The Emotional Labor of Your Ph.D.

Emotional labor is what makes getting your Ph.D. different from many of the other educational experiences you might have had up to this point.

Wikipedia provides a good definition: “Emotional labor is the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.”

The work you produce, in pursuit of your Ph.D., is fundamentally yours in a way that few other things are in college and many other jobs. When you do Research, you are attempting to extend the frontiers of human knowledge. There’s no paved path — you are paving it with the work that you put in every day. There’s no one waiting with an answer sheet. Your advisor is there to help you avoid pitfalls, and to check your work, but even they don’t know what’s on the other side of the fog. If they did, you wouldn’t be doing Research.

Doing something that is fundamentally new, and yours, is daunting. You feel a strong sense of accomplishment when it works, yes, but when it doesn’t? It’s only natural to blame yourself. Of course. It’s your work. And, in my experience, your ideas will fail far more than they might succeed. Why? When we do Research, we make a bet. We take a gamble. Some of our ideas are low-risk bets, others might be high-risk, but they are bets all the same. If it were a sure thing, it would have probably already been done. And it wouldn’t be Research.

If your ideas fail, and you feel a strong sense of ownership over those ideas, it’s only natural to feel like you have failed. This is what leads to the “trough of disillusionment.” The fact that most of your ideas will fail, and that you will have a difficult time disentangling your “self” from your “idea” — that’s why this job demands so much emotional labor.

The emotional labor of processing critical feedback from your advisor.

The emotional labor of motivating ourselves to work through 6–12+ months of uncertainty to see an idea through to completion.

The emotional labor of making sense of yet another paper rejection while reading through Twitter feeds of everyone else’s success.

The emotional labor of talking to others about how your work is going to make a difference, when, sometimes, you think it’s not even worth the scrap paper on which it is written.

The emotional labor of showing up, despite all of this.

After reading my previous post, The Shape of Your Ph.D., someone asked me: “but how do I get through the trough of disillusionment?” I don’t have any hacks to share. I’m sure I could come up with a few if pressed. But all of it would be moot without first committing to put in the emotional labor.

Recognize that processing these feelings of anxiety, sadness, disappointment, yearning — that’s part of the job. It won’t make it easier, but at least you can feel productive while doing so! And then we move forward.

Thanks for reading. If you read this and thought: “whoah, definitely want to be spammed by that guy”, there are three ways to do it:

  1. Follow me on Twitter (spam frequency: daily — weeklyish)
  2. Subscribe to my YouTube channel (spam frequency: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
  3. Subscribe to my mailing list (spam frequency: In Theory? Once a month with links to whatever I’ve written. In Practice? Once a year, when I feel bad.)

You also don’t have to do any of those things, and we will both be fine.

This post is partially inspired by a blog post I read a couple of years ago. That one might be worth a read, too!

Assistant Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.

Assistant Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.