how to support a person doing a PhD , Ana's Bananas blog

How to support a person in your life who is (crazy enough to be) doing a PhD

Doing a PhD is a great life experience and a true love that can end in bitterness and divorce – or at least go through one hell of a rough patch. If your PhD went smoothly, you don’t need this post – go enjoy your life you crazy genius!! If you are anyone else, as a PhD researcher myself, with many beloved PhDs around me, I have noticed a thing or two that might be helpful for anyone wanting to support a person in their life who is (crazy enough to be) doing a PhD.

I have been the PhD supporter and the supported. Neither is super fun but both have their perks! Let’s get started!

What is a PhD?

A PhD is a pretty hot diploma. It’s the highest academic degree one can obtain and involves performing original (clinical/laboratory/fieldwork/literature) research.

It makes you a *real* scientist (cue: uuuu… aaaahhh).

It’s like writing a thesis for a Master’s degree, but then a 1000 times harder, plus you don’t know when it will end, how you will get through it or what will happen along the way.

    • it’s poorly structured
    • it’s not well organized
    • you have no idea where you are going
    • but if you get there: you have prevailed a PhD!

You have to be accepting of the fact that anything might change or nothing might go as you planned (but you have to keep planning all the time).

It calls for continuous and constant determination and perseverance, even when you have no idea what the hell you’re doing.

Why do people do a PhD?

Because they’re crazy, that’s why.

No, but for real. Most people choose to do a PhD because they care about science and want to learn a lot. There’s a big amount of curiosity and willpower going on.

I chose to do a PhD because I am passionate about the topic of healthy ageing and healthy living. I think we need way more health in our health care system. I wanted to learn to set up clinical studies so that I could perform research on topics I care about (and I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of other studies on health and disease).

Some people might do it for the degree (you get to put dr. in front of your name, although if this is the only reason I’m really not sure if it’s worth it).

In the medical world, people sometimes do a PhD because they think it increases their chances of getting a good clinical position. In the science world, sometimes people choose to do a PhD because they don’t know what else is out there.

Either way, the fact remains that for every 5 PhD researchers, there is only 1 post-doctoral spot. So, most people will get out of research by the time they are done with their PhD.

This means that doing a PhD is a unique opportunity to learn everything you can about becoming an independent scientist and to gain great in-depth knowledge on a certain subject.

Why are PhDs so hard?

I don’t know. You would think it would not be that hard. You’ve got a highly motivated, dedicated person + big, undiscovered topic. What could be a better match?

1+1=2, right?

Well, not really. In reality, PhD research means spending a lot of time in solitude with your topic, chronic stress under a deadline that lasts for years and keeps on hanging over your shoulders, and possible disputes with colleagues, competitors or supervisors. Add to that a lot of time spent finding funding, a lot of time chasing your supervisor for their time and attention, and a lot of the time not having any idea what you are doing (not me, of course ;)).

However, I also believe that the dedication that PhD researchers have is exactly what makes a PhD so hard. See, I found this great chart: it shows that people who are invested and driven, are the people who will work hard – but also suffer the most if things don’t go according to plan. On the other hand, people who are not so invested, are not really going to care a lot if things fail.

As a PhD researcher, you are invested and you care. A lot.

So when things don’t go as planned, it’s devastating. But the only way out is through: you’ve got to stick with it, go through the dark tunnel, and find the light on the end of it.

Of course, in the process, you become that cranky friend who is always complaining about their PhD and no one wants to hang out with you anymore (slightly dramatic – but not even too far off from the truth, haha).

But, things will get better, just hang in there.


So, how can you support someone you love who is doing a PhD?


“Is your PhD finished yet?”

Avatar: The Last Airbender' theory solves a hilarious Aang mystery

Do not ask this question to a PhD researcher. This is basic PhD support group 101.

We are working on it and we feel responsible enough as it is. We wish it was done, but it’s not. Please don’t remind us and let us do our thing. When it’s finished, we will let you know.

Imagine a PhD researcher like one tiny person with a huge circular aura full of junk around them. At all times (whether we eat, sleep or work), we carry information with us in this heavy junk aura about literature, our supervisor’s availability, competitor’s publications, grant application deadlines, conference registration deadlines, membership fee deadlines, the problematic fact that we still have so much left to do, trying to squeeze in a holiday with loved ones, and everything else. A PhD goes on in your head 24/7, it’s not like a regular job that you leave at work and come home (to freedom?).

So, chances are, we probably feel enough pressure without you asking us about it. When we see you, it’s nice to talk about and focus on something else!

(But if you really think we are taking too long, send us a link to this awesome website I found and have been using for 3 years: 😉 Thanks Dora, you’re awesome!)

