There seems to be the idea that the second year of the PhD, which is often the middle year, is the worst of the PhD. The excitement wears off and the cracks in the foundation start to form, or simply start to be noticeable. Is this true? Is this the same for everyone? And if so, what can you do about it?
Switching Gears For most PhD students, the first year of the PhD holds a lot of excitement. You’ve just applied and gotten in, and your (academic) research experience is probably still quite small. You start getting acquainted with your cohort, the research group and your supervisors. Maybe you even start to get acquainted with the whole institution, as often people move to do their PhDs. Many new impressions, many new things to learn and to look forward to. Not only is there much novelty, there might be quite a structure to the first year as well. Often, within a first year of the PhD there is still coursework to be done. Some courses might focus on tools and methods of analysis, or are more topical reiterating taught information (hopefully) relevant to the research topic at hand. These courses will span most of the first year, and will often culminate into several written assignments. It’s enough to keep you busy. The first year is also likely to be tied up with an end of the year project. For some this can be another dissertation (if you’re on a 1+3, or equivalent) or what is known as an Upgrade or Annual Review. The latter is a sort of progress meeting, where all the work that has been done in the first year, literature review and set up of the research design, is evaluated to see if the student is fit to continue the PhD for the remaining years. Now the first year is very structured, there are clear goals and much novelty. The second year has none of this. The second year quickly loses its structure and has a much longer-term goal: conducting research as it was set up in the previous year. Some people struggle to adjust to the new freedom they have been given: you can design your own schedule. For some, this is the worst pitfall. I’ve written about time management and structure in the PhD before, you can read about it here. As I said before, another of the issues is the novelty wearing of. You now know the institution, the people, and you are starting to notice the bad sides of many things. The cracks in the foundation are showing. And we’re just getting started!
Getting Stuck Now, inevitably, you are going to run into issues when doing research. Things don’t pan out the way you want them to, ethics takes much longer, the data you were counting on is being delayed or its transfer has been denied. There’s many things that can go wrong. For me, the worst one is getting stuck on a problem (often coding related) and then having to wait until my next meeting. Within the first year this was much less of a problem. First of all, you did a lot less research and much more coursework, because the latter had closer looming deadlines. Second, if you did get stuck, there were plenty of other things you could be doing in the meantime, so you just swiftly switched tasks. It wasn’t that big of a deal. Within the second year this can start to become an issue. If you meet your supervisors (or whomever can help you get “unstuck”) very irregularly, you can go weeks without making any progress. That sucks and you do genuinely feel like you are wasting your time. It’s a valuable lesson to learn. The best thing to do to avoid this pitfall is to always have multiple projects or research tasks running. It seems quite counterintuitive to give yourself more work, but it also means that when one thing gets stuck you can move onto the next. Within academia, running several different projects at the same time is quite normal. The more advanced you are as an academic, the more you seem to work like a project manager rather than a researcher. Keep that in mind and maintain your sanity! Not Close Enough As I mentioned before, the second year is very different from the first. The first will very often have quite a few short-term deadlines, making you feel very productive when achieving them. The second year doesn’t have this, but then again, neither do the years that come after that. So why is the second year still so different? Well, the sense of urgency that your last (often third or fourth) year gives you (you’ve got 12 months left, make it work!) hasn’t hit yet. Supervisory meetings can end up just dragging on whilst debating details that you won’t have the time to discuss with only 2 months left on the clock. Everything seems to just drag on. Progress seems to be an abstract term not applicable to your research or life. Overall, it’s just a drag. It’s easy to get stuck in your head about feeling like your research isn’t going anywhere. However, discussing the details, especially before conducting your research, is quite important. If you end up testing the wrong thing you’ll have wasted more time and money than when you debate details for another week. It might seem ineffective at the time, but might end up being much more efficient. Only hindsight can tell, I’m afraid. Now I’ve mainly been comparing the first to the second year of the PhD and then to the last, but not everyone only has three years, some of us get to have four (or even more!). If your PhD is four years rather than three, your second year might still be the worst. Why? Because after crashing and burning within the second, you can adjust for your third. You know what you’re strapping in for, and have (hopefully) developed coping mechanisms for it.
Overall, I do think there is something to the myth of the second year of the PhD being the worst. The novelty has worn off, the deadlines become longer term with no real urgency propelling you forward whilst at the same time the chances of getting stuck are ever increasing. It sounds grim, but you’ll just have to get through it. And I’m sure you will!
If you'd like to see some more resources on the topic please do check out the following:
https://pursuitofaphd.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/sanity-check-second-year-blues/ https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/05/17/things-to-do-when-you-have-the-phd-blues/ https://www.findaphd.com/advice/doing/phd-problems.aspx