There are so many things as a first year PhD student that I wish I had been aware of before I had started. I have known lots of people who have done PhDs from many backgrounds and life experiences. I had multiple conversations with others about doing one and had fortunately been encouraged to pursue a PhD as an undergraduate student. Yet only now I am beginning to realise the reality of studying for a PhD. It is hard, if not impossible to fully understand the emotional experience until you are actually doing it. It is a rollercoaster of emotions, but worth it. This blog is about a few things that I have experienced in this first year of my PhD, particularly around self-doubt, and ways I try to remain mindful of and move forwards with my work.
Being a very proactive person does not mean you are not going to face hurdles!
As someone who likes to act as soon as I can, each time I do something, I feel like I take 2 steps forwards and 4 steps backwards. But you know what? I’m still moving forward regardless of how much and when that is. I really do not know what is going to happen on my PhD journey, but I know I will be able to pause in the moment and think, “then what?”. I find it very helpful to keep a diary to demonstrate to myself just how much I have achieved when I think I have not done enough. For me, this is a couple of bullet points a day using OneNote.
Noticing the flow
One thing I have found very helpful is when I have been reading the literature is to notice where my thoughts are drifting, particularly when I’m taking a breaks. I have found ideas linking and synthesizing together in my mind when I pause and take advantage of those quieter moments. This often helps when you have defined your research problem and the one thing you are passionate about investigating. I find this also happens when neither too many doors are open or shut in terms of your thinking.
And guess what? This is also a huge hint to take more frequent and longer breaks!
Peer support is invaluable. One of the best things I have found is that by attending workshops – whether these are PGR-focused, faculty or library-specific, online or in-person – you get more than just building specific skills. You will notice the community created within these and will likely find that you receive incredible reassurance from other professionals across the University. This can help to validate any challenges you may be having, and you may feel alone. You also never know what opportunities will arise when you network with other PGR students. Though of course, try to find a good balance between focused work and attending workshops as it is very tempting to sign up to lots and then not do much reading or writing for your project!
Trust the process
Very much a cliché but please don’t stop reading now. This concept is something that quite honestly is getting me though each day, and I have been told numerous times by other PhD students who are towards the end of their projects.
This does not mean I do not take action or that I just presume I can ‘let things happen’. What is does mean is that I can detach from the activity more easily and let go of trying to control variables that are not necessarily in my control. It allows me to look at things differently and instead of saying “what if?” I return to the phrase I mentioned above and think, “then what?”. Having some sort of contingency (even just an idea in my head) can also be very settling, even if it’s never needed.
I have had a number of unexpected health, life, and study-related hurdles in my PhD so far, and at this point, I’m only 6-7 months in. But I am still here. I am still acting and moving forwards, even if it is not by a large amount at a very fast rate. Nevertheless, I can take the time and see how the process is unfolding in front of me. A lot of the hurdles are coming up without me realising but I am managing, and I deal with them as they arise…and I am building resilience in trusting that I can deal with them as they come my way.
Whatever doubt or ‘setbacks’ comes your way; you’ve got this and can do this.