One of my most popular articles on here is my review of my first year as a PhD student. As soon as I had written this article, I knew I was going to turn it into a series, because I think it is important to let people know about the honest experience of a PhD, with its many ups and downs. Having said that, here is the second installment: my review of my second year as a PhD student!
Coursework In the initial article the first thing I mention is coursework. Well, in the second year you do not have coursework, unless you make the active choice to audit more courses. People do choose this, but the courses will be rather specialised (such as learning Python, R, Stata) and will directly apply to their PhD, rather than the mismatch of courses we had in our first year. With most of the coursework out of the way, you suddenly have a lot more time over for research. Yes!
Self-reliance and Structure Oh no. Having so much extra time to do more of your actual work seemed like such a great thing. And it does help, and I did feel like I progressed a lot, but it came with ups, but also with a lot of downs. Why? Because YOU suddenly have a lot more extra time. But your supervisors and collaborators might not. And after a while, if you get cancelled on too often, or double-booked, or just cannot see them often enough, it starts to irk. Because it might mean that suddenly, you have nothing but time on your hands and a problem that is just lying around waiting to be solved. Yikes. Now I know for a fact I am lucky to see both my supervisors quite regularly. But, we have fallen out as well. Because of aforementioned reasons. When it comes to my own PhD, I do not think of myself as a very self-reliant person, especially not when it comes to the data analysis side of things. With that I do need quite some help. Help can just mean re-discussing what we were thinking of in terms of stats. to run, or going through the code together because it wont run for a reason beyond me and beyond what I was able to grasp for Stack Overflow. If you are like me, and have clear issues you need help with, you need to figure out, together with your supervisors, how to progress. How often do you need to meet, and how often are they available to you? What do you want to do during these meetings? You need a structure to be as efficient as you can be. Talking about structure, that is gone too. Completely out of the window. With no courses to tie you down, the world is your oister. You do not need to be on campus, or in the UK even, if you do not want to be, and can work just fine on your own. For some people that is a blessing. For some, that is hell. They spiral between guilt and procrastination and get absolutely no work done, whilst feeling awful about it. If you identify as this type of person, I suggest you artificially try imposing structure on your PhD. One way of doing this is teaching.
Most PhDs will try to teach. It is a good experience, it is paid (that PhD wage really is not going to make you rich...), it gives structure, and takes away time from research. After reading the part on structure and self-reliance, I hope that me judging the latter as positive, no longer surprises you. I have written articles about my teaching experience, so I will not go to in-depth here. Would I recommend teaching? Yes. Would I recommend you teach every term? No. Teaching in itself is very draining and takes up more time than just the hours taught, as many will know. I am not just talking about the time invested in preparation. What I mean is that if you prepare for 1 hour, and teach for 4 hours, there is effectively 3 more hours left in the working day. I can promise you, you will not be able to produce anything worthwhile in those 3 hours. You are fried. Every day that you have to teach is a complete write-off with regards to research. As such, I do not recommend always teaching a lot. I taught two courses in term 1 that went on for the whole term (meaning my Mondays and Wednesdays were gone). I taught nothing in term 2 and only taught a week-long course in term 3 (I lost just under a week there as we were assisting and helping out, rather than actively teaching). I did enjoy it, I will teach again in my third year of the PhD but I do warn against taking on too much teaching. I know for some people it really helps out financially, but you do have to give up energy and time for research to do it. Up to you how you make the trade-off.
The second year; time to focus on my actual research. You are probably wondering why I put this rather late in the article. Well, there is a reason for that. If you read through my blogs, especially the ones about the PhD, you can get a feel for how the research is going anyway. Sometimes I am doing well, sometimes I am annoyed at how slow everything is going and sometimes I just do not want to think about R anymore. So far, I have managed to write up my first study, which is now in chapter form. I submitted it to a paper and got desk-rejected within 3 days, which was surprisingly fast (still sucked though). I am doing the data analysis for the second project. We have figured out what we want from it and are coding it out after much data cleaning. I hope to have this project in a draft state by December. The third project will be based on the same data and we have a concept for it. Depending on what we find, we will complement the second and third project with experiments, but we will see how feasible that is with regards to time. So, my research in itself seems to be progressing. The reason I put research rather late in this article, is because you cannot escape having to do it. How you go about doing your research, which methods you need to employ, what timeframe works for you, those are such individualistic aspects of the PhD that they are rather difficult to correctly target in one article. As such, I tend to focus on more general tendencies, such as things I experienced in my second year and have noticed others experienced as well.
Mental Health and Distractions
I think I might have mentioned the word structure about 60 times already, but bear with, because structure (61) is what keeps a lot of people sane. And that is quite nice. In the second year, what you see is that people, next to their research, do other things. I am not talking about things that are seamlessly related to their PhD such as teaching, but things that are quite outside of that scope. I myself blog (you might have noticed) and manage the Warwick Behavioural Insights Team. But I know that some take an even more extreme approach, and still take on consultancy projects next to the PhD (they do have a background/work experience in consultancy). I am not telling you this because I think just doing your PhD research is not impressive enough. Or makes you less than. I just think it helps widening your focus, which can be a welcome change. If the only thing you do is your research and you are stuck, you will feel shit. If you have other things next to your own research, you can re-direct your time, and at least feel productive and useful in another aspect of your life. This does not even have to be study or work related. Sports, arts, leading/participating in organisations or charity will do just as well. If you prefer to stay within your scope, but do need a distractions that does not involve R, how about a conference? You're going to need to attend them anyway, so why not start in your first or second year already? Why wait until you need a job? Conferences provide you with many people who are in your field and topic, or at least somewhat adjacent. You can meet people who otherwise you might never have met. It can lead to interesting conversations, interesting contacts and even interesting opportunities if you it (the networking game that is) right. If you attend because you are speaking yourself you can improve your presentation skills and put youw own research out there. Now this might not seem like much of a break; presenting your research, networking within your research area are very tiresome activities. But they are different. And, keep in mind, most conferences require travel. And if you do your research well (and get a bit lucky) you can travel to really nice locations! Maybe even home if you want to (several conferences this year were in Amsterdam, I was quite pleased)! Whatever you decide to do, it is good to distract your mind from research that is known to have ups, and downs. No one wants to continuously feel like a failure only because your research is not going well that week. That really will just throw your mental health out of balance. There is more to life than research. Balance (and structure!!!) are key.
Overall, the second year was a year in which I had to re-develop my structure, figured out what it was like to teach and have really enjoyed it. It was also the year in which I finished a chapter and managed to plan out all the others, giving myself a great sense of relief. But, prior to this relief was weeks of banging my head against the wall, useless supervisory meetings and a mental health that was on the decline. It took some time for me to realise what was going on and indicate to my supervisors that this way of working just was not working. And that is fine. Another year, another lesson learned.