Reflections On PhD Life So Far

Although at times it feels like I’ve been doing my PhD for years (usually in the days just before a deadline…) I recently realised it hasn’t even been six months! The first few months of a PhD have been a whirlwind of new experiences, so I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned along the way. 

Walk before you can run

It’s a given that many of us are raring to go at the start of our PhD, and we’re all learning as we conduct our research. For some of us, embarking on a PhD involves learning a whole new subject or skillset. My PhD topic, stemming from what I observed working in the publishing industry, touches a bit on publishing contract law. With no law background except what I experienced in my job, learning the ins and outs of English Contract Law has been one of my first tasks. It’s been humbling, to say the least, as there’s no way to speed things up and get going when you’re learning a whole other subject so far out your comfort zone. However, the learning experience has been rewarding and helped me learn that time put in now will allow me to ‘run’ later.

You * do * have time to get sick

OK – setting the current global pandemic aside for a moment (…) for this point, I went into my PhD as one of those people who believed they ‘didn’t have time’ to get ill’ when it came to short-term illnesses. Two months after starting my PhD, I came down with shingles. At first, I thought, ‘great! A few weeks forced to stay at home, I’ll get tonnes of work done.’ Wrong! I was in for a debilitating few weeks of high fever, and one side of my body on fire. Even crafting an email took ten times longer than usual, as concentrating was incredibly hard. I ended up taking two weeks out, which initially had me feeling anxious and riddled with guilt. There was so much to do! So many training events and workshops to attend! However, it was fine. I worked a little harder in the following weeks to make up for lost time. I still met all my deadlines and didn’t burn out trying to catch up. I couldn’t even tell you what workshops I had to cancel now – and have continued to progress in my work just fine, so they probably weren’t as important as I thought they were at the time. I’m aware that the further into my PhD I go, the more ‘scary’ taking time off will be, even though I understand the importance of putting my health first. But I’ll always look back on that experience and remember that, of course, there is always time to recover.

Having a supportive community around you is important

I realised quickly that having people around you that understand the challenges of a PhD is incredibly important. On the one hand this seems obvious – but on the other, embarking on a PhD can be an isolating experience for many. Thankfully, one of my best friends was already a year into her PhD, there’s a wonderful cohort in the Arts and Humanities at Stirling (hello, if you’re reading! If you’re not, perhaps you’re not as wonderful as I thought…) and I’ve been enjoying engaging with some online PhD communities (some of which you can find here).

That’s enough from me. For those not yet halfway through their first year, please do share what you’ve learned with us on Twitter: @sgsahblog

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