Reflecting on a Year of PhD Study

This week, I, and most of the rest of my PhD cohort have been doing (subjected to, endured, suffered etc.) annual reviews, in which we received considered feedback from an academic not our supervisors and had to defend our proposals plus one chapter.  Afterwards I called up my sister to thank her for talking me down (again) two days before when I was paralysed with terror, and hysterical with panic. My sister pointed out that having been through the PhD process herself, she quite understands the pressure, the self-doubt, the imposter syndrome etc. etc. This may all sound melodramatic, but if you’ve ever looked into the haunted eyes of a PhD candidate in the last few months of writing up, or have been there yourself, you will know that not only is the work difficult and demanding, but that the whole process involves an emotional ride with huge peaks and troughs.

Year one, it seems to me is characterised by doubt. If like my colleagues and myself, you have conceived and are designing your own project, there’s a constant niggling feeling that perhaps you’re barking up the wrong tree, or that your methodology is all off, or when things get really bad, that you actually don’t understand the subject at all and what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here?

I KNOW that I’m not alone in this.

But, and there is a big silver-lining but. There is also the amazing fact of studying something in an enormous amount of detail with the help and support of experienced academics. I have heard so many stories about inept, and or, absent, supervisors over the years. People who had to swap advisors half way through because of an irreconcilable breakdown in relationship; or those whose supervisors just didn’t seem to give a hoot. I’ve been fortunate in that my experience has been about as far from this as possible. Far from feeling disenfranchised or lonely I am lucky to be in a department that values its PhDs. My own supervisors are absolutely fantastic – bossy, brainy, kind, encouraging, knowledgeable. I’ve received some searingly direct critical feedback too, which can be hard, but is also what helps you to move your work on and to develop into a proper academic.

For a person of already anxious disposition, prone to terrible self-doubt, it is an uncomfortable place to be. I’ve realised that I am afraid to take risks – to put my best ideas out there; I am afraid to commit things to paper in case they are proof perfect of my own intellectual shortcomings; I am afraid of showing myself up as a charlatan and a fraud. So this year I am going to commit to getting stuff on paper. Before I even pick up another book or article. And hopefully by this time next year, with several chapters under my belt, I will be saying that not only is the reading and learning bit fun, but also the writing bit.

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