Sunday, 10 May 2015

A PhD: Is this the cost of your mental health?

Before you read this post I want you to think about the PhD students you know.  Think about the post-docs.  Think about those you consider your peers in the academic world.  Think about yourself and how you relate to them.  

What does that picture look like?

For many, they see themselves as an outsider.  As inferior - intellectually or otherwise - or as uncomfortably different.  For some people, this may be a fleeting bout of Impostor Syndrome, which passes once they regain their confidence.  But for other people, these comparisons and the negative self-image which results has a much more worrying, deep-rooted cause.

The rate of mental health problems in the PhD-student and academic community at large is a silent behemoth.  As a small introduction to this idea, there are two excellent pieces by the Guardian that describe the problem.  In a blog post on the Guardian website, an anonymous academic documented the culture of acceptance around mental health problems, where they describe the following:

"Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts. I have seen how issues with mental health can go on to affect physical health. During my PhD I noticed changes to my skin, and changes in my menstrual cycle which persist to this day."

I can echo the author's observations, and that's what worries me.  Having previously been treated for depression as a teenager, I thought I would be alert to the symptoms should they re-emerge, but it took a long time before I realised my feelings weren't 'normal'.  I was constantly exhausted.  Some days the thought of getting out of bed reduced me to tears.  I would drag my feet all the way to my office, only to sit at my desk and stare at my computer screen for hours without actually doing anything.  I stopped keeping up with friends, I stopped interacting much at all.  I felt like a robot.  I started drinking more.  I would go through cycles of binge eating then eating nothing for as long as I could.  I hated my life, and hated myself for feeling that way, because I had so much to be grateful for.

In short, I was suffering from pretty bad depression.  I got an appointment with my GP and got put on fluoxetine - an anti-depressant - immediately.  After eight weeks of still not feeling much better, I was upped to a medium dose and I finally stabilised.  Throughout this process I was very open with my supervisor, who was very supportive, and I took some time off to recuperate.

I feel like one of the lucky ones.  The anonymous academic goes on to describe some awful experiences of other students with mental health problems:

"I have seen students asking:
"How do I tell myself that it's OK to take time for me?"
"Have I worked so hard that illness has become normal?"
"How can I recover my relationships with my friends and family?"

Despite this, I see students and academics who view the researcher development service as unnecessary. I see students who imagine using our services as an "admission of defeat". To come to us, is to announce that you are not a perfect researcher. I see students ashamed to admit to their peers that they had come to any of our sessions, let alone found them useful.

I see students forcibly removed from our sessions by their supervisors. I see leading academics decline to advertise our services, for fear that people will use them. I see students who feel like it is not OK to admit that they are not OK. And this is not OK."

It is this culture of acceptance that concerns me.  I have heard fellow students and other academics describe working all day in their office, then all evening and each weekend, as if this were a totally normal work-life balance.  I have heard others discuss how they feel exhausted and tearful all the time, but that they feel this is the expected cost of doing their best - because they belief if they are not working themselves to the brink of self-destruction they are not working hard enough.

Now I want to make it clear that no one has ever told us that this is what is expected of us.  But I think it links back to what I described at the beginning - how we feel we compare to our peers.  Most people who are successful in getting a PhD studentship were big fish in the undergraduate pond.  But everyone at PhD level was a big fish, and you can't all be the best.  Suddenly you are adjusting to working alongside people who seem light-years ahead of you on the IQ scale, and it can shift your view of the world upside down.  To try and combat the insecurity we push ourselves to work harder and harder.  And no one can burn the candle at both ends forever.

What I want you to know is that it is okay to be struggling.  I was on anti-depressants for 18 months and that didn't stop me getting my PhD, or getting work afterwards.  I was open with my supervisor about my mental health problems, and he was great - I got lots of support.  If you're struggling, please reach out.  Please don't suffer in silence. 

You are not alone.

If you think you might be suffering from a mental health problem, seek advice from your GP as soon as you can.  I've included links for symptom checkers below, as well as the contact details for a number of help-lines.  Remember, if you or someone you know is at immediate risk of committing suicide, call 999.