“If it’s not finished yet, when will it be finished?”

Noooooo. Please don’t ask us this either. We wish we knew, but we don’t. It suuuucks, we know.

Imagine you are doing the most demanding thing you have ever done in your life. Now imagine someone is constantly asking you: are you done yet? That’s what a lot of PhD students get. People somehow act like we have power over how fast our PhD gets done.

Ha! Have you met our supervisor who takes 6 weeks to reply? Have you tried to get something printed when you need to send it in two months in advance? Have you tried to publish scientific work that gets scrutinized and needs editing over and over again? Or experienced the agony of trying to find a date for different professors to meet at the same time? It’s like you are a bright scientist, an amazing writer and a skilled secretary all in one.


We have tried to predict a date. But, life threw us a curveball. Now we are still here and we don’t dare to predict anything anymore. We’re just trying to move forward as fast as we can and get it done.

Understand the person you are dealing with

We are driven, demanding and high-achieving. We do not like to fail. By definition, this is the truth about PhD researchers.

We are going places. It might not seem like it now, because we are cranky and have grey hairs in our 30s, and haven’t seen daylight in weeks – but we are going places.

We are critical thinkers who are invested in science and determined to learn to be independent researchers.

After the PhD, no professional challenge in life will be an obstacle, because we have seen it all – from high-pressure environments, to completely having to rely on your self, to working around the clock.

We are resilient freaks who can get through anything!

We will contribute to our future work-environment with vigour, grace and determination!

Stick with us and good things will come!

Do not give advice on science unless you are also a scientist

“Hey, have you tried, you know, researching your topic and writing it down?”

Facepalm - TV Tropes

Yes, we have tried that.

“Have you tried concentrating really hard?”

Yes, we have tried that.

If you are not a scientist, the chances are that for your PhD friend it’s going to be a little frustrating to hear your advice on what they should do. We are probably already pretty demanding of ourselves and have tried different solutions. It might be a conversation you don’t want to get into (we might get angry at you, or even worse: we might end up getting totally into it and bore you with details of our work).

Of course, we should have listened to your advice when you told us not to do a PhD in the first place, but it’s too late for that now, isn’t it? Hahaha =)

Realise that PhD researchers are often overwhelmed

In the intricate network of planning and science going on in our head, things can get a little overwhelming sometimes. Also, sometimes you are left to go at it all alone, depending on the skill set of your supervisors and colleagues.

And when things get overwhelming, we tend to get paralyzed. We binge Netflix or suddenly really get into sewing in the middle of the day. In the back of our mind, the questions circulate: what should we do first? Where do we start? What can we get done fastest? In which order? Etc, etc.

I’ve found a simple and elegant solution – this list I turn to when I feel overwhelmed:

    • Relax your shoulders
    • Take a deep breath x 3
    • Reconnect to why
    • Take a break
    • Adjust your schedule
    • List top 3 priorities
    • Ask for help

Take us for ice cream and nice activities

See, we need sunlight and nutrition, just like plants. Please provide us with it regularly and freely. We will sometimes forget to do it ourselves and will appreciate it coming from a trusted friend.

We might seem zoned out because our brain is heavy with our PhD work, but we will snap out of it eventually.

Take us on holiday!

Huh, what? But we can’t go on holiday for years, we’re doing a PhD!

WRONG. We might not see it, and our supervisors might not want it, but we NEED to take a holiday.

It will make us think better, stronger, faster – and might just help us realise how stressed we were, to begin with.

The thing about stress is that – once you are really in it – you cannot see it anymore. And if people around you are stressed too, they can’t see it anymore either. So, it’s important under chronically stressful conditions such as doing a PhD, to plan breaks and take them no matter what.

Anticipate the half-way point

Before I started my PhD, everyone I knew who had done a PhD had warned me about the half-way point.

It’s like the Bermuda triangle of PhDs – you think you are going places and have your stuff figured out, and then all of a sudden you realise you are not as awesome as you thought and you get stuck – and you start thinking “why am I doing this PhD, what was I thinking?”

Currently under the clouds...

The half-way point is that major puddle of water. It’s when things get complicated and you realise you’re lost. The first half was hard, but you’ve still got a whole second half to go! Omg.

Of course, at some point you really did love your PhD, so that feeling must still be somewhere there.

The solution to this half-way point problem is simple.

Anticipate that the half-way point will come and that you will get through it.

For me, it meant that when a (crazy Indian) friend called me on the beginning of my PhD and asked if I wanted to go to India with her and 30 other people in two years time, I said – YES, because this would be half-way down my PhD, and I already knew that whatever happens, at the half-way point I was going to be on holiday.

