First year’s a tough one…but you’ll get there!
What I did not realise was just the amount expected to have to research this year and form a solid – what is essentially – proposal for the research to be done for my PhD. Many fellow students who are now second or final year have told me this too. And due to being less in person at the start with both personal circumstances and covid worries, I only really realised this a bit later on. This does not mean you need to stress out during your first year. Nor does this mean you should think you need to create perfect transfer reports. However, it is helpful to bear in mind that the more consistent you continue to work and the more you are able to understand why you have chosen to decide to research what you are investigating, you will set yourself up well for your transfer report and the remainder of your studies. If you can understand this early, this is very helpful to be aware of what you may need to do early on.
Where possible, find some allies
Personally, I have found that a PhD being lonely and isolating is not always the case. From my own experience, I often feel lonely in the sense that my project currently involves a lot of independent working and I also frequently get imposter syndrome. However, I have many interactions with fellow PhD students on my course pathway and in our department as well as others from workshops and events. I also interact with other academics expanding my network of allies and peers even more. This has been extremely helpful in keeping perspective of my PhD. It has also been incredibly helpful with shared experiences such as imposter syndrome and general frustrations, even if our experiences are not exactly the same. I have also had so many people validating the personal and professional impact of having gone through many personal issues at the same time as the start of my PhD. This has really helped me to reach out and ask for help or remind myself just how far I have come when I have my low moments. I know I have definitely been very fortunate with having many peers as a PhD student but hopefully this shows it is possible to build a supportive network in quite a traditionally isolating role.
A walk or two a day pays
I cannot stress how vital a walk or two a day has been to my creativity, development and making sense of my project. Some of my best ideas and connections in the literature have happened when I let myself have breaks and walk around. Most nights, I have been out for a 30-minute walk or longer (even just around university buildings or the spaces locally to my home). Additionally, a couple of these a week at least, I consciously decide not to listen to any podcasts or music and choose to be with my thoughts. This can be really uncomfortable when self-doubt is at it’s loudest in my mind. But honestly, this has been a method of – quite literally – moving forwards to process my current ideas and understandings. As a result, I have noticed that I have moved forwards with my work – even if it’s been a slower pace than I would have liked!
The why and purpose that you are here may just keep you going no matter what. I thought I was here because I wanted to do a PhD and have the fancy Dr title on my name (which is true to an extent). But when I actually took a mental step back from that idea, I realised it was more about the aim and purpose of the project, as it aligns with my values, which is also why I applied to do it in the first place. I’ve had so many ups and downs with personal circumstances which unfortunately did not come as the easiest of times…but I have not quit because of this aim and why I have decided to be and stay here on the project.
After receiving some very helpful coaching, I set myself a personal goal for building on my internal self-trust. The original goal I set myself was to complete certain tasks for my transfer report. However, focusing on the self-trust has allowed me to build compassion with myself, meaning that I have started to be a lot kinder to myself around my health challenges and personal things that have happened in my first year. It has enabled me to be more confident in being open about having struggled and being okay with the fact that I am moving forward a bit more slowly than I anticipated I would. As a result, I notice that I have a more integral approach to my work and therefore I am able to remember more accurately what I have read and the specific works I have studied. Similarly, this goal is reducing the barrier of worrying about making mistakes. At the moment, my biggest fear is realising or someone else pointing out I have completely mis-interpreted someone’s work and therefore my whole research problem is ‘invalid’…the very practical experience of pesky imposter syndrome! But self-trust is my best friend with this as if this does happen, it provides me with the skill to have compassion in knowing I will find a way of working through this.
No experience is the same of the first year of your PhD. However, these are definitely a few things that I have taken away when speaking to others in both my discipline and others too and wish I had known from the start.
Wishing you all the best with your PhD journey.