Personal · PhD · York

6 Months into the PhD

At the end of 2012 I wrote a blog post explaining Why I Decided to Quit My Job and Move 200 Miles to do a PhD. Now, half a year later, I take a look back at the first six months of my PhD and consider the highs, the lows and what it’s been like to adjust to the student lifestyle again.

Firstly, I feel I should apologise to all PhD students past and present. I realise now that I came into this whole thing with swaggering over-confidence. I’d been working full-time while I did my Masters part-time, and refused to believe that a PhD could be any harder than that. But what a learning curve the past six months have been, and I don’t just mean from hitting the books! I can’t remember any time in my adult life that I’ve done so much soul-searching, or been on such an emotional rollercoaster. And this is why.

Structure

Studying for a PhD involves a tremendous change in lifestyle when compared to the 9-5 working-week structure that I’ve become used to over the past five years. Despite cursing at times the 7am Monday alarm in my editorial office jobs, that working week gave my life a sense of rhythm and routine that I didn’t appreciate at the time. Being a PhD student means being in complete control of your time – no seminars or lectures to attend (unless you choose to audit Masters classes, which I did with Latin) and very few deadlines. Even my supervisions are only once a month. This might sound like heaven, but in reality it has probably been the change that I’ve found it hardest to adapt to. Being alone with the books all week has left me at times feeling isolated and a bit adrift, lost in a sea of reading material. I’m very lucky though, because my department has a dedicated working space for PhD students – we are allocated a desk each, so I have the option to go there when I need some company and sanity (although a room full of PhD students very rarely offers the latter!).

Time Management

This brings me onto time management. When I started my PhD I said very resolutely to myself that I’d maintain my 9-5 working ethic and do a full working week, every week. I have since realised that there are serious problems with this plan. Doing a PhD demands very different skills to working in an office. It’s intellectually exhausting in a way that editing never was for me. Have you ever tried reading and writing scholarly criticism for a full 7-hour day, 5 days a week? It’s nigh on impossible. I found I was beating myself up for procrastinating (like rewatching all 7 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 6 months) or doing life admin-type tasks in the middle of the working day and not being consistently productive from 9-5. Doing a PhD requires not only the grunt work of reading, but also flashes of inspiration – and these don’t necessarily come when they’re bidden. I tend to get them at the least opportune times, like when I’m in the shower, singing Alanis Morissette’s back catalogue, or working out at the gym. So I’ve made peace with other ways of working, and have realised that giving myself a mental break is just as vital as doing the hard work of reading, writing and thinking.

A PhD is Not Just a Thesis

I won’t lie, it’s been a bit of a shock to discover just how much PhD students are expected to cram in alongside writing an 80-100,000 word thesis. I suppose I envisaged sitting in the library for 3 years, and then Ta Dah! – a thesis.  What’s so hard about writing 80,000 words in three years, eh? But even if that was all it is, the sheer volume of material you have to read would still fill up 3 years quite well – unlike in a BA or MA, where you do your research, hand in your essay and then get a mark, with a PhD you’re supposed to be THE authority in your subject. Scholars in the outside world will (it is hoped) read your thesis. You’re supposed to know your sh*t and write authoritatively, and this requires LOTS of reading, not just on your specific subject, but all around it too. You don’t want to get egg on your face by missing out something important. Add to this supervisions; mandatory and optional training courses; writing conference papers; speaking at, attending and organising conferences; going to reading groups or organising them; Thesis Advisory Panels; taking part in the activities of the department; learning Latin, Old French, Old English and palaeography, as well as trying to write articles/chapters, teaching and marking (although I haven’t had to do the latter three yet as I’m still in my first year) and you find your time pretty well-filled.

It’s all great stuff though, and one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since starting my PhD is the overwhelming amount of opportunities that present themselves to doctoral students – a week of AHRC-funded archives training at the National Archives at Kew in March, a two-week, all expenses paid trip to Vienna for European manuscripts training in August,  launching my very own course in Arthurian traditions at the Centre for Lifelong Learning attached to the university, and many more besides. All of these wonderful experiences wouldn’t be possible if I wasn’t here. Doing a PhD is so much more challenging and competitive than I ever thought it would be, but it is also incredibly fulfilling and rewarding.