Plan a big trip, a getaway, a month off, a new experience or whatever else that you know will be exciting for you, and plan it at your (friend’s) PhD half-way point. That way, no matter what happens, you have a beautiful thing coming up! If your PhD is going horrible, you have a beautiful non-work related experience to enjoy and savour. And if your PhD is going great, what better way to celebrate than with a fun adventure on the half-way point ;).

Intrinsically motivate

Do what?

Intrinsically motivate your friend to work on the PhD. It’s simple.

Usually, people will say: you should work hard on your PhD. Just get this little thing done today. You should enjoy how much you are learning. You should be happy you don’t have a real job (haha, yes people sometimes actually say that). If you get this paper done today, I will take you for ice cream (not a bad motivator, I must admit).

All of that is extrinsic motivation. You are telling them what to do and how to do it.

It’s not ineffective, but you haven’t seen nothing until you unleash the power of intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsically motivating is reminding someone why they do what they do, and how they want to do it. It unleashes the power of one’s own dedication to the project and the dream they want to achieve.

I accidentally got intrinsically motivated by a friend’s cousin during their (friend’s) PhD defence drinks. The cousin asked me what I did, and I told her I research healthy ageing in a clinical setting. She asked me: why?

I had to think back to my motivation to start with the project. How passionate I was and how eager I was to learn about people from long-lived families, to work with nurses, to learn to set up my own clinical trials. How I wanted to contribute to health! And to learn to perform my own studies about health and disease. And to really get into the scientific world!

And suddenly my enthusiasm came waaaay back!

To intrinsically motivate your friend ask them these questions:

    • Why do you do what you do?
    • What motivated you in the first place?
    • What do you need right now to feel good long-term?
    • How can you get out of it what you want to get out of it?
    • Which things are most interesting to you?
    • What do you love about this subject?

You get the idea. It’s about not telling someone what to do, but about reminding them what they love about what they are doing.

If we disagree with our supervisor, do not take their side

I mean, hello?

A PhD researcher-supervisor relationship is…. complex. Interdependent. Challenging. Beautiful. Horrible.

The worst part is that every researcher loves their supervisor and wants to get along with them in the beginning. Then the hard-knock PhD life comes along, and you realize they are even crazier than you thought (no offence to PhD supervisors all around haha oops… what have I done ;)).

Some PhD supervisors are amazing scientists, but not so great people-people. Other times, the supervisors have a lot on their own plate, what with all the grant applications and dealing with their own boss. Sometimes, supervisors are just a little tired of yet another PhD student whining their way through life.

Either way, to support your PhD friend, do not get in the cross-hairs between them and their supervisor. Take their side. Support their side. Never stray from their side. It’s the only right thing to do.

World peace will ensue. You will be loved.

Encourage the PhD researcher to take charge of their life

At all times, a PhD researcher needs to embrace the fact that they are their own boss. No one can make them do their work. They are the ones who have to do it.

I always tell myself: “The PhD is not going to write itself.”

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that because of working in teams, or because of working in solitude. But we are actually responsible for getting it all done.

As a friend of a PhD researcher, it’s a good idea to empower and encourage your PhD-doing friend: they are smart, they are wise, they are capable!

If all else fails, find out what the minimum requirements are, and help them get that shizzle done and out of the way!

Don’t push, point

Sometimes PhD researchers get stuck. Don’t be the one to push them to work harder, PhD researchers already have a supervisor and they don’t need one at home.

To help a PhD researcher who is stuck, point them in the right direction by asking questions like:

    • what happened and what is the problem?
    • is this something you can solve yourself or do you need help?
    • did this happen before and how can you create a sustainable solution?
    • who could help you the most right now?
    • how can you get this person to help?
    • is there something else that’s forming a big obstacle?
    • how can you deal with that obstacle best?
    • what do you need from me/how can I help you?

You can totally be supportive by holding the PhD-friend accountable (if they asked you to) for doing things they said they were going to do. But, if they haven’t managed to do what they said they would, it’s far more important to ask what their obstacle was than to push them to work harder.

Help point them forward when they are stuck and their life will become much better :).

Finally, enjoy a PhD researcher’s gratitude

We might not know it now, but when the veil of the PhD is lifted and we get our degree, we will be relieved and we will be happy about all the people we have had around us to support us. You will get cookies, giggles and chocolates.

We’ve just overcome a great hurdle, and you were right there with us!! How amazing is that?!

Just gotta wait a little longer… (if you want to ask how much longer, go back to step 1).


Have a great week my beautiful health-loving freaks and see you next time!



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