PhDs are hard. Some people’s are harder than others, but the base level is hard and it just kind of ramps from there depending on having a good or bad supervisor or depending on whether or not all your data gets stolen.

An individual PhD is also varyingly hard throughout the 3-4 years. As you move from first year to second, third and finally viva, it rises and falls in how difficult you’ll likely find it.

The first year is often a tsunami of information which in and of itself can be utterly overwhelming. It’s relatively rare that your PhD is in a field that you intimately know already. I mean, the point of a PhD is to learn things and become an expert at your topic, if you knew it all already then what would be the point! So inevitably those first months involve googling the title of your PhD and then reading ALL the papers. Well more accurately reading all the wikipedia articles then reading some papers.

All that reading quickly leads to thinking about what to do and hopefully building/designing experiments. It can be hard to get there, but there’s plenty to do and plenty to plan. The first year can be full on but it certainly is rarely boring.

But the middle of a PhD is something else.

It’s not new and exciting and it’s not a huge final end panic, it’s kind of middling (by definition and by feeling).

You’ve normally settled into a routine of coming into the lab/office/field and you even have a bit of an idea what’s required of you in terms of writing, meetings and presentations. You’ve found a groove. Finding a groove is normally a good thing as it gives a sense of security and makes it easier to focus on things. But in a PhD it can also be hard to deal with.

PhDs are often the first time that people have worked on their own and it varies, but a PhD project is almost by definition a lonely way of working as you are working on your own specific research. Your project won’t have much cross over with your fellow students and it can feel daunting to one facing problems that no one else has ever heard of!

By your second year you’ll almost certainly have started experiments or studies and inevitably they’ll have gone wrong in all kinds of exciting ways and generated all kinds of weird and wonderful problems. Very very very few students have good data till their third year but it can be a scary thing to get to half way into a PhD and look at your steaming pile of data. It’s part of the research process and in some ways an important lesson that things don’t always go in nice linear paths. But it’s not a fun lesson and even less of a fun lesson when you’re doing a project on your own.

It’s hard but the thing to focus on is that it’s just a phase.

PhDs go though all kinds of ups and downs from failed experiments to dramatic last moment breakthroughs. The 2nd year can be tough but it’s important to remember that it’s a tough time for almost everyone. Other students might be a in different place and it can be easy to think you’re the only one that feels a bit lost, but trust me, you’re not alone.

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Kate · 19 July 2018 at 02:31

We coined the term “thinkcubator” for that point in the middle of a PhD where you feel like you are not doing anything constructive towards the end point and before it all kind of makes sense – seems to last around 6 months in humanities…

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