I’m somehow a third of the way through my PhD journey! It’s slightly scary how 3 years seemed daunting at the beginning but now that I’m a year in it feels like a bat of an eyelid.
It’s inevitable that we’ll all face different challenges during our PhDs as every project is unique and we all have different approaches to any challenges we may face. I’d love to hear from other PhD researchers about how their first years have gone, get in touch!
Here are a few of the things I’ve enjoyed so far, followed by a couple of issues I’ve faced:
Favourite things about doing a PhD
- Having the freedom to do your own project: My working style is quite independent so this suits me well. This can sometimes feel like a big responsibility though; ultimately if something goes wrong you are the one that would need to fix it! Having supervisors you can rely on is important because they can provide support if anything does go wrong (I’ve been very lucky with mine!).
- Meeting like-minded people: I’ve made some amazing friends so far (you know who you are!), some of whom aren’t actually working in the same discipline as me. I’ve previously found that many researchers tend to gravitate towards people researching very similar topics to them, but I think that is hugely restrictive as people working on something different to you are likely to bring new perspectives. Plus, you’ll have lots to talk about!
- Conferences and training: Yep, I’m a nerd. I love attending conferences! You learn so much and meet so many people (and lunch is usually included)! I’ve been very lucky so far and have been able to get to quite a bit; I’m particularly looking forward to 4 days of GIS training and a soil conference in the next few weeks!
4. Flexible working: I’m a firm believer that forcing yourself to be trapped in an office between 9-5 every day is unproductive for many, including myself. I probably work longer hours than ‘full time’ but I do it when I need to and where I feel comfortable. I like having a change of scenery, particularly when I’m writing; the world is my office! The only risk with that is losing the ability to ‘switch off’; because I work from home a lot I often find it’s 10:00pm and I’m still working on and off, not good.
Least favourite things about doing a PhD (don’t worry, there aren’t many!):
- Isolation: At times I will have multiple days in a row where I won’t speak to anyone. I find that hard, but generally manageable as I try to compensate for that by seeing friends as much as possible outside of work, so that’s not really what I mean by ‘isolation’. I’m talking more about isolation WITHIN my PhD; people who aren’t doing a PhD often don’t really know what it’s like to be doing a PhD and can’t engage with me much about it. Actually, I think the majority of people I know don’t probably know exactly what I’m studying or why I’m doing it! That’s totally fine, I don’t blame anyone for that, but my PhD is a huge part of my life so it’s hard that I can’t always discuss what I’m going through. I was the first person in my family to go to University, so it can be very tricky to articulate what I’m up to with them. Again, no-ones fault, but it is difficult.
- Finances: My biggest struggle has undoubtedly been personal finances; the stress of trying to get by on a PhD stipend is MUCH worse than the stress I get from actually doing the PhD itself. I’ve had to take additional jobs wherever I can (bat surveys, tutoring, invigilating exams…) but often find I simply don’t have the time. It admittedly doesn’t help that I’m living in an expensive area of Bristol and that I socialise/travel sometimes, but actually when I work so hard during the week I need to be able to let loose sometimes or I won’t be able to function! I’m trying to see my financial crisis as good thing as I may (finally) learn how to budget and I will have built more experience through my other jobs.
3. My voice: I’m doing some interviews as part of my research, and every single time I have to transcribe them I cringe at the sound of my own voice! I’m hoping I’ll get used to this eventually; if not, I’m getting elocution lessons!
4. People comparing PhD researchers to undergraduate students: If one more person asks how my ‘long summer’ was, honestly! We do not get the same amount of time off as undergraduates and it really annoys me when people think we do, especially when most of us tend to work very long hours! Gah.
Doing other ‘stuff’ alongside the PhD
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think a PhD should be all consuming. There are so many other opportunities out there and I think it’s important to grab them whilst you can. Helping colleagues is hugely important; I’ve just gotten involved in an innovative farmers field trial, where I’ll be helping Thames Water to show farmers that using no till and cover cropping is beneficial both to the environment and to themselves. This is a win-win because they get some help, and I get some experience! I also think it’s important to help fellow PhD researchers out wherever possible, even if it’s just sharing ideas or having a rant together!
I also love science communication and want to get involved with as many events as possible; I recently spent a weekend at the Rothamsted festival of ideas which was great fun and hugely valuable in terms of experience.
What comes next?
I’ve started fieldwork so now I just have to continue collecting data for the next year! I’m also hoping to take a few months out of the PhD to do a policy related placement somewhere so that I can learn about how to make my research more policy-relevant. I’m also trying to volunteer whenever I can; I don’t have much spare time but I think it’s important to do as it’s both fulfilling and useful.
I’m also going to continue volunteering for as long as possible, particularly during thesis writing as I’ll need to have breaks from writing. At the moment, I volunteer at my local community farm and I’m an advisor for the Bat Conservation Trust’s helpline. Both of these have given me some useful experience; I have to conduct telephone interviews as part of my PhD research, so giving advice over the phone has built my confidence with that, and the farm volunteering has helped me to immerse myself in physically seeing how agriculture works whilst getting outdoors and meeting new people.
I definitely couldn’t have gotten this far without the emotional (and often financial!) support of my lovely partner, he is my rock (cringe, I know). Shout out to Mulu too; whilst he’s often a distraction, he provides huge amounts of comfort on my rare anxious days!
Anyone else had similar experiences?
If you have had a completely different experience to me, I’d love to hear from you! What problems have you faced during your PhD? What are the best things about doing a PhD?