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.


  1. Great post its really useful to us
    thanks for sharing

  2. Nice blog! your pictures are so good

  3. Fantastic blog
    keep it up :)

  4. Thanks for sharing this valuable and useful information. You must have researched a lot on this topic. Great job done keep posting more
    PhD thesis Proof Reading

  5. Thanks a lot for sharing such useful information. Great job done keep posting more
    Phd guidance help