Money

Funding. Some people have it. Some, like me, do not. I’m used to having a stable income, and the fact that I no longer have one has kept me awake at night more than any other issue at various points over the past 6 months. Wondering how I’m going to afford to live past my first year, and whether I did the right thing in leaving behind a successful career has induced panicked cold sweats. Also wondering ‘Am I actually good enough to succeed at this?’ But despite these worries, I still haven’t developed that essential ‘poor student’ approach to life. I can’t live on noodles. I can’t abide cheap wine anymore. I hate the fact that a lot of students don’t offer to buy each other drinks – it just seems so miserly. I’ve had a taste of a ‘grown-up’ world with income, and am finding it hard to go back. I’m sure this will all work itself out in time (probably when I’m so poor that I’m faced with the choice between living on noodles or starving to death). Or I’ll have to get a part-time job (not as ideal as it sounds – see above re: time management). In the meantime I’ll keep applying for funding and have everything crossed.

New Places Can Be Lonely… At First

Making new friends when you’re an adult is a funny thing. I’m an only child of a single parent, and when my mum and I used to go on holiday she understandably enjoyed her ‘me’ time with a glass of wine and a book and would always encourage me to go off and make friends. I never found this difficult – it was usually just as easy as walking up to someone of a similar age and asking them if they wanted to hang out. But when you’re an adult in a new place, it seems like social protocol gets in the way. Another newbie started his PhD within a day of me, and we bonded quickly and easily over our shared newness, but everyone else already knew each other and although they were all welcoming, it felt difficult to penetrate pre-existing friendship groups. My friends and family were all in London and Wales, and for a good few months I felt quite lonely in this new city where I had made lots of acquaintances but no real friends. I wanted to jump past the acquaintance part and get straight down to the business of being good pals. Of course friendship is something that comes with time and shared experiences, it doesn’t happen overnight. I knew that. Loneliness can amplify other issues – as it turns out a problem shared really is a problem halved, and since making a group of really lovely friends here I feel like a lot of my worries have melted away, seeming less important. We talk and laugh, and life is better.

All in All…

I’m loving it! Doing a PhD in a new city has forced me to tap strengths in myself that I haven’t had to draw on in a long time. You don’t realise how much you rely on everyday contact with loved ones until you’re apart, or how safe a routine can make you feel until you’re not in it anymore. All the inner turmoil of the last 6 months has made me stronger, more resolute, more at peace with the decisions I’ve made, and more determined to succeed and grasp every opportunity I can. I’m happy, really genuinely happy. And how could I not be? My daily occupation is researching interesting things! I cannot emphasise strongly enough how very privileged I feel to be doing what I love. You’ll often see me smiling to myself as I walk along York’s medieval streets, happy in my little medieval world.

6 thoughts on “6 Months into the PhD

  1. I could never convey just how badly I needed to read something like this, right here and right now. I’m a prospective PhD student, about to begin my studies in Medieval History at York, full of doubts and fears, but your post encouraged me and filled my heart with a smile. Thank you for this. Keep posting! I promise to keep on following the insights you care to share.

  2. Hi Bex!

    I’m glad everything is going well for you and that, on the whole, you are enjoying your PhD so far. I’ve wondered a few times how you’re getting on! I can relate to a few things in your post- flashes of inspiration often come to me in the shower and it becomes a race against time to get myself un-soaped so I can write them down quickly; I also could not live on noodles again and I completely understand your loneliness. I am a mum of a one-year-old so switched from Nottingham to Open University, and distance learning is a lonely game sometimes. Still, it is all worth it in the end!

    I’ll look forward to your next update, and I continue to wish you well.

    Sarah xx

  3. Hi Bex,
    Glad your are enjoying your PhD study. I’m so glad that you have written this post on your PhD student life it has made me even more determined to do my PhD in Medieval history. I’m currently a history degree undergraduate at the Open University so like Sarah I know how the loneliness gets to you sometimes but I then remember why I am doing this and was my dream is and that definitely makes me feel a lot better. I absolutely love you blog and I love Sarah’s too which she already knows. Can’t wait to your next post on how your PhD is going. I also wish you all the luck in the world 🙂

    Lauren xx

  4. Hey Bex! 🙂 This is a great post. I can relate a few of the things you describe to my five months in India. I think once you understand that loneliness, like you say, is something that infiltrates your mindset to make other problems seem worse – that’s half the battle. When you understand what is influencing your state of mind, and that most of it is exascerbated by circumstances, rather than being more innate – it’s easier to deal with. Also I’m very aware of how most of the time we tend to live our lives in familiar surroundings, and going outside this is challenging. I don’t just mean physical environment – I mean the social network we use to support ourselves: friends and family, and a local area where we know how everything works. Many people who don’t go outside of this very often don’t realise how much of their sense of security and confidence is related to this support network and familiar background. When you’re by yourself, somewhere new, you’re sort of stripped down – to your own basic elements. But this is when your dream matters most, because it drives you 🙂
    I’m really glad you have made a good group of friends there now, keep going and good luck!

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