My (self-funded) PhD, Three and a Half Years In…

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Hi all 🙂

I have once again not posted for four months. This has been partly because very little has happened, partly because  I had about 6-8 weeks off of the PhD journey, and partly because I’ve been struggling a tad and not felt like I’ve had a mental energy to put this together. What I thought I’d talk about is a small wrap up of the progress, both academically and personally, of the last 3.5 years. So here goes it…

Year One: excitement and new beginnings

Year one was refreshing. New environment, new people, new start on a new journey. Moving in was fun and having already known a few people in the area (both new and old) it really helped to start getting involved. I went to all of the welcome events which were great and met colleagues both within and between departments. Overall, the autumn was a great and easy-going time. I also got down to a bit of work and started planning an experiment which we started in January. Nothing much came from this experiment other than “don’t use this model for these tests” but that in itself was fun and useful information. I also got a job soon before christmas which was great because although my partner’s income plus my savings was enough for a while it just took a load off knowing that I can start bringing it some significant income.

Come spring I gained my first university teaching experience by being plunged into the deep end of stats. That was certainly an experience given my near 0 prior knowledge of the subject. But my enjoyment of teaching far outweighed my worry about the content. I also gave my first departmental talk which was fun and I learned that practicing talks really helps you keep to time! Hehe. Post-experiment things became a bit chilled. I started learning a few lab techniques but bar that spent most of the time seeing friends and working. I was also getting on top of my health and was both the most active and lightest i’ve been in years. Approaching autumn again I managed to mess up royally and leave some rather sensitive samples out of the freezer (thus rendering them unuseable, sadly) but there are lessons to learn in everything.

Overall, year one was a blast and whilst it did end on a bit of a low it was a great experience and introduction to PhD life.

Year Two: challenges to learning and self image

Year two started as year one ended. Riding a wave of health and enthusiasm (with a bit of a  lesson of ‘pay more attention next time’) we moved into autumn. I decided to take up a load of teaching this semester to help build savings whilst gaining some fun experience. I was doing two biology modules and one psychology so suffice to say I was busy. During this time I was also working on plans for a bigger experiment which was progressing nicely without needing to commit set periods of time to it. I also got a promotion to the management team at my job so things were looking well.

Come winter things seemed less shiny. I got to the festive period to find that without realising it I had regained a significant amount of weight (my favourite jacket no long fit properly). This was quite demoralising and a big kick as I didn’t know how I could have done that without noticing. I’d had a few signs before of some challenges mentally and the rapid weight gain tipped me over (the scales, badum…) and I decided that come the new year it was time to start talking about it. I started counselling for various ‘me’ problems. This is not part of the PhD journey but it very clearly can affect it which is why I decided to include it in my blog. Whilst this was happening, I was still managerial at work, setting up an experiment, and teaching on two modules in the spring semester. It was quite a workload but I made it balance as a lot of the early stage of the experiment wasn’t very intensive.

The biggest hit of year two was my first year viva. I didn’t outright pass, due to being very under-prepared, which in itself felt like a massive fail. It hugely brought down my confidence and made me start questioning myself, my abilities, and my interests. I recovered from this with sufficient preparation and I am still here so it was perhaps a good thing. Second year continued and become less intense again after teaching ended and the experiment was set up. I had a nice holiday and then some down time.

Overall, year two was challenging but do-able and fun. I learned a lot about myself and my own limits and interests, balancing numerous responsibilities, and about really designing experiments.

Year Three: fatigue and questioning

Year three kicked off the most difficult period in my PhD so far and it continues until now (albeit for different reasons across those 18 months). I entered a period of testing in my experiment which involved 4-6 hour days 6-7 days a week for weeks at a time. The overall process took 14 months including a few breaks and by the end of it I just felt completely fed up and defeated. My drive went right down and was difficult to recover as there was little to no short-term reward. During this prolonged period I got small jobs done to do with admin, minor bits of analysis to present, and a vast quantity of the DC extended television universe. Largely, however, it was just quite draining.

Year three also brought a general sense of failing as well as questioning myself and my own intentions. It felt as if everything I tried fell short for reason or another. I don’t mean that in the scientific sense of finding the multiple ways in which things don’t work but more like I would make many small mistakes in most aspects of my life. I was messing up at work and making small errors or forgetting things during my PhD, for example. I also started, for the first time, to seriously consider if this path was right for me. I’ve always gone into my PhD as a testing phase to decide if research was for me; no matter how difficult I was finding things I have repeatedly told myself to not make a judgement until I’ve gone through the whole process, from design through experiment to storytelling. However, during year three I started to question if the “that’s interesting” step would even be worth it.

The other development of third year was realising that self-funding by evening jobs makes it very difficult to feel part of the community you are in. This is for several reasons. Firstly, a lot of social events are simply booked for when I’m working. With enough notice I can swap my shifts but usually there isn’t and thus can’t go. Secondly, with less free time comes less of a drive to use the free time for uni-related events. So even when I’m free and there are regular events it tends to be on one of only a couple of nights off when I want to do anything but that. Lastly, researching by day and working by evening truly burns the candle all over. Just a general sense of fatigue makes getting the gusto to go to events during the day a little more difficult. I don’t want that sentiment to belittle those who aren’t self funded but just to say that in my situation it has felt as if I’m so tired all of the time that I don’t have the energy mentally to commit to anything extra.

Overall, third year was tough. It was a trying year and full of personal lessons and challenges. I learned a lot more about my own limits and I’m still learning to not push them.

Year Four: rebuilding and bettering (hopefully…)

Year four started much as three ended: sluggishly. it all wound down though and I picked up some teaching which was nice. I had a really great lab bench of students which was a delight each week. After wrapping up the experiment mid-December, I took until February off of research which was nice. Since coming back to it all, I’ve started teaching again and have a game-plan for analysing some data. I’m not powering through that as quickly as I’d hoped but I am progressing which is great. I’ve also made my first application for funding to attend a conference this summer which’l be my first opportunity to present my own findings. I’m both excited and anxious which I guess is a good thing? It’ll be nice to, after four years, finally get the chance to tell my own story as well as travel and meet some great people.

I’m also planning on making better habits across the whole of my life in general. I’ve come to the gradual realisation that I don’t have a lot of the most efficient practices in my life which has probably made a lot of my struggles more difficult. I’m going to use the flexibility of this year to work on that and generally become a more adjusted and prepared person. PhD really has been challenging to all aspects of my self; intellectually, psychologically, and physically for sure but also in others I would assume. I’m in the process of relearning who I am, including my own capabilities and desires, and I’m going to make some headway on that in year four.

Overall, it’s been difficult and tiring but 3.5 years later I am still here and intend to continue this journey. My next two months will be spent continuing to acquire and then analyse data (I will hopefully know by then if I am presenting at the conference), starting to write a paper, and continuing my own personal development. Oh! And I’m going to be reviewing a convention as press which’ll be awesome!

Thanks for reading 🙂

BCT

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