There are lots of people out there who get through their PhD without any ill-effects, and many who suffer illnesses during their studentship to recover fully (myself among them).  1 in 3 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, so if you find yourself feeling unwell, you are not being silly or over-reacting, you just need a little support to get yourself on your way.  If, as a PhD student, a friend let their diabetes or epilepsy go untreated, you wouldn't stand for it - you'd usher them to the GP and support them to get help.  Mental health problems are no different.

If you think you might be suffering from a mental health issue, or are looking for support, please check some of the links below.  Remember that your University will have student services that can offer counselling and other mental health advice, and their services are tailored to those going through higher education.

More information about:

Sunday, 26 April 2015

10 Things I Learned While Writing my Thesis

When you’re in the midst of data collection or networking at your first international conference, it’s easy to forget that the end point of a PhD is a giant thesis.  Unless you have previously completed a doctorate in another subject, your thesis will most likely be the largest body of work you will ever complete in one go.  (Note: applied doctorates are little different, but the following list still applies!)  Despite this, it’s something many people – including me – don’t really think about until suddenly your data are collected, your results analysed, and all that’s left is a large volume of writing waiting to be done. 

It’s at this point that it can be tempting to panic.  But take a breath, read this list, and get ready to tackle this mountain and SMASH it.

1.  You have actually already started.

From what I understand, any university in the UK requires you to submit a body of work in your first year; this may take the form of a literature review/systematic analysis or a journal-style write up.  If, like me, you’re not returning to this until your third year your writing will have improved since this point so it will need an overhaul, but the key point is that the information is already there. I wrote a literature review chapter for my first year submission, and in hindsight I’d strongly advise it.  It meant I spent a lot of time immersed in the literature that would later inform my work, and formed a large part of my Introduction chapter.  If you’re past this point, don’t worry about it – any journal-style submissions you’ve done include some literature review, and can provide a basis for an experimental chapter.  Whichever option you chose, you’ve written something that will be incorporated into your final thesis.  So get rid of those blank-page woes!

2.  Find out which rules apply to your writing.

Before you start writing, look up your university’s procedure for formatting doctoral theses.  There will be rules, so make sure you adhere to them.  For example, the University of Dundee’s theses formatting guidelines can be found here.  Your guidelines might specify margins, spacing, fonts, headings, the use of images (not figures – pictures) or Appendices.  Similarly, you need to look at guidelines for whatever referencing system you operate within.  My PhD was in Psychology, and there are very specific guidelines produced by the American Psychological Association (APA) on style both of references and of headings, subheadings, and table/figure headings. 

Sometimes rules can be a surprise – for example I had to submit my thesis printed only single-sided.  A waste of paper perhaps, but that’s the way it is.  But there were also set margins I needed to use, and if I hadn’t applied these to my document early, it could have really messed up my formatting later.

3.  Make a template.
You can create templates for documents in Microsoft Word that allow you to use the same set-up every time you set up a new document.  I used this excellent guide from the University of Reading (  I would advise against using preset guides, unless you can be 100% sure they serve all your needs.  The template was invaluable for me.  I created each chapter as a separate document so that I could send my supervisor bits at a time without it becoming difficult to navigate, and it meant that I knew each chapter was formatted correctly so they could just be copied and pasted into a master thesis document.  (Doesn’t that sound grand?)

4.  Pay attention to small details.
I cannot stress this enough.  If you have ever marked undergraduate work and bemoaned the lack of appropriate citations or the poor grammar, you will know how disheartening it is to read a piece of work that has clearly been rushed.  You must not do this!  You might well be thinking ‘Well this is a PhD thesis, of course I can’t rush it!  It’s too long to rush!’ but you’d be wrong.  Sure, writing 85,000 words or thereabouts isn’t done in a day, but you will be amazed when you are against the wire how quickly you can get words on paper. 
It’s tempting to skip proper formatting of references, assuring yourself you’ll come back to it later, or not bother with getting your figure headings right at the time of writing, saving it for editing, but all you are doing is giving yourself a giant headache for later.  Trust me, when you get to the point of proof-reading and editing, you do not want to be searching for that one paragraph you said you’d adjust later but didn’t highlight because you were sure you’d be able to find it.  Get it right first time.  Then your editing is much more simple: looking for typos, compiling contents pages, and proof-reading.  I did it this way, and I was still hugely stressed.  I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been if I had to amend figure headings to APA format and scour for missed references along the way.

