Monday, 27 August 2012

Hitting the Wall pt. 2: The Door to Second Year

Last Monday was supposed to be my "official" return to university life after my holiday.  I'd had a lovely break, we went to the Isle of Mull where it was sunny every day all day and we had a brilliant time.  Will and I even got engaged!  (Woop!!)  With my lit. review behind me and all this happiness buoying me up, I was ready to go.

Then I actually got back to uni.  I had my TMC and because I'm not a complete n00b anymore, I had to answer tougher questions than last time, which I was unprepared for.  I got my feedback on my lit. review (which was pretty good by the way - very pleased!) and got home that day feeling absolutely exhausted and a bit deflated.  Somehow, all my enthusiasm had slithered away to be replaced by an illogical feeling of inadequacy.

I had hit the wall.  Again.

At first, I didn't recognise the symptoms.  Although I had been caught a little unawares in my TMC, it was all very constructive and I had solid directions in which to proceed.  I'd had positive feedback on my lit. review.  I had no idea what was causing me to feel so negative about my PhD.  Every time I sat down to work on my corrections on the review, or decided I should head into the office, my brain threw a tantrum like the proverbial two-year-old.  I didn't even want to think about it!

I'll clarify now that I still don't know what triggered the experience.  So apart from that Monday back, I hadn't done anything PhD related all week.  It's a confusing and bewildering position to be in, when you're almost observing yourself externally, seeing the emotional response to the PhD without really understanding why it's happening.  I'm a logical, rational person (most of the time), and it just didn't make sense.

Over the weekend, I decided I needed to come up with a plan.  (I like those).  Logical or not, I was struggling to get back to work.  While a few days were acceptable, I couldn't continue wallowing and avoiding my PhD like the plague.  So, I decided that if my brain was going to act like a two year old, I was going to treat it like one.  I allowed myself a lie in today, on the proviso that once I was awake, I had a shower, got ready and went straight to uni.  It's not a full day's work, but it's some work, which is an improvement on none.  My reward for completing a few hours work today is an unadulterated evening of relaxing doing whatever I want.

Like I said, I'm keeping it simple.  Behaviour + reward = positive reinforcement.  I'm not a psychologist for nothing ;-)

On reflection though, this weekend I also realised that while there might not have been a specific trigger for my unwillingness, I did realise there could be a broader problem: fear.  While I haven't fully completed my conversion yet - that won't be done until I complete my talk for the School in October - I am now considered to be a second year.  Now, I'm not sure how true these will hold, but from what I've heard and read from other peoples' experiences, my impressions of second year weren't good.  I'd been told right from the start by so many people I'd lost count: "Second year is going to be shit."  


I can see why - you're no longer a first year, which in turn means you are (a) expected to know your shit, (b) be role models/support for the new intake of PhD students and (c) no longer able to excuse ignorance.  There are similar transitional points between seniour years of your undergraduate degree, but those are marked by a long three-and-a-half month break to acclimatise.  I had a couple of weeks.  It's hard to make that switch and feel prepared for these new expectations.

It's not just other peoples' expectations that were getting to me though, it was my own too.  I think that the majority of people who are doing PhDs are over-achievers.  This is not a criticism - hey, I'm one too! - just an observation.  But this also means we expect a lot from ourselves.  I wanted to be two studies down by now with more underway and a couple of chapters drafted out.  Obviously, I didn't manage that.  But this feeling of being behind and not meeting expectations is still there.

When you look at it in black and white, the fear is a pretty obvious response.  Realistically, I can manage, but not completely change the high expectations I have of myself.  What I can change though is how I hold myself to them.  I think the key is being positive rather than negative.  Just like I wouldn't berate a student who was struggling to understand, I shouldn't berate myself.  Hence my plan of gentle coaxing.

Second year is scary because you're all grown up now.  However, you're still a student, and no one expects you to be producing work that is the equal of your supervisors, or even equal to the standard your own work will be in six months, or a year.  

So my suggestion to you, if you hit the wall of Second Year Fear, is to creep along it until you find the door.  Coax yourself through.  Be nice.  Take your time.  And remember: you got this.

I'll see you on the other side.


  1. Thank you for writing this! I needed to hear this from somebody else!

  2. I think we all do sometimes! Glad it was helpful for you :D


  3. u guys r taking phd too seriously :P
    it shouldn't be that way.

  4. Pikir, remember as I said in the About page, this blog is designed to be a reflective tool for me. While yes, sometimes the PhD is fun, a lot of the time, I do feel a lot of pressure. That's how it is, so that's how I write about it.