Monday, August 20, 2012

It's a roller coaster

When you start a PhD your fellow graduate students will not hesitate to tell you that it will have its up and downs, and I thought I had believed them at the time. That naiveté is now way, way behind me. Or am I still kidding myself?

I have now come to the end of my first year as a PhD student at the University of Exeter and while I am preparing for my second year assessment talk I find myself looking back and trying to work out where a year went.  

It seems that no PhD journey is alike right out of the gate; even though everyone is assigned the same task of writing up a literature review of the current field. By the end of your first year you could already have your name on a paper, have gone to conferences and workshops, or been working on the groundwork for future projects, but one thing you should not be doing is not holding yourself to the milestones of your peers. It is just not worth it.

Over the course of the year I have worked on things I had never thought I could do before and it felt great to achieve something myself. Although at the moment I am relying on others observational data all of the code is my own and thus far it seems to be holding its own (something for which I am very proud as I would never have said that I was great at that aspect of data analysis). There is one thing that can be said for writing your own code, you will understand exactly what it is doing and hopefully why it is you are doing it, so it is a practice I highly recommend (unless the task is ridiculous and long winded and there is a tried and tested code out in ‘The Verse’ that works every time). 

Something that you may already know about a PhD, or at least what most of the online comics depict, is the fact that you are a slave to your supervisor, I am sorry to say that this is the case. It may be to a greater or lesser extent but at some point you will turn around and ask “why do I have to do this” and the answer will probably be because your supervisor didn’t want to or didn’t have the time to do it themselves. 

As the title to this post states (and the comic above shows) it is a roller coaster; with projects having highs and lows towing your emotions along with it. But although the length of the lows may outweigh that of the highs there is nothing like the elation of getting to the end of a project, or merely getting a code that works (though if this happens the first time you run it, be weary). The downs are what make the ups so great and the thing that you will remember about your work the most. 

There is another thing that you should experience as a PhD student and it is spiritedly named ‘The Fear’. The fear is not merely the sense of dread when you have to present something to your supervisor, nor is it the embarrassment of asking what might turn out to be a very simple question. The Fear is questioning how you thought you would be able to do this in the first place, asking ‘what were they thinking when they hired me, surely someone else would have been better than me?’ The Fear is not knowing if anything you are doing is right and worrying continuously if they will eventually figure it all out and kick you to the curb. 

I have had The Fear and I no doubt will have it again in the future and even though at the time I will feel like the world is falling down around me The Fear is a good thing it means you try harder, it means you ask more questions, and it means you care about what you are doing.
And just remember you could have been working less hours for more money and be bored out of your skull for a living. 

Recommended: Check out PhD Comics for some great insight into the world of a graduate student.