5. Plan it out.
You don’t have to plan every paragraph, but blocking out a rough idea of how many words you’re writing per chapter can help you create a timeline to completion, and give you a guide to setting writing goals.  As a really general example, if you estimate your thesis is going to be 80,000 words and you have written absolutely nothing, and you plan on writing 1,000 words per day, you’d need 80 days to write a complete first draft of your thesis.  That gives you a starting point.  You need to add in days off (if you are taking them), time for your supervisor to review chapters, days for redrafting, days for compiling contents pages, days for proof-reading.  But when you break it down into these little sections it’s much easier to approach.  I’d recommend creating a gantt chart to plan out getting it done.

6.  Set targets, and stick to them.
After you’ve planned out a time line for completing your first draft, set yourself strict targets on what you want to achieve each day.  It might be to write 1000 words, or to edit a section of your work, or to re-do a certain analysis.  Whatever it is, make your goal for each day very clear.  Once you’ve met your goal, finish up!  If you’ve written your 1000 words faster than you expected, don’t try and give yourself a head start on the next day’s task.  Take your well-earned break.  This is essential for avoiding burn out.

7.  Allow much more time than you think you need.
Point 5 is important, but don’t be precious about your plans – be prepared to adjust them because you can be sure life will throw things at you that you haven’t anticipated.  It might be an illness, a family emergency, a housing problem, a pet problem, a computer failure – life is inventive in its curve-balls.  When these things happen, deal with them.  LIFE COMES FIRST.  Set aside your writing without guilt, take the time you need to deal with the situation, then pick up where you left off.  If you begin your write up with this attitude, when a delay inevitably happens it won’t feel like the end of the world, it will just be something you contingency-planned for, and you can deal with it.

8.  Be kind to yourself.
Some days no matter what you try, it just isn’t happening.  You’ve been at your computer since 8am and you’ve written the same sentence 100 different ways, but never got any further.  Your word count for the day?  68 words.  It happens, to everyone.  If you’ve been in this situation for hours, try and take a step back and evaluate what the problem is.  Are you unfamiliar with this topic?  Are you spending more time reading things than writing?  Are you ill?  Are you tired?  Is everything you need there but the words just won’t come out? 
Each situation requires a slightly different approach.  If you’ve spent the last five hours reading up on a topic, that’s still a productive day, just in a different way from what you’d planned.  Pat yourself on the back for a job well done and give yourself a well-deserved break.  If you’re procrastinating, you need to take a long hard look at why.  Generally, I find a quick count of days until hand-in gets me going.  But, if you’re in one of those days where no matter what you try the words just aren’t coming, sometimes it’s far better to just step away and return to the task tomorrow.  (This is why I included point 7).  Forcing yourself to sit at a computer for hours when you are getting nowhere is not only demoralising, it’s tiring, and is a major contributory factor to burnout.  Avoid it wherever possible.

9.  Reward yourself.
It depends how you like to break it up, but make sure you’re giving yourself rewards at regular intervals.  For me, I had a mix of goals including word-count benchmarks and chapter benchmarks.  The science behind positive reinforcement is well-established.  Apply it to yourself.  You’ve never worked harder, so you’ve never deserved those rewards more!

