PhD Diary – A year in review

It has been one year since I started my PhD journey, and to say it has been an interesting year would be a bit of an understatement. Meeting new people, being seen as a subject expert, and all the consequences of the pandemic it has been an unpredictable twelve months. Yet, the experiences and lessons I have learned so far have been invaluable for me and the project. So, since it has been a year, I want to take this chance to look back at my earlier blog posts and reminisce over what I have done right and where I can improve.

Within my first month of the PhD, I was struggling with how isolated and independent being a postgraduate researcher could be. Outside of the chosen teaching and supervisory meetings, it was you and the project. This was made even more clear due to working remote, hundreds of miles away from the University. Working remote has been a consistent factor in this year due to the pandemic, yet brief moments of campus-based work I have had it was not that significant difference as I had anticipated. Many of the problems I was attributing to working from home were not solely due to the environment I studied in.

I took an opportunity to delve into my relationship with remote working in March. It seemed that what I missed most was that face-to-face interaction with colleagues and other students. Those ‘water-cooler’ conversations you would have when grabbing lunch for example was a key part in making me feel included in the university community. It did not feel the same when we had Zoom calls and emails as our key methods of communication. Despite that, having the freedom to choose my own hours and take a brief break to play games at home have helped relieve any stress I built up during my studies. As life begins to return to a sense of normalcy, it will be a great opportunity to test my own personal home/office work balance to maximise my efficiency whilst maintaining a healthy amount of stress.

As the nights grew longer, so did the troubles of sleeping at unreasonable hours. The number of times I saw the sun rise before I went to bed was almost embarrassing, and because of this I struggled to motivate myself to work for the little time I had to myself. I have come to terms that I am somewhat of a night owl, preferring to get up later to be more active in the evening. A factor on why that may be the case is that I played a lot of high-intensity games from the late evenings to the early hours of the morning which keeps my brain alert way past the time I wish to go to sleep. I have remedied the most extreme examples of this behaviour with alarms on my computer, reminding me to start winding down for the night. With some schedule in my week for paid employment, this should help give me some level of structure to when I sleep and how long for.

Having challenged some of my personal limitations, next came my approach to work. A PhD is a different beast compared to an undergraduate or masters. The research is almost self-directed, and you can get yourself buried in reading with this feeling that you need to cover as much ground as possible. This is not the case. Whilst a solid amount of background research is important, trying to understand all the contexts surrounding your project can cause you to lose sight of that one specific question the PhD is supposed to answer. My advice for new PhD students is to always ask “Is this literature going to help me answer my research question?”. If it does not, then it may not be relevant right now. Despite me trying to narrow the breadth of research I deemed useful, there was still plenty of papers and books. As a result of this, a lot of this year was spent trying different software to organise my literature. In that time, I learned that which software works for you depends on how you intend to use it. This lesson applies elsewhere; the most optimal work environment or approach varies from person to person and a good part of your PhD is finding out exactly what that is.

All these revelations came as I began to summarise what was done this year for my annual review, a key stage in determining my capabilities to complete the PhD. A large part of these moments of self-reflection came through these diary entries. These have been a great opportunity to focus not on my project, but on who I am and the lessons that apply to me. There were many a time this year where I questioned why I do these posts but writing this now has reassured me that this was a useful exercise. Looking back at these entries, I can place myself into what I was thinking months ago. Almost as if it were a snapshot of my rationale at the time. As a result, there are parts of my blog that are valid others where I completely miss the mark, avoiding some uncomfortable truths. Yet this is a part of the process. And I am only a year down, so who knows how I will look back at this post or the many that are yet to come. There is also a little part of me that hopes that someone may read these inane ramblings of mine and find some use out of them for their own journeys. A sentimental notion, I know. In any case, I am confident that I can progress to the next stage of this process, and I am looking forward to what the future has in store.

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