In the beginning there was the word and the word was ahhhhh! Ok so I started a PhD and the first thing i found out was that this was…actually i found out nothing at all. The first year of a PhD is not exactly what you would term structured. The reality is that you are likely to be told to just ‘ready steady GO!’ The same is generally said for any postgrad and the way to react is very simple and should, and will, be followed to the letter: 1.) Celebrate (Woo! I got in!), 2.) PANIC!!!
So let me tell you how it is, this odd and unique experience, the first year of a very long period where you feel like you are achieving nothing and drink way too much tea.
In the words of a very wise colleague of mine ‘If you don’t regularly have a breakdown, you are doing it wrong!’ But ultimately, in the run of things, if you are not enjoying it you are also doing it wrong. That is the thing with a PhD you see, its your chance to finally do what you want to do, to research what you want to research, to go where NO STUDENT HAS GONE BEFORE! *cough* sorry, side tracked…Basically one does a PhD not to add to the research of the age but because they have a love of a subject and they want to find out more. If you are doing it for the sake of doing it then you are going to have four years of misery, too many energy drinks and no money for no reason, which is frankly a waste.
Lets take me, after all I am the one writing this, I think, yes it’s definitely me…as you can see doing a PhD can make you quite erratic, eccentric and noticeably tired even in the middle of a relaxing weekend. But I research what I research because I find it interesting and I not only see the benefits of my research for future students of history but for myself. In my first year as a PhD student I developed awesome researching skills, read a ridiculous amount of interesting hypotheses (most of which I decided were arguable) and I finally learnt to touch type after twenty-one years in a technology age (it was seriously about time). I stressed over time and work loads and whether my topic was original but I loved what I was doing and that made it worth my while.
But we come back to the same point we started with; when one starts one does not have a clue where to go, what to do and generally why one is doing it. The university only gives you so much direction so let me share some of my wisdom for those of you starting out, continuing or who are just interested. In the words of Corporal Jones DON’T PANIC! Well panic a little bit, that’s healthy, but don’t stress out. No one knows what they are doing at the start, you are not there by a fluke (imposter-syndrome is very common – I have always been a sufferer myself), people are interested in what you have to say and don’t take any criticism to heart.
The best thing to do is read, read like you have never read before! It is very rare for someone to start out knowing exactly what they want to do and even when they do it doesn’t often work out the same as what it started. Don’t panic if you only have a general topic, it took a super intelligent Doctor I know two and a half years of his PhD to work out what on earth he was going to write about. Obviously don’t fluff around but one can only benefit from knowing their topic area from all angles first and then deciding where to take it.
You WILL be prone to procrastination. I certainly found new and exciting ways to waste my time. When you work as hard as is required with a PhD this is actually healthy in my opinion. About the only time my brain turned off the Greek translations, medical jargon and epigraphic analysis was during an episode of QI or a random trip to the supermarket to buy new eyeliner and chocolate which I didn’t need. FYI you will forget fruit and vegetables within the first few months and convert to instant meals, try to avoid this if possible…I’m not sure it’s possible…
Everyone’s first year goes a little differently, there is no structured instructions because they would never apply to everyone involved. The thing to do is work out what works for you, discuss it with your academics, your peers, your pets, and then accept that it isn’t going to go as planned. Love what you are doing, if you don’t you will go mad. You may go mad anyway but generally in a more lovable way. So keep this in mind after your 20th coca cola of the week. You are not alone, we are watching! Twilight Zone Theme