10.  Keep your chapters/abstract etc. separate.
This is a slightly weird thing to have last, but you’ll see why in a minute.  Like I said earlier, I wrote all my chapters in separate documents.  My contents pages were separate, as was my abstract, my declaration and my acknowledgements.  This is handy for getting your supervisor to review things, but it also has one super bonus to reward yourself with.
There is nothing like creating a new document, and slowly copying and pasting each part of your thesis into the document.  Title page, contents headers, acknowledgements, declaration, abstract, chapters.  In a day, you produce a giant document and you finally see all your hard work come together.  Sure, you’re going to edit it, and you’re going to adjust your contents pages, and you’ll have to number it all, but that moment when you see Word tick up your word and page count and you realise, finally, you’ve made a thesis, is one of the best feelings in the world.  You see it there before you and you can’t resist showing it off.  (I carried my laptop around making everyone look at my impressive word count and insisted on praise and congratulations).

Seldom in your PhD journey will you get a moment like this – don’t deprive yourself of it, because it’s amazing.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

I'm back!

After an incredibly long absence, I’m back to being able to write more regularly.  I want to thank all of you who have continued to check in with my blog and Facebook page while I’ve been away, and welcome to everyone who has newly ‘liked’ said page.  I’ve had some lovely messages in the last year; some people who have found previous posts helpful, and some who have sought advice.  I really love hearing from you, so please keep getting in touch!  But make sure to check out my updated contact information.

Before I start posting about all the PhD things I’ve learned in the last year, and would like to share, I thought first I’d give you an overview of what I’ve been doing since my last post.

We moved to the Isle of Mull on the west coast of Scotland, and stayed for four months while my other half worked on an estate there as groundskeeper.  It was beautiful and an incredible experience, though one that taught us while we love country-living if you need to get on a boat to get to Tesco, it’s too remote.

I made some decisions about my career, and decided that academia is not for me.  Instead, I’m going to return to my previous path of Clinical Psychology.  I got a full time job as an Assistant Psychologist, and I now work for NHS Borders.

We got married! 

I submitted my thesis, and I passed my viva voce with minor corrections, which are now submitted.

As you can see, it’s been a really busy year!  However, the upside is that I now have lots of great things to write about and to share with you.  So keep your eyes peeled for posts coming soon about:
  • ·         10 things I learned while writing up my thesis
  • ·         Dealing with final-year PhD stress
  • ·         A PhD and your mental health
  • ·         Balancing work and your PhD
  • ·         A real-life account of the viva examination
  • ·         Finishing, or not-quite-yet-finishing, your PhD
  • ·         Corrections: get it done!

Hopefully these posts will answer some of the questions you might have about some or all of these topics, but I’m also open to suggestions for anything you might like me to write about.  I’m considering doing an FAQ post, so if you have questions you’d like answered, add them in the comments, or let me know on the Facebook page!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Saying Goodbye

As you'll know from last time, I'm counting down the days until we leave the first home we had together, which we've lived in for just shy of seven years, before we move to the west coast of Scotland.  I've been so excited about the move - and still am.  The opportunity to write up in such a beautiful place has been my light at the end of the tunnel for months.  But, as with all things, the start of something new means the end of something else.

This week is my last week in the department.  My last ever Monday sitting at this desk, looking out the window across the city, thinking about coffee time at 11am.  This is the last 'first day of the week' in what has been my home from home for the last three years.  I never thought I'd be sad about getting over a Monday, but today is teaching me the meaning of 'bittersweet'.

At many points in my PhD, I've imagined what it would feel like to finish.  In truth, I've still got a way to go before I get to that point, but this could definitely be considered the beginning of the end.  I'm aware that sounds awfully dramatic.  It's hard not to be, though.  When you get to this point in your doctorate, you have invested so many hours, so much hard work, so many tears and tantrums and highs and lows that it feels like a much bigger component of your life than almost anything else.  I've left things before - school, jobs, my undergraduate degree - but nothing has felt like this.  The combination of excitement and happiness with a little bit a sadness and a sense of loss.

Although there will be times where I'll be back in the department for the odd meeting, or most notably my viva, it won't be the same.  Someone else will be living in my office, cursing statistics and complicated journal articles that make no sense.  The friends that I have 'grown up with' through my PhD will most likely be gone, or job hunting, or moved away.  There will be new faces that I don't know, and have never met.  I will have missed important events, birthdays, nights out and impromptu lunches with drinks.

