It seems like a lifetime ago that I was just starting my PhD, but it wasn’t. It was only a year ago. Fresh off the Masters, I was so excited to finally be running my own research project. Having spent the last four years reading countless books by countless historians I was now one step closer to becoming one.
I still remember my first couple of weeks vividly. The emotional swing of finding your feet in a new environment, a more academically challenging environment, can be tough. But, once you’ve ridden those waves, it’s also an extremely rewarding and valuable experience.
Once you’ve received an acceptance letter (and maybe even some funding) you’ll feel on top of the world. “I’ve made it”, you’ll shout!
As you crack open your books for the first time since you got the news, you’ll start to feel like a real academic.
This will hit you about a week before your first day. After having spent the summer strutting around, the PhD is about to become a reality. While you can’t wait to get in there and grab a desk, a little voice in the back of your mind is probably feeding you some terrifying ‘what if’ questions.
What if my supervisor hates me; what if I don’t get on with anyone; what if I just kind of suck?
In your first meeting your supervisor will probably ask you all sorts of questions about the direction of your project and will offer suggestions that you may not have considered. While that’s a good thing, alarm bells might go off in your head telling you you’re not prepared. Those bells are a fun little thing called imposter syndrome and, unfortunately, you’ll probably feel it a lot in the first month or so.
With that newfound panic and confusion over what it is you’re really doing, you might start to feel a little inadequate. If you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll end up in an office space full of third years and will feel like a very small fish in an extremely large pond of fast typists and busy people.
When all you do is read all day, you start to feel a little unproductive.
On the bright side, once you start reading and getting to grasp with your chosen field the ideas will start flowing, and the book pile will start growing. This can feel a little overwhelming, as surely you can’t possibly read all that! But you can, and you will, even if you skim some (or a lot) of it.
Finding a good work schedule can be difficult. You may relate to this, or you may not, but when you are quite literally reading all day, it can be difficult to get that nine to five in. My brain just couldn’t push past 3:30, it just seemed to melt! No words were going in and no notes were coming out! I felt lazy. But, unsurprisingly, the human brain is not made to read that much in a day, and your tolerance will grow with time. After asking around, many others seemed to have taken shorter days in their first year or had longer lunch breaks just to allow their brain to switch off and restart.
That isn’t to say you can just kick back and relax in your first year. Figure out what works for you and if you’re making good progress then don’t beat yourself up over going home one hour early. If the information isn’t going in, there’s no use forcing it.
After you’ve settled in a bit and had a couple of supervisor meetings, things will start to look up. If you decided to embark on a PhD, it’s safe to assume that you love your subject and you love research. Well, now you’re really doing it! The more you learn, the more your ideas will flow and that’s the most exciting part in my opinion.
As you start to get to know other PhD students a bit more, you’ll come to realise you’re all in the same boat. That emotional rollercoaster you’ve just been on has been experienced by almost everyone. As you talk about your experience with other first years, and get advice from upper years, you’ll feel more like you belong.
This may not be a real emotion, but you will definitely feel it. Once you start finding your feet your friends, family, family friends, neighbours, and maybe even the local busy body from back home will all start to ask what it is you actually do. When you’re met with that blank stare of confusion as you try to explain, it’s almost guaranteed you will be asked the dreaded question of why ? Unfortunately, ‘because I love it’ never seems to be a good enough reason.
Once more, as your project changes and develops over time, you’ll have to fill them in again, and again. . . and again.
Finally, after a couple of months you’ll have settled in.
You should be comfortable chatting to your supervisor, have made some new friends, and your family will still have no idea what it is you do. You are officially living the PhD dream.
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Looking for the STEM perspective on starting a PhD? In this blog, Marcus shares some of his first experiences as a PhD student.
From the right mentality to a good idea, we've collected a number of things you're going to need to succeed in your PhD.
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