The Lament of a First-Year PhD Student

As I near the end of my first year, I reflect on the realities of being a PhD student. Expect brutal honesty and stream-of-consciousness grumbling.

It’s safe to say that this year has been a year of ups and downs. While each milestone I’ve reached and surpassed has made me feel like I’m on track and capable of completing my PhD, there’s at least a hundred other issues that drag me back down to feeling like I’m not doing enough.

Now that, I know, is the ever-present imposter syndrome. I try to ignore it and stay motivated but, sometimes, you’ve just got to tackle your fears head-on.

My main fear is that I’m not good enough to do a PhD in the first place; the second is that my motivations for doing the PhD are completely wrong.

Having such a rocky start to the programme really hasn’t helped at all – losing an entire supervisory team within a few months wasn’t ideal to say the least.

Things like this make me think that staying on at my university was a bad idea. I often think about switching to another, or taking a break and starting again altogether but, equally, what will that achieve? Will it just delay the inevitable? Push me back to where I started when I could just ride it out at Sunderland and crack on with what I already have?

The main drawback I have at the minute is that I have no social life.

Plans are made few and far between, and always months in advance. I feel those forewarned markers of isolation – I have few friends that I keep in touch with outside of Uni and our cohort of PhD students is small. I thank the Gods for my ever-understanding colleagues at work who offer a brief respite at the end of a busy work week, though.

Honestly, I was spoiled during my undergrad/postgrad courses because we had such a tight-knit group – always there when you need them. Now that the majority have moved on to new careers and full-time work, it becomes harder to stay in touch. Distance, time and money makes everything more difficult and I guess it’s also a case of not having much in common anymore – the one thing that unites a cohort is their course.

This is not a lament for the past, however. I’m grateful for my academic journey and wish the very best for those I’ve met along the way.

As much as it sucks having a smaller social circle, it’s the exhaustion that gets you at this stage…. which you know, prevents you from going out and having a social life.

Self-funding is a daring option, I see that now in retrospect. With self-funding, you have full control and a lot of freedom with your project. On the flip-side, however, you have to be able to support yourself without the help of research grants and sponsorships. You also lack the structure of a deadline which is something I personally thrive on.

For me, self-funding also means having to work 20+ hours on Thursdays and the entire weekend just to try and make ends meet. I keep telling myself that, at the end of it all, it’ll be worth it.

But, will it?

I’m currently looking into the industry for work (post-PhD) and have found a few positions that’d be absolutely perfect if I stick these next two years out.

Literally dream job material.

The university keeps dangling teaching opportunities for us PhD students but, right now? I’m not interested. If I lack passion in doing my own research, what makes them think that it’d be acceptable for me to teach students actually paying for their higher education?

I abandoned my plans to teach full-time after my Masters to persue this PhD. I’d resigned myself to research, not teaching. It just seems, at my institution, it’s not so much about what the university can do to support you with your research, it’s actually what you can do for them and I can’t stand it… but that’s academia.

It’s just hard to keep pretending like this where I want to be in my life.

But, when I think about it, I thrive under pressure. It’s usually pressure I put on myself. I just need to work out if this is the right kind.

To be quite honest, I’ve just came out of the other side of a bout of depression. I hate to use that word as it’s too much like admitting it to myself. In short, I blew a massive opportunity and it still bothers me today. It’s something completely unrelated to my PhD and, for that reason, I’m building myself back up (literally!) and planning to reapply for it next year.

That feeling of failure that I still carry around a year later is what really scares me about not seeing this PhD through. It’s my fuel that I’m going to harness to complete it, for myself, more than anything.

While the PhD is full of ups, downs, disappointments and pressure, that what the programme is all about, I now realise. Saying that you ‘have a PhD’ is not just about your research project. Now I’m in the process of writing one myself, I’ve realised that the research part is just a byproduct.

A PhD is a title granted to those who have overcame personal adversity, life and all of it’s challenges to knuckle down and produce a great piece of research despite their setbacks. It’s a tough road ahead, but one that I look forward to tackling and, most of all, completing.

That is what I look forward to… it’s the only thing I’m working towards. Not some University postition, not the title of ‘Dr’ or the opportunities it inevitably provides, or even a pat on the back for surviving.

It’s just that fleeting moment where you successfully defend your PhD and know it’s all over.

That feeling of being complete.

Bring it on.

If you honestly made it this far, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your support keeps me going. Really, it does.

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