Of course, I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing.  Life moves on and I am truly excited about my next adventure.  The Boy and I are entering a new era as 'grown ups' (or at least pretend grown ups).  There are certainly many aspects I won't miss.  But then, even with those most awful, heart-wrenching days in mind, I would still do it all again.  I don't know where I'll end up, or what I'll be doing.  Academia is a tricky job market and at the moment I don't know if I have the persistence to chase a career in it.  But I'll be doing something.  And no one can take away from me the experiences I've had here.

I am going to miss this place.  This place where I have laughed and cried and cursed the sky, where I have eaten cake and drunk wine and shared both the good times and the bad.  This place that has shaped me, molded me, tested me.  This place that still has a few tests in store for me yet.  I will miss these people who I have been on this ride with.  I will miss this time in my life where for a short while, everything seems possible and the opportunities before us seem exponential.  And I will always be thankful for this place.  For this time.  For these people.  They will stay with me always.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The final countdown....

It seems like my last post should be much longer ago than January.  Life is just so busy as a third year PhD student.  But, now I have an afternoon to breathe, I wanted to write some more.  Today, I'm writing to you from the position of having 162 days until I hand in my thesis, and 27 days until I leave this city forever.  Take a minute to let that sink in.

Now, just because it's fun, I'm going to put in more of my favourite imgur things.  Here's one to get you started.  Have a giggle.

At this point, I'm starting to feel like a puppet master pulling together strings.  Analysis will be finished with a week or two.  My paper should be submitted by the end of the month.  The two post doc proposals I'm working on might take a bit longer, but then something's got to give - I've got a PhD to finish after all!  This month feels particularly strange though.  It marks the event of a lot of things that have been coming for a while - we're packing up our flat before we move, we've booked the registrar for our wedding, we're selling everything we're not taking with us and arranging leaving drinks.  All of these things are nice (though packing is a bit of a pain), but they do have a habit of really, really sneaking up on you.  It's such a cliché, but I really don't know where the last twelve weeks of my life have gone.

I do know, though, that the last few weeks have involved quite a lot of sitting down and really thinking about the future.  Priorities.  It's not a discussion we'd ever had to have before - we just went where we needed to go for school.  Now though, we have a number of things to weigh up.  Do we value job security or salary more?  What's more important - career progression or location?  Is it better to take a year out and publish lots, or to push head first into what's available?  Who is going to be the main bread-winner?  Where do we want to live?  Does it matter?  What do we want to do?

At some point, everyone faces these questions, and we all have different answers.  I'll tell you some of mine, with the caveat that my choices are not necessarily the best for my career, or me personally, but they are the best for my fiancé and I together, which is my top priority.  Don't worry if your priorities are different.  

For one, we decided we want to stay in Scotland.  I can almost hear those of you who are destined for careers in academia gasping!  Yes, it does severely limit my employment options if I wanted to get my career up and off the ground.  But we made that decision based on (a) we like it here the bestest, (b) we want to bring our kids up here - when we have them, (c) I will have a PhD, which means I can do quite a lot of things, and (d) did I mention we're staying here for the summer?  Why would I ever want to leave?  But it's not just that.  Sure, I love research and I've loved my PhD, but I'm beginning to realise there's more to life.  I want other things too, and so for me, academia has moved lower down the priority list.  

Seriously, why would I want to go?
It's a very strange thing, when finishing becomes countable in days.  When the future isn't far away any more, it's just a few weeks more in the calendar.  Part of me is feeling sentimental.  There is a lot I'll miss about my PhD days.  Even leaving the city I've lived in for seven years, although I don't particularly like it, is giving me a moment of "Oh!"  But the other part is ready for the adventure.  I'm ready to find out what the future holds.  Particularly if that is a lovely house somewhere on Mull with a wood fire and lots of time for crafting and writing stories (my pipe dream of choice at the moment).  

