First off, an apology for complete radio silence over the last couple of months, but, as I’m sure you’ve come to realise if you’ve just started a graduate programme, in the middle of one, or coming to the end, it’s like spinning plates, whilst riding a unicycle, balancing on a medicine ball, that’s on fire. Even as I write this, I’m on a research project at the University of Manchester, spending full days in the lab with nothing but a little instinct to go on.
It’s the one-year anniversary since I started my own Ph.D. programme. To celebrate, I’ve compiled a list of my experiences and thoughts over the past 12 months:
1. You will feel every emotion possible in the first week alone, maybe even the first day
The elation of getting a place in the first instance is incredibly overwhelming. Someone, somewhere thought you were good enough to continue on up the research ladder and welcomed you with open arms. For the first few days you go to the induction courses, and everything seems rosy. Then you have a meeting with your supervisor, and the realisation of what you are about to undertake dawns on you. Have I taken on too much? Where am I supposed to start? WHAT DO I DOOOO???
2. ‘But what if I’m not good enough?’ and other conversations with imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome is terrible, and disproportionately affects more women than men. It undermines your self-confidence. It affects your productivity. In short, it makes you feel incredibly stupid. But, from the above, somebody thinks you are good enough, or else you wouldn’t be there. It’s easy to say it, but it really is true.
3. Feeling out of your depth is completely normal
The morning of my first day I had a quick meeting with my supervisor to discuss my project, I met one of the scientists to go over basic use of my instrument. I had a to-do list as long as my arm and it wasn’t even lunch. It all felt too much. I went to sit in the department coffee area and took a deep breath. Not only did I feel like I’d taken on the biggest thing of my life, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be there. These feelings are quite normal and do calm down eventually.
4. You’ll have the most flexible schedule you’ll likely ever have
The wonderful thing about grad school is the near absence of taught sessions. This leaves you free to plan your time as you see fit. I know people who come in at 10am and leave at 6pm, or 2pm and leave at 9pm, just as long as you’re not bound by experiment timelines, you’re pretty much free to work when you want. However…
5. No schedule, no work?
I found the transition to complete autonomy pretty tricky. There were no 9am lectures, no 5pm lectures! After brief euphoria at this realisation, it soon transpired that my time quickly filled with subject reading and to-do list writing as I tried to plan to plan my project to allow maximum productivity in the forthcoming years.
6. Three years is not a long time to do a Ph.D.
You start and think you have a tonne of time in which to do all the experiments and all the work you need to do. This is not the case. The first year is spent becoming familiar with what your project requires, getting to know your department and your immediate colleagues, and planning initial experiments. The second year is about getting under way with the main bulk of your work, and the third year is always set aside to wrap up experiments and to get writing.
7. All work and no play makes Aiden a dull boy
With all the to-do list writing and late nights in the lab, you could easily become all about the work. This is far from ideal. No matter how much you love your project, you’d soon burn out and lose all productivity. This is why I signed up for piano lessons and joined the gym. Having a creative outlet is known to open up new pathways in the brain, boosting creativity and, above all, is just fun. Doing regular exercise helps stress relief and improves general health and wellbeing.
8. Don’t take on too much
As in point 7, three years is not a long time in which to devise and execute a research project, but it’s tempting at the beginning to take on all the opportunities that come your way. This is wherein potential disaster lay. You want to embrace some of the opportunities to a) show willing b) pad out your research and c) make wider connections in your industry, but shelve others due to time constraints or it being too far out of your research area to be especially relevant. It’s up to you to decide what is and isn’t physically possible in your time frame.
9. Do take advantage of presenting opportunities
If you’re anything like me, you’ll hate public speaking, but realise it’s an important part of your career as a researcher, so it’s something you need to get right. Current education systems seem to do a good job of providing ample opportunities for you to do brief presentations, but don’t really teach you the art of presenting. I find practise makes moderately acceptable, so welcome any presenting opportunity that comes your way. This not only helps to improve your technique, but it gets you familiar with your research project. A good tip as told to me by a fellow PhDer is to film yourself presenting. It’s cringeworthy as hell, but it makes you aware of any mannerisms or vocal tics you may have.
10.Don’t worry too much about your progress
This is an important one. You all start at the same time, so it’s only natural to think that you and your cohort will remain on a roughly equal footing throughout the programme. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I stormed out of the gates getting an initial literature review done within the first few months, only to get snarled up with instrument issues for near enough a year and have only just started to get back on track. One of my friends has just submitted a paper for publication and another is due to come back from a second experiment campaign in India. People will reach different checkpoints at different times. Just because you’re a little slower to get a paper published doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding.
11.Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Asking for help is always hard as it feels like you’re admitting failure for not knowing an answer to a seemingly simple question. You need to be brave and admit that you don’t know the answer. Again, you wouldn’t be doing a Ph.D. if you already knew it all. A supervisor will be glad that you’re exploring your project and you’ll be glad because you’ll be making some progress. Just don’t leave it and think you’ll figure it out eventually.
You’re enrolled on the opportunity of a lifetime. You get to perform research in a subject you hopefully love, every day, as a job, with only a miniscule amount of the pressures of an actual job. All in an encouraging and vibrant university community. Go live it up!
I hope you’ve found these little observations interesting. Have you enrolled on a Ph.D. course? Anything further you’d add to the list? Share your thoughts below!