Why doing a PhD is like gathering mushrooms

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The author with her gathered mushrooms. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olypus Digital Camera

People in Russia love to go mushroom gathering. In the autumn months especially, people head out in droves to their out-of-town small holdings (dachas) in the evenings and weekends. Equipped with buckets or baskets, a pocket knife, and plenty of tacit knowledge about how to distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ mushrooms picked up over the years from their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, and others, they head off into nearby woods and grassland.

One September when I was in Russia, I was invited by a friend to join her and some friends on one of their mushroom-gathering expeditions just outside Moscow.

Here are four reasons why I think that gathering mushrooms is a process similar to writing a PhD.

1. Both activities demand effort and concentration

Just as you have to focus on the ground in front of you to find mushrooms and then identify whether the mushrooms are of the edible kind, so too with a PhD.

2. You need to persevere

Don’t give up! Finding mushrooms and completing a PhD take time. Both can be frustrating at times. The rewards can be great at the end, so keep sight of the goals!

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Laying out all gathered mushrooms afterwards. Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

3. You have to look carefully in ways and places you would not normally to get desired results

Mushrooms are good at camouflaging with the fallen leaves, dead logs, and soil. Part of the tacit knowledge about mushroom gathering (i.e. the knowledge that is hard to transmit via books or other printed media) is about where different kinds of mushrooms are most likely to be found. Some like to grow on dead logs, others under certain species of trees, and others still under dead leaves.

This photo shows a typical woodland in Moscow region – you can see there are lots of leaves, which might be hiding mushrooms!

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Mushrooms can be really hidden away! Photo: I. Wade (Sep. 2014), taken with an Olympus Digital Camera

4. A solitary activity

Both gathering mushrooms and writing a PhD are essentially solitary activities. Yet it is also true that you are part of a group – whether your friends or family when mushroom-gathering or your PhD cohort in your department or school. Don’t isolate yourselves from these people as they can be an excellent support network: good company, sharing lunch or tea, exchanging advice (for example, about telling the differences between good and poisonous mushrooms), and moral support.

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