My PhD has prepared me spectacularly for life as a 'grown up'.  (I use the ' ' because I'm only going to be pretending).  Things like critical thinking, looking for novel solutions, working under pressure and multi-tasking are valuable anywhere.  Hell, I'm going to be writing the biggest book I'll ever write - that's a skill too!  But the best thing is that I now have the confidence in myself to believe that things will work out somehow.  I might not get the dream job, or we might not have the most money, but we'll get by.  We'll work through it, keep on going, and come out the other side. 

It's time to go for an adventure.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Third Year of Your PhD

First of all, happy new year!  I hope you had a particularly enjoyable winter break, and if you're back to work today - like I am - you're not struggling too much with it.  I have been thinking about blogging often, but it's perhaps somewhat telling that when my last post was the 23 of September, I'm going to tell you that third year will be busy!  It is.  But it's more than that too.  I wanted to take some (long overdue) time today to write about my experiences of third year so far and pepper it with some of my favourite pictures from imgur, because why not?

I talk a lot about how your PhD can teach you as much about yourself as it does about the subject you're studying, and in my opinion third year has been the biggest lesson for me.  Although you anticipate it coming all through the summer of your second year, once you matriculate for the final time a panic sets in that says "I have one year to finish my PhD oh my god!!!"  At first, there were lots of recriminations of why-didn't-I-do-this-earlier and argh-so-much-to-do and other catch phrases.  You tear your hair out for a little while.  But then, because you have to, you just get on with it.

This is probably not earth-shattering to most of you.  But taking a little time to view how I was coping in an objective way showed me that I've grown a lot.  I had a couple of days of stress paralysis, and then I just buckled down and got on with things.  In fact, I've worked harder since September than I have at anything ever.  That's not an exaggeration.  In one semester I completed testing, rewrote my literature review, re-did some analysis and started new analysis, wrote a paper and started work on a funding application for a postdoc.  While planning a wedding and actually, you know, living and stuff.  (Ugh the living bit is such hard work!)  
I'm not telling you this to boast about my freakishly busy semester, though I am proud of how much I've achieved.  I think it's more an attempt to help you learn from my mistakes, which be - don't leave things til your final year.  I've had a series of mishaps and whatever that have delayed my progress, but there's been a fair bit of procrastination too.  It's really easy in the early years to say "Ach I'll do it tomorrow", but my best advice would be not to do that.  Start out thinking you've not much time, and you'll work harder.

What has been really nice about my third year though is that I'm finally starting to feel like I get it.  It's the little things that help the most - being able to recommend papers to someone and remembering the authors' names without having to check, or being able to suggest an improvement to a methodology because you actually understand it.  As someone who suffered from impostor syndrome throughout my first year, part of me wondered if I'd ever get to this point.  By no means do I think I'm all the way there - I can see the differences between my line of thinking and my supervisor's, but the point is I can see the difference.  I can see there's a linear progression in experience and knowledge that will get me from where I am, to one day closer to where my supervisor is, and that I'm on the right path.  I realise that seems quite abstract, but it was a revelation for me.  Understanding that actually, I can do this and I do sometimes get things right was a big deal.  The unfortunate side effect of reaching your final year is facing the challenge of accepting your time is almost over.  

I won't lie, there are times where I could have happily packed my bags and left my PhD without looking back, but I believe that once you make it out the other side of second year, you're in it for the long haul and you want to make things work.  Starting to imagine my life post-PhD is becoming much more of tangible speeding train than some abstract concept of 'some time in the future'.  With a deadline of the 11th of September (eeeeeeek!) planning work is now down to the last few months, weeks and days of my PhD studentship.  I remember starting out and thinking I had an endless amount of time here, but now it's coming closer to finishing, I'm realising how much I'm going to miss it.

For me one of the weirdest things is not having a plan.  My fiancé and I are both applying for graduate schemes and we're moving to Mull on the west coast of Scotland for four months from May for him to work an estate, which might produce some job opportunities, and for me to write my thesis.  I'm working on funding proposals for postdocs too. And yet, with all our efforts, not much is certain about what will happen post-degree.  

