Life-lessons I’ve Learnt During the First Year of my PhD

Last October, I started my PhD. Whilst it has not been a venture for the faint hearted, I can honestly say that it has been a rewarding experience so far.

As someone with an academic background rooted in physical science, this PhD has been an opportunity to increase my knowledge base in the social sciences. Like many PhD Researchers, I have learnt the importance of reading, studying, attending conferences and networking with colleagues in academia and in the industry. Also, I have certainly learnt invaluable things about life and much more about myself.

I have come to realise that every PhD Researcher’s experience is unique, and a lot of hoops to be jumped depend on one’s own circumstances. So for myself, these two life lessons resonate with me due to my circumstances prior to and during my first year.

  1. Use your time wisely as though it were money

I spent the first half of my first year attending seminars and trainings on preparing for the PhD journey. Likewise, I racked up hours in mandatory lectures on core modules. I should point out that the majority of trainings and lectures are very useful, and I advise that these should not be shunned by students.

I assume that you have pragmatic and supportive Supervisors as I do with whom you have carefully conducted a tailored Training Needs Analysis. It is therefore okay to put your effective learning styles and time periods into consideration, and spend your time in places and on things you deem fit – assuming that you make good judgements as a PhD Researcher should.

Thus, in retrospect, I can recognise that time is invaluable and so is one’s intrinsic gauge of needs and contentment. Valuing my time pushed me even further to saying NO!

‘No I do not want to attend a certain training – its content is similar to one I already attended’. ‘No I do not want to meet up with colleagues – I’m going to have a sleep-in’. ‘No I will not attend that conference – the timing conflicts with something else which is important to me’. ‘No I do not want to add a certain goal to my list of research objectives – It is entirely out of my intended scope’. ‘No I do not have to live locally in order to study better – I am moving’.

  1. Worry is no virtue to have

Worry is indeed a misuse of the imagination. This is certainly the most important life lesson for me.

In the beginning, several mundane and important things bothered me – ‘Can I pull through? Will it work out? Am I over-studying? Am I under-studying? Why is a Jane/John Doe being a drag-down?’ So many academic and non-academic things weighed heavily on my mind.

However, in the last quarter of my first year, I had a reawakening. With more control of my time and improved emotional resilience, I began to do things more differently – being more aware of my environment and exploring real life. I suggest that one needs to have a life outside of the PhD, for the fear that you may lose a sense of yourself.

Whilst I recommend taking breaks and doing extra-curricular activities, I suggest that you define your boundaries so that you do not lose focus of your research. Nevertheless, as I am currently doing, I recommend revisiting that neglected hobby of yours – I took up photography again and I am reading more books. Take up a sport if that helps – I started running – have run 135km in the past two months. Make friends – there is a world of brilliant minds out there. Keep active and your imagination may stay stimulated – I do the games nights, the lunches and dinners, the networking events, the art workshops, the dance classes, walks in the parks, visits to museums and galleries, the libraries, the debate clubs!

Most importantly, never give up – focus on your goal to complete your PhD successfully. If somethings or some people send your emotions spiraling down, simply distance yourself from them. In most cases, you need to be in a good emotional state to do a PhD!


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