PhDiary #1: “Everything is on Fire, but This is Fine” - My First Week
As I sit on my windowsill staring out at the rain, pretending that I’m in the next heart wrenching blockbuster movie rather than doing my actual work, I begin to reminisce about where I was a year ago, starting my PhD in History.
I can’t exactly comment on the rest of the PhD experience yet, but from what I hear, the first year is supposed to be one of the best as you settle in, find your feet and start to realise what a postgraduate research degree really feels like.
So, what does it feel like?
Every student will have their own answer, but to me starting a PhD feels like living in a house that’s on fire but, somehow, it’s kind of enjoyable. Maybe it’s the warmth, or maybe it’s the excitement. This might not make any sense yet (and seem a little scary) but keep reading and you’ll understand soon enough.
Day one: all was well. I had been reading over the summer to try and stay ahead of the game and even went in a week early to sort myself a desk. This is probably my top tip for new starters, actually, get yourself a desk in the department if you can, or at least with the other PhD students.
Postgraduate workspaces at my university are limited, so I went in early to make sure I could get a desk before they all went. Of course, the coronavirus has made this a little more complicated. I can no longer use my desk and you might not be allowed to apply for one straight away, but when you can, do get one. Being sat around other PhD students at different stages of their degrees was extremely helpful as we all shared experiences and advice. And that’s how I learnt that feeling like the world is on fire is actually pretty normal (at least during a PhD). I soon got comfortable with the sensation. Being with other PhD students can also encourage you to develop a healthier work-life balance, which is extremely important.
But back to the story!
After bringing in a good selection of books and teas I set myself up, feeling pretty comfortable until my first supervisor meeting.
Obviously, everyone will have a different experience with their first supervision. Personally, I felt like mine was one of the worst. I was told that my research proposal would probably not work. What I had effectively drafted was an extension of my Masters dissertation which would struggle to contribute to a heavily crowded academic field. I panicked. Why didn’t he tell me this when I was writing the proposal? Basically, I needed a whole new project.
Then, the next bomb dropped. I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive a studentship and so had to get a part-time job to sustain myself. Hearing this, my supervisor seemed a little concerned and informed me that, if it turns out I’m not making enough progress, then we would have to talk about potentially dropping out or going down to part-time. The salt was officially rubbed in the wound. It felt like he didn’t believe I was capable.
After leaving the meeting I took myself to the toilets to just sit, process and hold back the tears. The flames had indeed been ignited and clearly my supervisor hated me. How was I going to work with him for the next three years? How was I going to come up with a new project without losing time and falling behind? But that was panic mode talking, and none of what I thought in that stall was true.
Well, nobody said this was going to be easy
My supervisor didn’t hate me (and still doesn’t as far as I’m aware), he just doesn’t sugar-coat things, which is actually pretty helpful. If you’re going to try and work in academia then you have to develop a thick skin when it comes to criticism. Usually people are trying to help you. And, at the end of the day, getting a PhD isn’t easy. So they need to know you’re up to the task.
What I also didn’t know at the time was that, certainly in History, the first year is pretty much dedicated to fine tuning your project. So, while I might have been a few steps behind some other first years, I wasn’t on the other side of the planet like I thought!
Having a part-time job didn’t hinder me either. I put in the hours, worked at a reasonable sustainable pace and this summer I just passed my confirmation review with no corrections (future blog coming soon to a computer near you)!
That doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods yet. I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing or where I’m going. With responsibilities such as teaching and conferences adding up, the flames only get hotter. But they’re comforting in a way: you might say they’re the warming flames of opportunity and passion. Sometimes they might feel like they’re getting out of control, but with a decent break, talking to others, or simply learning to say “no”, you’ll have it all under control in no time.
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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.