The Terrible Twos of PhD life

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As I am slowly approaching the end of my second year as a PhD student, I thought it would be good to write a post dedicated to my PhD more generally, rather than mindfulness, which is of course my research area. If any other PhD students (or graduates) are reading this, you might recognise yourself in what I write, or you may find that your experience is (or was) totally different from mine. In fact, as I am writing this, there is that slight possibility that I will change my mind about it tomorrow. But if I learned one thing from studying mindfulness, is that all we have is the present moment. And the only way we can learn from this moment is through direct experience.

So today’s blog post is written with this in mind. It is a brief account of my PhD experience so far, some potentially helpful tips for those of you who are in my position, and simply an outlet for how I am feeling at this particular moment in time.

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But what is so terrible about the second year?Β Perhaps the title of this blog is somewhat dramatic. I am still enjoying my PhD very much. I love what I do. But I am not going to lie – this year has been full and ups and downs.

The second year is (arguably) the most important and hardest year of the PhD programme. The first year consists mainly of planning (and what I call “settling in”, which others might call “slacking off”), happy in the knowledge that you still have two (or more) years to finish your work. The third (and usually final) year consists of finishing up said work, writing up your thesis, and having a breakdown or two, but within this lies the knowledge that it will all soon be over.

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The second year is therefore often the year where most of the actual work is done. Not only is this work stressful in itself (recruiting participants, analysing data, and facing every problem that comes with running experiments), but you are also faced with the knowledge that you don’t have much time left to finish your PhD. In fact, if you want to finish on time (and funding often dictates that you must), your second year will definitely be a busy one. On top of this, as a second year student you are (understandably) expected to be independent in your work, if not an actual expert in your research area, complete with published articles and finished studies.

Consequently, stress, pressure, and panic may set in. I realise this post might come across as if I am in a pretty dark place, so let me assure you – I am not. I am not even going to speculate if my mindfulness and meditation practice has kept me sane throughout my PhD (it definitely has), because ultimately I know that I would not rather be doing anything else. I am still excited about my research and I love the benefits that come with doing a PhD. I love the flexibility of making my own schedule. I love conferences and getting the opportunity to travel. What’s more surprising is that I love research. What’s most surprising is that I love writing.

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So why am I writing this post? Primarily I just want to acknowledge the Terrible Twos of PhD life – a very common phenomenon, which others have called the second year blues or the second year slump. Secondly, I want to offer some tips of what I have learned so far that has kept me going when times got tough.

  1. Remember that you are not in competition with anyone. This is probably the most important lesson of all. Others will have ten studies completed, five papers published, and half the thesis written by the time they reach their second year. Improbable? Yes. Does it seem that way when you yourself are in your second year? Yes. Remember that everyone’s journey is different. And most people around you probably feel the exact same way.
  2. Just keep going. It is easy to get overwhelmed when you think about all of the things that you have to do. So just focus on one of them. In fact, don’t even focus on one complete task, just focus on the small steps that it involves. Basically, just do something. Think progress not results.
  3. Read my previous blog post on What Doing a PhD in Mindfulness Has Taught Me About Doing a PhD. In this blog post I talk about dealing with rejection (I am currently undergoing the very long process of editing a paper I wrote for re-submission to a journal that rejected it the first time around), celebrating success, no matter how small (I have almost finished revising this paper), and putting mental health first. Maybe mental health means meditating or practicing mindfulness, maybe it means finding a work-life balance, or maybe it means seeking professional help. Whatever you need, you can (and should) get it.
  4. Bonus point! When things do go wrong (and they will), you might find that you have no motivation, energy, or willpower to do any work. This has probably been the biggest problem for me so far. The first step should of course be to seek help from your supervisor, or any other colleague, who can help you address the problem so that you know how to proceed. But sometimes the motivation is just not there. You have tried to just keep going (point 2 above), but you are simply not getting anything done. My solution for this – take the day off! I am not saying quit or take a year off. I am just saying take some time off, and I mean really off. The worst thing you can do is give yourself a break and then feel guilty and stressed all day for giving yourself a break. When you are off, be off.

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So I think I have rambled on enough for today. But I would really love to hear from fellow PhD students about your experiences of doing a PhD and staying positive during your second year. Leave a comment below (or on my Instagram page) and make sure to subscribe to stay up to date with new content (and my research)!

PS. Special shout out to PhD Comics whose art I have used for this blog post. They have an awesome sale going on, so make sure to check them out πŸ™‚Β 

6 Comments

    1. Thank you for your comment and for following my blog ☺️ I am very interested in your story (from the title of your blog) so will be checking out your blog too! ❀️

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