Timelines? A thing of the past

“I’m so late!” “I have to be at the office at 9am” “My lunch break ends in 10 minutes, let’s hurry up!”. Timelines are the backbones of life. We always seem to be chasing time, trying to catch up on the day’s activities. These timelines keep us in line and it’s important to adhere to them, EXCEPT for your personal timeline, the one that reflects your goals, milestones and growth.

Personal timelines don’t really exist, yet somehow, we’re convinced that we’re getting “too old for…” or “too old to start…”. Who is keeping track? Is there someone out there keeping a tab on each and everyone one of us? Or perhaps comparing our journeys, “Tee started reading at the age of 4 years, but Jay started at 3 years 11 months, so Jay is in the lead!”. Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? And although it does, YOU still do it. You look in the mirror and say, “She’s my age yet she’s already married with 2 kids”, or perhaps, “She’s my age and she’s already achieved most of her career goals” and we start to convince ourselves that “time is running out”.

If you’ve read my previous blog post, you already know who I’m going to blame for this concept of life’s timelines: SOCIETY (duh!). But this time it’s more than just society, it’s about our friendship circles, the people who we live with and love, and the type of behaviour and environment that we’re exposed to. Different families have different expectations of their relatives. For example, some families expect their daughters to be married straight after graduation (high school or university), while others expect them to move out of the house by 21 and hold a stable job. But at the end of the day, life happens, and this affects your personal timeline. And since we all don’t live the same life, we cannot expect to have the same timeline.

YOUR timeline doesn’t have to coincide with THEIR timeline. Look at me, I’m a 25 old, who is still studying towards a degree, with no actual job experience, living at home with my parents, and yes, I am eating their food and driving their car. It seems like I am way off my timeline, people around this age are now getting promotions, getting married, having kids, taking luxury vacations, or even relocating to other countries. Here I am, still enjoying the fruits of my parents’ labour (relax, they love it, and they love having me in their house!).

That’s the thing about timelines. Although it’s so easy to compare yourself to what YOU think life should be like at a certain age, you miss out on some of the gems that you have/experienced at this age that most people haven’t. For example, I may be 25 and studying, but I’m also 25 with 3 degrees, studying towards my 4th, I’m also 25 with almost 5 years of scientific research experience. I’m also 25 with no debt. I’m also a 25-year-old who works with cancer drugs and cells. I’m also a 25-year-old…. And the list can go on.

This applies to almost every facet of life, whether it’s career, love, marriage, opportunity or perhaps something else. Your timeline shouldn’t be looked at with disappointment it should be looked at with hope. For example, instead of feeling down that you’re 28 and still trying to figure out your career path, you should feel hopeful that you’ve had years of experience with skills that can be used as stepping stones in your next career move, tell me who else has all those valuable skills? I know of several people who did not follow society’s timeline, yet they are just as or even more successful than those who did. Some of them took longer to get their first job or degree, but are now content and well off, while some of them took much longer to find the right partner, but are now happily married.

Personal timelines do not exist. Take your time and enjoy the experience you’re having, most likely, you’ll still end up at the same, if not a better place than you thought. Be happy for those who are “on-track” without feeling sorry for yourself. At the end of the day, whether you’re ahead of the team, or the last one running, there will always be someone cheering you on and someone who “boos” you. Your only focus should be on making it to the finish line, it’s not a timed race.

The pressure experienced through a PhD

I am almost a year into this very important phase of my life, my doctorate. Although I never underestimated the process, I also didn’t anticipate it to be quite as mentally taxing as it has been. A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with my friend who is at the University of Johannesburg about her Ph.D. journey. Besides the usual struggles of lab experiments not going as planned and the piles of desk work, she expressed how pressured she has felt throughout the entire two years of her degree. I thought it was humorous because I’m going through the same situation. I feel a range of unspoken pressures among my colleagues: the pressure of excellence; the pressure of knowledge; the pressure of keeping it together; the pressure of the workload; the pressure of feeling like you know nothing but are expected to know a lot; the pressures from the feeling of imposter syndrome, and the exhaustion.

This is one of the things experienced by most Ph.D. candidates, if not all,  and can lead to serious mental breakdowns, or even dropping out. During a chat with another friend in the Free State last year, I asked him casually ‘how work has been?’. I was taken aback by his answer as he told me he decided to take a break for a year. I was surprised because I knew him to be a resilient person. He told me that he could not cope anymore and that he had spoken to his supervisor who understood and let him have the break he asked for.

While we may all be facing different difficulties and are often told we have to fight through the journey, the truth is the ending is more fulfilling than the process. I would like to give just a few coping mechanisms to use when one goes through this, these are things that have helped me so far;

Try therapy

One of my colleagues here at UKZN spoke about therapy to me and I am pleased to say I have started my sessions. Most universities offer free counseling sessions to the students and we really should make use of it. The journey can be extremely stressful, and we all need help. Going to therapy does not mean that you are weak or less of who you are. It means you recognize that you need to speak to someone, and the person might even help you cope with your stress and any mental health problems you have. People studying in the UKZN in the faculty of science can use this link https://caes-ukzn.bookem.com/?lid=https://caes-ukzn.bookem.com/?lid=.

Plan your work

I have found planning my work to be very important in being productive. When I do not plan my work, I see no progress in anything that I do. Planning helps us narrow down the goal and give it a higher chance of being executed.

Understand that you may not know everything

We sometimes put ourselves under so much pressure of being a library of knowledge and not allowing ourselves not to know. Pause, slow down, and be teachable. You do not know everything, that is the reason you are doing research. There will always be some researcher somewhere through a paper that teaches you something new with your research. That is the beauty of research, if you know everything then, there is no need to research more because then what you are doing is exhausted.

Create networks and remain teachable

We have research groups and colleagues to speak to and help us navigate our research. Yes, we should not be spoon-fed but we should sometimes put our ego aside and just ask. What may seem difficult to you might be a hurdle someone crossed and conquered. Create a network of people, ranging from those you met at conferences to those found in the corridors of your institution for such and build relationships with these people. Some people even form collaborations through this network while others even find co-supervisors. We just have to be open and receptive to be teachable.

Have an outlet

A visiting professor from the USA recently gave a talk to postgraduates in our department and spoke about having an outlet for themselves. I found it profound especially coming from a professor. We all have different interests besides our academics. Maybe during the weekend pursue those, write if you can, paint, sing, start a podcast or even join a cooking class. Find something creative and who knows, it might help you become more creative in your research.

In the end, the diamond became a valuable stone after all the high temperature and pressure otherwise it would have been a ball of carbon atoms. The journey is worth it in the end, focus on the goal but treat the process with delicacy and respect.