It is hard to believe that I already find myself in a position to reflect on my first year as a full-time PhD student. Time does indeed fly when you're having fun. But time also flies when you're trying to figure out what you're doing, lose yourself in research papers, books, theories, data or interview transcripts, and write, re-write and re-write again. Still, one year on, I feel just as fortunate to dedicate my time to my research and to developing myself as I did when I started, and maybe even more passionate and committed. Of course it's not all just about deep thinking and debating big philosophical questions, there are many facets to the experiences, uplifting and challenging, and I wanted to share a few. I often find meaning and relatedness for life experiences in song titles or lyrics, as I have written about before, and thought I would use this same approach and quote six songs to highlight six aspects of my PhD experience so far.
If you'd like to listen to the songs while reading, you'll find them on this Spotify playlist .
Land of confusion - Genesis
For many, me included, "doing a PhD" is quite an abstract concept when you look at it from the outside. What does it actually mean? What do you do for three or four years? What exactly is expected of you? As my first year started, I was thrilled, and keen to get stuck in, but into what? Thankfully, support was there from the university in the form of induction sessions, Q&As and guides with overall timelines and deliverables. And people were kindly telling us to take the time to get settled in. As someone who had worked in busy jobs for the past couple of decades, it still left me unsure in the first weeks as to what to tackle when I sat at my desk every morning. I was desperate for things to do, and so latched onto all the mandatory online trainings... My first lesson was to learn to embrace thinking time as it presents itself, and that it doesn't always need to be filled with stuff to do - as I found that as time went on, time to think becomes rarer. Indeed, thinking time is what would help put the various pieces together and gradually, over the first few weeks, have a picture of what my PhD journey would look like which became less and less blurry - quite the opposite, it became pretty clear how these three years would become packed. And as difficult as it may seem, it is important to try and remember that facing this initial confusion is an integral part of the process, for everyone.
Relatable lyrics: "There's too many men, too many people, making too many problems".... for me to find a narrow and concise research question.
It's oh so quiet - Björk
The flip side of embracing thinking time as part of your PhD routine, is that it can sometimes become a very comfortable and cozy place to be in. Be it when you think through or refine the theoretical framework for your research, when you first immerse yourself in your data, these are moments which do feel oh, so quiet (not necessarily for your brain, but for your perception of the world around you). So much so that you might not see that a submission deadline, a busy period (such as interviews), or a supervision review, is suddenly sneaking up on you..., and "zing boom"! Learning to balance these "quiet" and busy periods is critical. One thing I started doing from the beginning and which has helped tremendously has been to send a little weekly recap to my supervisors every Friday about what I have been up to, and what I plan to focus on the following week. Nothing particularly elaborate, just a few bullet points, which weren't requested by my supervisors, but that I instigated as they help me keep myself accountable, and make me take a moment to think through where I am at and what I should aim to achieve.
Relatable lyrics: "The sky caves in, the devil cuts loose, you blow blow blow blow blow your fuse - Aaaaah! When you"... approach the deadline of your progression report submission
Confide in me - Kylie Minogue
I am - I have come to realise it when I did my MSc - a qualitative researcher, interested in people's lived experiences, how they make sense of them and construct their sense of self. And as such, I find interactions with research participants, especially interviews, to be a particularly rewarding activity, a privileged position to be in. And the 30 interviews I conducted for my first study earlier this year definitely felt like this. But it is a rewarding privilege you need to work hard to earn. I started my project quietly confident, because of my past experience and contacts, that I would easily have access to people who would agree to take part in my research. I did get some early wins, very supportive people responding to my requests, but also a lot of silence, or initial responses not followed through. I could appreciate and tell myself that it is a big ask to get people to give up their time, and talk to me about personal matters; still, it didn't stop me feeling a little disheartened at times. It eventually took close to 100 people for me to contact individually in order to secure my 30 participants and interviews. That said, as challenging as securing participants might have been, patience and persistence were truly rewarded through the generosity and openness from the people I spoke to.