Learning to live with that has been a lesson in and of itself.  I like certainty.  I like black-and-white observable fact.  There's none of that right now and that can be stressful.  It's hard not to worry about a potential stretch of time after finishing your degree when suddenly you've no income and no job and nothing to do with your days.  I'm learning you've just got to do what you can, apply for jobs, and see what happens. 

Accepting my inability to control the future has taught me some good lessons about science too.  I'm no where near finishing my analysis yet, and there's still a good bit to go.  It's quite possible I won't find any further significant results and while that can be disappointing, I fully understand now that non-significant results don't lessen the quality of the work I've done and they don't mean I've not discovered something new.  (It just means I've discovered something doesn't work).  It takes a lot of pressure off.

Everyone's experience of their final year will be different.  Everyone will have their own stresses and their own worries and things that go wrong.  Unfortunately, there's no getting around it - it's going to happen!  What we can do is every once in a while, take a little step back and look at what we've achieved.  And despite the blood, sweat and many tears, remember you've achieved something wonderful.  You've worked so hard.  Applaud yourself for it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Second Year of the PhD: It's going to suck

First off, I want to both apologise to you and thank you profusely.  I haven't written in months (for reasons that will soon become clear!) for which I owe you an apology.  However, I wanted to thank you for sticking in there, and for some of the wonderful comments I've had on various posts recently.  I really love to hear from you, so thank you, and I'm glad if these posts have been helpful for you in my absence.

Perhaps you're entering your second year of your PhD.  Maybe you've just finished it, like I have.  Either way, you've found yourself reading this post, and you're guessing from the title I'm going to be a tiny bit not-quite-optimistic about my second year review.  But, I'm going to be as objective as possible.  You can make your own mind up.

I've said before that at some point, at least one person will tell you that you will hate hate hate your PhD.  In my first year I smiled and acknowledged these comments with the naive belief that it couldn't happen to me because I loved my PhD.  At the start of second year, I thought I'd hit that point.  Lots of things (some beyond my control) went wrong and I found myself regretting even thinking a PhD was a viable option.

But it turns out, not even that was my lowest point.  Perhaps it's time for a review of the highs and lows of my second year.

Things just don't stop going wrong because you want them to.

I perhaps have had more than my share of bad luck with equipment failures, programming errors and counterbalancing issues.  Some of these things were my fault, and I had to own up to that and learn from it.  Some were completely beyond my control and I could not have done anything differently.  When things go wrong, you find yourself begging and pleading with whatever nameless PhD-god-entity exists in the cosmos beyond PhD-Land to just please, this one time, let this be the last thing that goes wrong.

Except, it turns out that things will continue to go wrong, even when you don't want them too.  Who knew, huh?  Sometimes this can feel completely soul crushing.  "I don't have the emotional resources for another crisis!" you cry.  But guess what, you do.  It's an over-used platitude, but remember - this too shall pass.  Time is going to go on with or without you, and you will keep going because some nameless force makes you get out of bed just to spite the damn thing.  And then suddenly, you'll have found a solution, or at least moved forward enough for it to no longer be as painful.

Then another crisis happens, and you'll manage that too.  It'll feel just as difficult, but perhaps the next time at the back of your mind there will be a voice reminding you that you've gotten through this before, and you can do it again.  Your resilience will have been tested like it never will again, but that's a good thing.  If you make it out the other side, you are stronger for it.

You'll learn who your friends are.

Maybe you cope fantastically with stress.  You remain a well-balanced human being and display no outer signs of the tension you might feel.  If that's you, you're lucky.  I turn into some half-crazed rabid-wolf type person when I'm really suffering from stress.  My family might see glimpses of this, because they have to love me unconditionally, as does my fiancé because, well, he knows me well enough to know it's temporary, but friends...  I don't want to expose them to that.  So I tend to get quiet, rather than inflict myself upon them until I regain a portion of my sanity.

