Holding back the wave

At some point in the second year of your PhD, there comes a wave of fear. I learned about this phenomenon in my first months here: while preparing coffee in the Common Room, friends would whisper of mysteries like “The Second-Year Blues”, or “The Valley of Shit”. Now that I’m in their position, I get it. The wave is triggered partly by the influx of new students – because now you’re second year you’re no longer the freshest of the bunch – and emphasized by Imposter’s Syndrome, the bug that’s permanently doing the rounds of the postgraduate cohort. This fear probably changes in size and shape to reflect your project and disposition, but it usually takes the form of some thing that whispers that you’re now 18 months into your project, and you still have no idea what you’re doing; nor do you have any results or a published paper that could explain your continued presence here. While the finish deadline is not quite on the horizon, there’s a dangerous frisson that runs through you when you realize you’re precariously close to passing the halfway point.

I don’t believe there’s a PhD student out there who hasn’t, at some point, doubted whether they’d reach the end and submit their thesis. This doesn’t prevent the fear from feeling personal. My doubts manifest as occasional thoughts that I should just pack it in and (as we love to joke) “get a real job” – and then I get a second wave of fear, because as mentioned above, what have I been doing for the last 18 months? How could I climb the greasy pole if I couldn’t get up the ivory tower?

Well, this blog post is here to tell you (and myself) that this fear, that feeling of treading water, is totally unfounded. As an idle exercise last week, I decided I’d write down a few skills that I had gained since beginning in September 2016. I believed I would struggle to think of more than half a dozen, but within five minutes I’d created a fairly decent list. I feel pretty good about it! It’s an excellent confidence boost. If you ever feel that you haven’t got anywhere yet, try writing out a similar one and see what you’ve gained.

Here’s my list of skills:

  • First Aid certification
  • Driving
  • 4×4 driving
  • Python
  • Inkscape
  • Mac and Windows OS
  • Social media (Twitter, blog)
  • MSc project supervision
  • Demonstrating for undergraduate and postgraduate students
  • Sample collection
  • Operating DJI drones, planning and executing flight operations
  • Operating various remote sensing instruments (FLIR, PiCam, NicAIR, ENVICam 2)
  • Office politics
  • Academic writing
  • Presentation skills (giving talks to 30+ people)
  • Conference networking
  • Outreach (Eruption!, Cotham School Science Club, Curious Formations…)
  • Ethics application
  • Social science research methods

I’m quite proud of this list. I’m also particularly pleased about my latest field trip to Guatemala, because I’m taking on a bunch of challenges I don’t think I would have been capable of this time last year. The five week trip will include teaching Guatemalan colleagues how to operate a drone, demonstrating/driving/translating for the MSc Volcanology field trip, fixing a multispectral infrared camera system, leading some deposit collection in-field for MSc projects, and conducting semi-structured interviews with people associated in various ways with Fuego.

If you do find yourself feeling the second-year blues [or even third- or fourth-year], I encourage you to write your own list – I imaging there would be lots in it you’d be proud of! The take-home message is that I and you could probably land that real-world job after all – but we’re learning a great deal here already. 🙂

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