I loved my PhD, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the privilege of doing in my career. It was also the start of my physical decline, the point at which I developed alopecia and started to have auto immune attacks. It was (next to FRCPath) the psychologically most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I don’t regret it for one second, but there are aspects of what it is like to do a PhD that I think I would have been better prepared for if someone had talked to me about them before I started. Now I supervise PhD students myself and I try to have some of the conversations with them that I wish that someone had had with me.
Completing any PhD is a roller coaster and crossing the finish line is a huge mile stone. There is a lot of road from the start to completion however. So today I wanted to talk about one topic in particular that if I had known about when I started would have meant, when it happened to me, I didn’t feel so alone, out if my depth and like a failure compared to my peers. I’m talking about the second year slump.
Now this post is going to focus on PhDs but a lot of the thinking about why this is challenging and hard can be applied to any form of long term project that is high stakes and mostly undertaken in isolation. There are probably points we can all take away for different aspects of our working lives
So what is the second year slump?
The second year slump is the time during the middle of your PhD when you feel like you’ve lost your way. It’s the time where most students have a massive crisis of confidence both linked to their own skills and whether they can ever complete, but also linked to the project itself and whether it will have value. It is a pretty dark and lonely time where everything feels really hard and very isolating.
A question of timing?
Why does it happen when it happens? The second year is that point in a project when you have been doing it for long enough to understand the scale of the project and are so firmly embedded in it that you see both all of the challenges and all of the faults. You are also still quite far away from seeing the finish line or having outputs that make you feel you are really achieving.
Now obviously the second year slump doesn’t always occur in the second year, when it happens depends somewhat on the time scale of your PhD, it may be later if you’re working part time. The thing is it has happened to every PhD student I’ve spoken to at some point and certainly to every PhD student I’ve ever supervised.
One of the difficult things about entering the middle stage of your PhD is that you are getting to the point where you will be actively comparing yourself against others. Am I doing OK? Am I working hard enough? Am I productive enough? The problem is that every single project is different, your learning needs as a student will also be different as everyone starts in a different place. Therefore comparing how you are doing against others is often a fools errand. To compound this you are often benchmarking against peers that are either super enthusiastic as they have just started, or against other peers who are getting outputs (papers/posters) and meeting their success criteria because they are further down the line. Very rarely do you have someone in exactly the same boat to truly compare against, and yet we are rarely told to not compare against others.
The road ahead is all starting to become very real
The other thing about the middle of any long term project is that you are too far away from the end to truly be able to conceptualise what that looks like, and far enough from the beginning that the true challenges of the task are becoming very real. Rather than being filled with lots of enthusiasm and just an idea that it is going to be challenging, you know know quite how challenging the path ahead will be.
At this stage it can often feel like no progress is being made. The increments are so small that you can’t fully judge the distance you have travelled and you are so fully focussed on what is in front of you that you forget quite how far you’ve come. One of the tricks that I’ve been thinking of doing with my new starters is to get them to write notes to themselves for 6, 12 and 18 months as with a reminder of where they are and what they hope to have achieved by that point. I hope that by doing this it will give them something concrete to reflect back on to truly understand their level of progress. Pairing students during the second year slump with new starters can also actually help at this point. As well as developing them as educators it can also stand to show them how much knowledge they have acquired since they were the new starter themselves.
‘Oh, everyone wants to know about me’
It is a truth universally acknowledge that you should never ask a PhD student how it is going. The main issue with this is, if you are anything like I was at this point, I had very little life outside of work and my PhD so I just didn’t have a lot of small talk that wasn’t about my project. The problem is (and I acknowledge the irony here) everyone has an opinion or some advice. People who haven’t done a PhD have nothing to really compare it against in terms of giving you the support you need. We also all know of those other PhD students who use discussion as a way of making themselves feel better by talking about how great they are doing, whereas in truth we know that they were actually doing no better than anyone else. This is often compounded by your supervisor who will have a 1001 different priorities and will be trying to strike a balance between pushing enough and (if you are lucky) caring enough about your health and wellbeing to not push too much.
During the second year slump it can be tricky to find anything positive to say. You can’t babble on about everyone you’ve just met or how great it is to start, you often have nothing concrete that people will understand (like papers and posters) to share, and in all honesty this phase of an experimental PhD is often just filled with a lot of failure which can be difficult to discuss for fear of judgement. These things can all make just simply answering the question ‘how is the PhD going?’ challenging.
Stepping into your future
Finally, and I know it doesn’t feel like it, this is the point at which you really are developing and learning most. You’re at the point where you are starting to take risks and explore what it’s like to do novel work, you are truly beginning to work as a scientist and that can be scary and require adjustment.
At the start of your PhD you will mostly be doing the ‘safe’ work. Learning techniques and building on work done by others, but not initially taking those next big leaps of thought that are required for you to develop your own work. During your second year you are usually going to be making your own intellectual leaps and so the consequence of that is that there is a lot of failure and trouble shooting as you try and work things out. As you really grow into undertaking work as an independent researcher, you make that shift into following up on your own thoughts and really take responsibility for planning your work. That responsibility and the fact that your success is intrinsically linked to how well you develop into this new role can be truly terrifying, but it’s rarely articulated. Most people think the adjustment happens in the first year, but in my experience it is definitely during the second year when this shift starts to occur.
So if you are feeling low and lonely in the middle of any project, know that it is not you, it’s probably a function of the type of work you are doing. Remember that this is hard and that’s OK as you are truly beginning to reach your potential and anything worth doing is not easy, so be kind to yourself. If you are a supervisor or other form of mentor, talk about this with your students that are coming on board, think of ways to make it easier. Last of all and for the love of all you hold dear, don’t as a second year PhD student if they’ve started on their thesis yet, unless you’re prepared to give them a LOT of tea, cake and sympathy.
All opinions on this blog are my own