Half way there?


It’s been a strange couple of months. Between recent illness and receiving some sad news, it has felt difficult to focus on my work or feel that it is very important in comparison to other things that are going on. The benefits of doing a PhD are a high amount of flexibility and being able to direct your own time. However, this also means that when things aren’t going so well, no one is there day-to-day to make sure that you are still getting on with your work. But time has been marching on nonetheless- I’m now 18 months into my 3 years of funding, and the fact remains that I have to finish this thing.

Second year is an odd time. People who are further ahead with their PhD than me say that second year was their favourite because by this point you know what you’re doing (unlike in the first year), but aren’t under the pressure to finish like during the final year. I understand what they mean, but in a way I feel like things are more uncertain than they ever have been. First year, though scary because most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing, was at least more structured. At my university, the upgrade process was divided in two, which meant that there were two defined deadlines for which I had to write progress reports. Compared to this, second year feels like a mass of uncertainty.

It feels like all of my work is built on shifting ground. I have data, but little analysis. Ideas for how I’m actually going to write about my data change all the time. After finishing my first draft chapter I feel like I ought to have a clearer picture of what the rest of my chapters will be like, but in reality I just don’t. One of my supervisors has told me that I just need to embrace the uncertainty and accept that eventually it will all come together, but I’m finding this really difficult!

Since the start of February I have had quite a few self-imposed deadlines. I’ve needed to submit abstracts before closing dates, write and deliver conference presentations and teach lectures and seminars.  Glad as I am that these things have been successfully completed and are now behind me, they served as key milestones to be worked towards. Having these deadlines also forced me to complete particular amounts of work within timeframes that otherwise I would probably not have worked to.

Sometimes I wish that the PhD was more structured and that someone would just tell me what to do for a while. I especially feel this way at the moment, when it feels difficult to work because of other things happening in my life. Yet I know that a lot of the value of doing a PhD lies in learning to be self-motivated and have faith in my own judgments and decisions about my work. I’m gradually realising that completing a PhD is much more about endurance and resilience than it is about intelligence or knowledge.

In his research on the stages of doctoral study, Grover (2007) refers to second year as the ‘stage of engagement’ where students begin to work with a clear sense of purpose. Nice as this sounds, I’m not sure it’s particularly accurate. I’d argue that second year is actually more about learning to grit your teeth against the uncertainty and focus on the long-term goal- finishing the bloody thing! So in the next few days I’m going to try and do this. I’ll spend some time assessing what I’ve achieved so far, reflect on what I’ve learned, and consider how to move forward into the second half of this endurance test we call the PhD.