PhDiary #4 “Is it Really as Bad as Everyone Says?” - 5 Things I Learnt in My First Year
I am now officially a second-year PhD student. Looking back, the first year was an interesting one. In some ways it was exactly like I expected, in others it was very different. If you’re just starting out, or if you’re thinking of beginning a PhD soon, then you probably have a lot of questions about what’s coming. If you’re aware of the self-deprecating humour a lot of academics and PhD students enjoy, then you might be wondering if it really is that bad? Hopefully I can shed some light for you.
So, here are five important lessons that I learnt throughout my first year.
#1 Nobody feels like they know what they’re doing
If you read my first post then you will be aware that I like to compare the PhD experience to living in a house on fire – which is accurate, nobody knows how to live in a burning house!
Even if you feel like you know what you’re doing, or you have a detailed action plan of what to do next, at some point you will stumble. For me, I struggled with defining why my research was important. It’s not that I didn’t believe my research was worthwhile, but I recognised it won't exactly be life changing. The more I started to question my own project, the less answers I had.
Additionally, sometimes the sources just wont give you the answers you wanted. Research is all about flexibility, and with that comes a level of uncertainty.
It’s a wild ride. You’ll undoubtably start to question what the hell it is you’re doing. But (hopefully) the answers will come eventually!
#2 You know a lot more than you think you do
Perhaps my least favourite thing about education is that the more you learn, the sooner you realise how little you know. Throughout the first year, I thought I knew nothing. That I wasn’t qualified or even educated enough to speak on some topics I was familiar with.
The truth is, you can’t know everything, even in your own discipline. That would be impossible. Instead, the further up higher education you climb, the better skills you develop to help you master new material and ideas. While you might not be familiar with many topics, you’re already equipped with good comprehension, analysis and discussion skills. These skills will help navigate less familiar areas.
It’s really about feeling confident in your ability to learn, not in your knowledge level.
#3 Burnout is real and can become frequent if you’re not careful
One of the things I noticed in the first few months of starting was that it’s extremely easy to burn out. I, personally, am a stressor. I over-think a lot and find it hard to switch off.
Considering my work schedule and productivity was completely in my own hands, with no imminent deadlines to kick my brain into gear, I over-stressed. I worried if I was working enough hours, if I was reading fast enough, if I was even reading the right stuff. Everything.
The worst part was the worries manifested in my downtime. If I had a meeting the next day, all I would think about for the next 24 hours was if I had done enough. Then, I would spend the next few days post-meeting knackered, struggling to concentrate.
Don’t do that! Take time to look after yourself mentally. You’ll work much more efficiently if your brain is happy and healthy.
Which takes me into the next point. . .
#4 Establishing a routine is the best thing you will do with your life
If you want to keep your brain happy, you need to find a healthy work-life balance. Having a designated workspace was extremely helpful for me. Before lockdown I had a desk in the department. The small commute time subconsciously helped my brain know when it was time to switch on and off.
Before this I’d never had a desk and often worked from the comfort of my own bed. While cosy, this gave me major sleep issues as I associated my bedroom with productivity.
Another tip would be to get a hobby. For a long time, I’d come home tired and just potato-out in front of the TV until bed. I only considered myself productive was when I was working. Weekends just felt like a lazy blur and I increasingly associated my value with my research. Then, when things went wrong in my PhD, it felt like life was going wrong.
You’re more than a PhD student. You’re a person with more enjoyments in life then just research. Go out and live your life. Paint that picture, go to the gym, knit that jumper!
It’s important to reward the wins! These can be little wins, like making it through the week, or big ones like passing the confirmation review. Treats can also be little or big, from a bubble bath through to that new pair of expensive headphones you’ve had your eye on.* If you’re on a tighter budget, take a few days off!
My ‘passing first year’ treat was a new tattoo. No pain no gain, right?
*Please treat responsibly and at your own risk
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