Tuesday, 22 November 2011

What have you done, then?

I was rather horrified this week to receive an email asking me - and the other first year PhD students - to give a talk at the bi-monthly postgraduate seminar about how our research is progressing. My initial reaction was "But I've only been here a few weeks!", quickly replaced by "Oh God, it's nearly December..." And hey presto, you've all the necessary ingredients for a bout of depression, self-recrimination and anxiety.

It's something I continue to marvel at, that having left a career-route in the NHS mental health services to follow an academic path, I see many more instances of these mild problems than I ever did in the Adult Psychological Therapies Service. (To be fair, many of these instances may be mine...) This feeling of inadequacy we apparently all feel at various points is tricky in nature. Every time, I believe I am the only person to believe I have gone no where, that I have done nothing worthwhile, and that I am just waiting to be "found out" and dishonourably discharged. However, spend even just a tiny amount of time googling PhD Panic and you get a huge number of hits.

What do you know, I'm not the only person to have felt this way.

So returning from my emotional crises tangent, what have I done in the last couple of months? My first instinct is to say "Not very much", but my more rational mind reminds me to take a second to think about that answer, because I haven't spent all of the last couple of months on Facebook and playing World of Warcraft. (Just a little of the time).

I believe that what I have done so far is to lay a foundation. No, I haven't carried out an experiment yet. I have, however, submitted ethics and am just waiting for them to be returned. I also have my ethics for my next experiment written up, with just a couple of things to be added (based on the outcome of my pilot) before they can be submitted. I've also created an experiment plan. In other words, I've spent time thinking about my big question and what sorts of investigations I'd need to carry out to answer it.

I've spent a lot of time reading. Sometimes, reading is hard. It can be tiring and monotonous sifting through a seemingly endless pile of possibly relevant papers. I may have not written anything yet, or even developed a particularly tangible "story" in the literature, but I still think I've learned something. I'm beginning to see what makes a good paper and what makes a bad one. I'm beginning to think critically, on more than just a surface level.

Maybe the most important thing I've done in my first couple of months is settle in. I've learned how I like to work, I've met everyone in the department (and begun to be known by a few people too). I've developed friendships with my fellow PhD-first years, even though I kind of knew them already I do feel we've become closer. I've picked a second supervisor, and surprised myself by identifying him as someone I do really feel I could trust and like very much. I've gone to talks, seminars and presentations. I've started making plans for the long-term in my PhD and started to ask questions. Can I do this? Is this sort of experiment possible? Can I go to that conference? Could I work with this person?

So maybe I don't have much on paper. Nevertheless, when I actually think about it, I realise I've done some pretty important groundwork. The best thing about that, of course, means that the only way I can go is up.

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