Very quickly, a divide forms.  You'll have the people who, when you don't text or email them, you never hear from.  Not a peep.  And the others who, even though you don't always reply, still check in on you now and then with offers for a coffee or a night in or an ear if you want to talk.

Cherish these people.  They are rare.  They are few and far between.  But these are the people who you will never lose touch with.  Be honest with them, tell them how shit things are, tell them you're not suitable for human contact but when you feel a little more sane you'd love a coffee.  Same goes for your family and significant other/cat/dog/hamster.  If they can tolerate you like this, they are a keeper.  Try not to take that for granted.  

You'll discover previously unknown ambitions.

Suddenly, you want to do anything.... well, almost anything, that isn't your PhD and/or academia.  You'll start nurturing either long-forgotten or previously undiscovered ambitions.  I spent quite a large proportion of my summer looking at what other jobs I could apply for when I graduate that would get me out of this hell-hole.  

Actually, it's something I'd advise doing.  It gets you thinking about what exactly you want from your career.  Do you value income or time off more?  Pensions and maternity leave or promotion opportunities?  By spending lots of time on career planners like the one at the Prospects website, you start to discover all these potential opportunities you'd never before considered.

I really don't think it does any harm to broaden your horizons.  Having an alternative might be just what you need to glimpse a light at the end of the tunnel.  I considered a number of potential job routes, swearing off academia for life.  I considered joining the police, applying for graduate schemes with the civil service or NHS, writing books, or becoming a stay-at-home mum, living on a remote island on the west of Scotland, looking after the dog, cats and chickens, growing vegetables, making stuff on a sewing machine and making babies.  Needless to say, my fiancé thinks the latter is perhaps not quite financially viable, but the pipe dream makes life worth living.

At the end of the day, I've come full circle.  I'm considering academia again, but my search for alternatives has helped me develop a more philosophical attitude.  I'll give things a try.  If they don't work out, I'll try something else.  It doesn't really matter.

You won't know how to deal with the lull.

This isn't true for everyone, but I found that the lull I experienced during my second year was the biggest source of frustration for me.  I knew what I wanted/needed to do, but couldn't either because of lack of participants (undergrads aren't here to test), I needed to prepare for the upcoming conference, and because I just ran out of get-up-and-go.  

It can lead to a cycle of perpetual frustration - you're not as productive as you wanted to be, so you feel stressed and guilty.  These are tiring emotions that make you feel exhausted.  You're overtired and struggling to get dressed in the morning.  Then you're not as productive, because you're tired.  And so on.

For this, I don't have any stellar advice other than just try to get through it.  I will add that now I'm in my third year and I'm ridiculously busy (and third year comes with its own stresses believe me), this source of frustration is completely gone.  I made it to the other side.  You can too.

It's make or break.

I'm really not a fan of absolutes, but having successfully matriculated for my third year, I am sorry to say I believe this is true.  All the pressures of second year make it a very difficult time and you will struggle more with your self doubt, confusion, feelings of inadequacy and sense of purpose than you ever have.  There were at least five times in the last two months where I had written a letter of resignation to my supervisor, withdrawing from my PhD.  Each time, I saved it as a draft and made myself sleep on it, promising myself I'd send it first thing in the morning.  Except when morning came, I didn't.  

I truly believe that if you make it through your second year, you're going to make it to the end.  As I said above, you end up too busy to even think about quitting, the end feels like it's finally in sight and the whole burden is easier to bear.  I'd like to leave this point with a more positive sentiment, but this is how it goes I'm afraid.  

My experiences of second year are by no means typical, and if you're reading this and thinking 'None of this has happened to me!' that's a good thing!  But I wonder if there are a lot of people going through this now, or just recovering from it, who are feeling isolated or deflated because of it, so I really wanted to write this post to let you know it does get better!  There's still a huge amount of work to be done, but you can do it.  And if any of you reading want to chat about this sort of stuff, please feel free to contact me via the Not Just Another PhD Facebook page (please leave a comment asking me to PM you), or email me at (at)