Relatable lyrics: "I can keep a secret, and throw away the key; but sometimes to release it, is to set our children free".... and it's also the only way for me to get meaningful data
Can't get you out of my head - Kylie Minogue
(Yes, Kylie is featuring twice... what did you expect?)
My research revolves around matters related to climate change, and also involves people talking about their experiences of moral conflict, which for some caused much distress. The seriousness and dramatic impact of climate change has come to be very visible and ubiquitous, and my research has meant that I have immersed myself in much reading, watching and listening about the various aspects of the issue, opposing opinions, and news items. I know that my fellow PhD student colleagues are just as passionate about the topics and questions they have chosen to research. This passion and interest brings with it a risk of integrating these issues to the extent of experiencing deep personal concern about them - even maybe responsibility as your aim is to contribute to their improvement but you are still a long way from it! It might be that this feeling eases as you progress, and you manage to detach yourself from the issues you work on. I would not wish to lose this level of concern and involvement, but recognise it needs to be managed for the sake of my mental health and wellbeing.
Relatable lyrics: "Every night, every day; just to".... try and solve the most complex challenges of our society
All by myself - Celine Dion
(I know, the original song is by Eric Carmen, but I like the added drama of the the killer key change and long high note from Celine...)
One of the things most PhD students will say when talking about their experience, is that it can often get lonely. Physically so, as many of us spend a good amount of our time studying from home, without even those small informal chats you might have when bumping into someone on campus (there are days I swear I say more things to my dog than to other human beings, I worry that I might incorporate "walkies", "drinkies" and "good girl" in my normal conversational vocabulary...). But also mentally and intellectually, as the nature of PhD research means that it is unlikely that you'll find people as interested or knowledgeable as you in your specific topic - which won't stop me talking about it given half a chance! It is a conundrum, and many initiatives are put together by the university or even peer groups to try and get people together, with mixed results as people might lack the time, or sometimes even confidence, to engage with them. Which creates a paradox where people crave connections but hesitate to pursue them. I have been fortunate in many respects, the first one being to have a supervisor so closely aligned to my interests and view of the world, and knowledgeable, that we can get into the most enriching and stimulating conversations. And also that I have been able to nurture connections with fellow peers at university, but also others outside of my university, through various channels. We often get advice on the need for networking to help us build our academic career or foster potential collaborations, and I don't doubt that it plays a great part in it, but I think it is also critical to seek connections to develop a trusted personal support network, there too for your general wellbeing. It takes personal initiative, but is definitely worth pushing yourself a little.
Relatable lyrics: "Hard to be sure, sometimes, I feel so insecure".... And when I say sometimes, I mean often... Ok, most of the time...
We are here to change the world - Michael Jackson
(So, this is a little niche - and I realise that Michael Jackson has become a bit of a controversial figure to some - but anyone who visited a Disney park in the 90s might have come across the 3D adventure Captain EO, which featured a singing and dancing Michael Jackson in an intergalactic adventure to bring joy and love to other worlds. And if this is totally obscure to you, please indulge me!)
I wanted to end on this reference to changing the world, as this is something which I believe has been critical in getting me to embark on the PhD journey, and stay the course. For most of my adult life, I was of the firm belief that I was in no position to contribute positively to big societal issues, and instead felt that all I could do was to worry about being the best person I could be to those around me, but leave the bigger questions to others. In recent years, having become more acutely aware and sensitive to our society's issues, injustice and challenges, I have felt more of a need, a compulsion even, to allow myself to speak up about what I notice, to share thoughts and experience, and build a belief that there isn't any contribution to positive change that is too small to be worthy. And so it might be a little naïve to think that a PhD research could do much in changing the world, but even if it just might make a difference, in some small way, it has got to be a great source of motivation.
Relatable lyrics: "We're on a mission in the everlastin' light that shines; a revelation of the truth in chapters of our minds".... Pretty spot-on, actually, it never occurred to me that Captain EO was in fact a social sciences academic...
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