It certainly does not seem like nine months have passed since I was excitedly tweeting about my first official day as a PhD student.
I was so excited to start that day that my body woke itself up at 4:30am, and I ended up going out for a spontaneous 7km run in the dark to wear myself out.
Now I’m lucky if I can manage to make time for a 7km run.
It recently occurred to me, though, that even though my life has been taken over by this PhD, I am so grateful to be where I am right now. For the first time in my life, I am living in a town where I can look up and see stars on a nightly basis. I am surrounded by friends and colleagues who are supportive, smart, and fun. I am excited about my research and have a knack for getting other people excited about it too.
This is not to say that the year has not been full of struggles. There have been a few personal issues. My brain sometimes hurts from thinking too much. I need to start saying no to things. This is why, as my first year as a PhD student rapidly approaches its end, I’ve decided to take some time to reflect on what’s gone well, what’s gone not-so-well, and what I’ve learned about being an academic and being myself.
For ease of reading, this reflection will take a ‘Things You Should Know About the First Year of Your PhD’ format. Y’all know how much I love a good reflection post. Learn from me, grasshoppers. Don’t give into the man(tis). Give (crick)it your all.
Actually, now that we’re on an insect roll, I may as well accompany my advice with some insect-related GIFs. Ant you so glad that your reading this right now?
Here y’all are. Things you should know going into the first year of your PhD:
You don’t know as much as you think you do.
Sure, you wrote that half decent project proposal that got you your PhD studentship offer in the first place. Good for you – you go, Glen(n?) Coco. But a proposal does not an expert make.
By the end of your PhD, hopefully you’ll be somewhat of an expert in your very niche subject area, but you are definitely not there during the first year of your PhD. If you are there, maybe you should re-evaluate why you are doing a PhD in the first place.
To grow as an academic (and as a person), you need people to tell you how wrong you are sometimes. You need people to say, ‘you know what? That doesn’t sound right. Read these forty articles and then come back to me.’
You don’t know as much as you think you do, and that’s okay. Accept it. Only once you get a grasp on all the things you don’t know can you begin filling in those intellectual gaps and making your meaningful contribution to the academic conversation.
You will fail a lot.
No amount of warning can prepare you for this failure. It will come when you least expect it. A sense of failure may descend upon you at a random and seemingly-untriggered time. It really sucks.
What’s worse is that it will often seem like you are the only one failing. Your peers will all be ~flourishing~ and getting publications and dashing around the country presenting at conferences, and you will be left alone to sit in your office and listen to Aqua as you internally weep.
Reach out to people. If you’re not comfortable talking about your feelings, that’s fine – sometimes just taking a break and grabbing a coffee with a friend can get you in a more positive mindset.
If nothing seems to get you out of your rut, though, don’t be afraid to seek help from the professional services available at your institution. Most universities have counselling services, mental health teams, and/or GPs that you can turn to if you’re feeling especially off. These people may be able to suggest some coping mechanisms that may work best for you or, if you feel it’s the right choice for you, medications that can get you through your rough patches.
You’ll put a lot of work into things that don’t seem to get you anywhere.
You’re going to spend a lot of time digressing: researching things that initially seem oh-so-important but eventually turn out to be dead ends. Sometimes it may even be your supervisory team or a knowledgeable peer who recommends what turns out to be a dead end.
Don’t get mad. Get even. (Just kidding!)
It happens. At least now you know that it’s a dead end.
Return to where you were before your digression. Choose a new direction, now knowing that the way you already explored didn’t help you as much as you thought it did.
That said, keep those notes you made during your digression. You never know if they’ll come in handy in the future.
Celebrate your achievements (however small they may be).
Found a source that perfectly supports your argument? Woohoo!
Had a colleague compliment you on that low-key presentation you made to your research group? Go you!
Wrote some killer minutes for your last supervisory meeting? Nothing can stand in your way!
Sometimes you can go months without getting any recognition from anyone for your hard work. It sucks, especially if you (like me) are someone who feeds off other people’s energy and is motivated by external praise.
Give yourself a compliment every once in a while. Take a step back from your work and make a list of al the kick-ass things you’ve achieved in the past few weeks. Get excited, even about the little things.
You’re doin’ it!
Remember that you have a team behind you.
There will be days where you sit in your office with no one to keep you company but the little Microsoft Word Paperclip (does that thing still exist?). The ‘oh crap, a PhD can actually be pretty lonely’ feeling can set in when you realise that there’s really no one to talk to about your research because you’re the one in your department with the most subject knowledge. You may just want someone to chat with as you both drink that horrible instant coffee someone keeps leaving in your office.
People aren’t always going to be there when you need them, because they don’t always know when you need them.
Reach out to anyone who can give you the kind of support you need when you need it. If you’re having an academic issue, consider your supervisory team or a member of staff. If you’re freaking out about your eventual career prospects, your university’s Careers Office is there to offer guidance. If you just want to have a quick chat about your day, strike up a casual conversation with another PhD student in your office or wherever else you may find spare PhD students lurking.
Try your best not to forget that all of these people want you to succeed. Put most crudely, it’s in your university’s and supervisors’ best interest that you write some killer material and graduate on time. It’s in your friends’ best interest that you are happy and therefore able to provide them with some support when they need it. Plus, you know, people care about you, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Give it time. You will get there (wherever there is).
It’s funny how slowly things can seem to move when you’re living through them, and yet when you look back time has actually flown by.
Enjoy the slowness.
Savour the slowness.
Appreciate the digressions and the don’t forget to be gentle with yourself when things don’t go accoding to plan.
You may not know where there is, but you will get to where you need to be eventually.
Can I give my TED Talk now?