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Posted on 27 Jan '22

The Four Stages of a PhD

The PhD is a long and winding road, full of many ups and downs. While each person has their own unique experience, many of us PhD students go through the same emotional phases brought on by each new academic year. So, if you’re starting a PhD soon then consider this a teaser trailer to the real thing.

Year one: off to see the wizard

Keeping with the trailer theme, there are many famous movie moments that metaphorically embody the first year. You may have guessed by the title, but the Wizard of Oz is certainly the most fitting.

The first week or two feels like a tornado swooped you up and dropped you in a strange land, only this one is full of eccentric academics. With the yellow brick road ahead of you the opportunities are exciting, if not a little overwhelming. Sunshine and friends are balanced with dark forests of confusion but you and the other first-years make it out alive pretty unscathed.

Year two: the second-year slump

The next year is unfortunately less exciting and most PhD students come down with the second-year slump. After settling into your project, the hard work truly begins and the clock starts ticking.

Work is all that’s ahead of you – and the twitchy coffee infused third year who sits in your office. You see your future in them, and work hard to avoid it. But everyday it becomes increasingly inevitable. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, sometimes the research just doesn’t go in your favour. The more you learn, the less you know, but at least we’re all in the same boat, right?

Year three: the stress train has now arrived at panic station

As the clocks strike midnight on the dawn of your third year, something shifts. The slump has gone. You now know what you’re actually doing and why. The only problem is that the clock keeps getting louder. And faster. Why is it getting faster? Doesn’t it know all the work you have in front of you?

Chapters need writing, others need rewriting. Arguments need changing. Literature reviews need tweaking. Yes, you know you can do this but do you have the time? Then suddenly you remember that your thesis isn’t the only thing that needs doing.

You need a job when you finish. But what? Do you attempt to enter the world of academia where you can surround yourself with more and more research but also potentially spend years on short-term contracts? Or do you go into the ‘real world’ your parents keep telling you about? You certainly don’t feel fully qualified for that option but the pay sounds nice, as does the job stability. Too many options. Too many questions but you don’t have time to think about it all because the thesis isn’t going to write itself!

Year four: question everything, change nothing

A famous French philosopher one wrote, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”. Many other philosophers have gone on to use this expression and I believe every PhD student, regardless of discipline, would also find a lot of relatability in it.

You see, by the time you reach the fourth year (which you swore you never would) you know your thesis so well that you can identify its cracks. And that’s all you can see. But, you’re also desperate to finish and so don’t have time to implement the changes your thesis could really use. Instead, you plough on with the slightly lumpy structure and terrible title because it’s better to have something to submit than nothing at all.

The job panic will also transform depending on whether you attempt to give academia a go. If you do, then you’ll probably be trying to squeeze in some last CV boosting activities like publishing a paper or hosting a conference. If not, then you’ll likely start scrolling job sites endlessly. You’ll tell yourself it’s research, so you know what kind of opportunities are out there, but really it’s just another way of procrastinating your actual work.

But all jokes aside, nothing worth having comes easy. For those of you currently in this process finding it hard, that's because it's supposed to be. And for those looking to start a PhD, it's important that we veterans don't sugar coat the experience. A lot of the time it's not easy, but when you look back over what you've achieved there will be no greater feeling.

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Last Updated: 27 January 2022