourless men in dark robes. However, I understand stoicism in a different and, perhaps, simpler way: having an internal locus of control. This means focusing on the aspects of our existence which are under our immediate control and not dwelling on the multitudes that are not. It seems clear that a sure way to make anyone unhappy is to strip them of any agency, making them essentially a prisoner, a mere observer or passenger in their life. Equivalently, it is sometimes enough to focus on the things we can control to imbue our lives with some meaning, arbitrary as that might be (see Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl).

For example, instead of relying on other people’s behaviour (which, as Marcus Aurelius comments in his Meditations, is often “meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial”) for our wellbeing, we can focus on our own responses to any negative behaviour. This is as true now of labmates and supervisors as it was of Plebeians and Patricians. Instead of expecting everyone around us to be always helpful and kind to us (which is as much a sign of optimism as it is of entitlement), we might as well spend our time cultivating in us coping mechanisms to allow us to respond to unkindness with grace and poise.

On another level, it is easy for us – PhD students, but also any other people within or without academia as far as I’m aware – to become attached to the outcome of our latest experiment, the submission of a manuscript or a funding proposal, or our academic career in general. We often forget that the outcome is something we cannot directly control. However, if I read the literature thoroughly, plan my experiments in a principled, hypothesis-driven way, and conduct them with great attention to detail and without cutting any corners (each, a step that I can control myself), then the outcome of my experiments is very likely to be of value. Iterating this process (with some additional steps –scientific writing, networking etc.) will take care of all the outcomes I am interested in.  However, there has to be a shift in focus from the goal (the paper, the grant, the tenure), which relies on many factors outside of our influence, to the process (conducting experiments properly, reading and understanding the literature, structuring an experimental plan, leading a lab) which we dictate.

How then do we achieve this equanimity in the face of adversity? How do we cultivate this particular kind of focus to the controllable factors of our lives? I believe that some of the ways below might be helpful:

  • Realising that no matter what happens (with very few exceptions), we will be ok. Didn’t get into your desired PhD programme? There are countless others, you will be accepted somewhere (speaking from personal experience). Did you fail your PhD? Life certainly does not end outside of academia and your personal worth is not tied to two letters before your name (or three after it – wink).
  • Having other interests, hobbies, pursuits other than your PhD project. If a table has only one leg to stand on, it’s easy to get all wobbly once that leg becomes damaged. It’s easier to remain upright once you derive meaning from a few different places in your life, so that any one of them has a relatively small influence on your wellbeing.
  • Having a strong support network of people around you. This is related to the previous point, and I think it requires little explanation, but suffice it to say that facing any kind of adversity becomes much easier when you can share the load with loved ones. In addition to friends and family, you can always turn to support in the form of counselling/therapy, in which a trained professional could help you develop resilience to outside events and regulation of your emotional states.
  • Becoming familiar with (repeated) failure and incremental progress. Three examples come to mind: Mindfulness meditation, where, if you try to follow your breath for any length of time, you quickly realise that your mind repeatedly wanders off and you have to bring your attention back to the breath again and again; programming, which, in my experience at least, is a very iterative process, with the final code looking almost nothing like the first attempts; climbing, in which you’ll also face many failed attempts and very small steps of progress in between if you’re climbing close to your current limit. It doesn’t of course have to be any of these activities for everyone but having a recurring process of trial and error would be an essential component in my opinion.
  • Remembering that one day you too will die. This is the meaning of memento mori, which is one of the central stoic principles. Suspended between one void and the next, what else can we do during this brief glimpse in-between other than the best we can with what we have been given? Any resentment for our fate or complaint about our current situation only serves to harm us, since no one else is responsible for making the best of our lives*.

As a conclusion, I believe that the principles of stoicism (of which I’ve mostly highlighted the focus on the directly controllable aspects of our lives) are both necessary for a healthy and successful time in your studies and work in academia, and also a mindset that arises naturally during this time as an optimal modus operandi in this environment.

* Which is not to say that what has happened to you is your fault. There is a distinction between fault and responsibility, in that the former is concerned with past causality, whereas the latter looks towards present and future actions.

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