This autumn in Cambridge the weather has been rather kind. The trees around the College have been spectacular, reminding me of fall in New England, and until recently cycling has been possible without any sort of jacket as opposed to the layers of waterproofs normally requisite for this time of year. All this makes me recall my very first year in Cambridge, possibly these thoughts additionally prompted not just by the time of year but by the newness of my home, my surroundings, colleagues and tasks.
Arriving at university is momentous, an abrupt shift with the past particularly if one is leaving home for the first time. Finding one’s feet should be invigorating and inspiring. My memories are of looking around and wondering which of the freshers I saw on the street would be up for thoughtful chats about life, the universe and everything (although that particular phrase had not yet been coined, that was very much the sentiment). Who would I sit up with late at night dissecting the state of society and the rights and wrongs of a collegiate university? Or, more mundanely, was there anyone who understood the lectures and could help me grapple with the Cavendish Problems set that week for my supervision work? (If you’re unfamiliar with this it’s a slim tome full of mind-bendingly challenging if deceptively short little problems for physicists, created by Brian Pippard and colleagues.) Standing on the threshold as it were, life feels full of possibilities and opportunities; as long as this mood lasts, the sunshine is glorious and one is free and independent.
The trouble is that golden moment cannot last forever. The wind changes (my memory of cycling in and out from Girton was that it was always in my face, although this may be meteorologically improbable), the rain falls and the clouds descend upon the soul as well as the fens. At that point, one is liable to feel, not that the world is full of possibility but that it is full of impossible challenges. Suddenly, it isn’t that one hopes to find the soulmate with whom to solve the Cavendish problems, one simply hopes not to make a complete idiot of oneself for failing to do the work. Or worse, failing even to create the time to attempt the work because one has been seduced by too many new if irrelevant activities, such as joining the university’s Tiddlywink Club; yes there really is one and no I never joined. One no longer wants to sit up all night having sparkling conversations, one merely desperately wants sleep.
Sixth week blues (as it is known at least in this university) is common. I won’t say it is ubiquitous but it is a sign of coming down from a high to the realisation one still has responsibilities of a mundane kind, that eating fast food on the fly and consuming too much alcohol tends to reduce immunity to infection and that you are at university for a reason which does not include excessive use of Facebook to organise one’s social life (or playing endless games of tiddlywinks). Then the gloom can take over, maybe accompanied by a dash of impostor syndrome – what am I doing here? – or simply terror.
For a PhD student I think typically the blues set in a bit later, early in the second term. I know that’s what happened to me, a shocking thump of reality which sent me reeling. By then, you know what you’re meant to be doing (I would hope), but you probably don’t know how to do it. However smart you are, experimentally you are probably still a novice, possibly even a klutz. Things simply don’t work at the first, or even the ninth time of asking. There is no doubt that, although you may think you are absolutely following instructions, things are not always going to go to plan. It’s distressing. I’d assume there are theoretical/computational analogues to the experimental klutz situation, which I will leave the reader to fill in.
Blues can seem just as overwhelming as that first feeling of exhilaration upon arrival. They can be paralysing in their effect, which only serves to reinforce negative feelings. But they are also so common as to be almost normal. It is important for freshers to know their feelings of inadequacy and incompetence stem not necessarily from inadequacy and incompetence but from the cyclical way we tackle challenges. Knowing these feelings are common makes it easier to overcome. For some, the problems may indeed be more deep-rooted and if the feelings persist some external help should be sought. But, when sitting cowering under a duvet unwilling to face the winds of scary personal responsibility and actions as well as those billowing in from the East, it is important to distinguish reaction to a fresh start (accompanied by reaction to early excitements) from genuine depression and distress.