One year down…

I am now officially a second year PhD student.  I guess this was technically true as of the first of October, but it wasn’t really official until I passed my first year viva.  Thankfully I managed that yesterday afternoon!  My review panel gave me some really good feedback, and asked some challenging questions that got me thinking about where I want to go next with my research.  There’s so much I’d like to do, and so much I have to learn, but it seems that I’m off to good start.

It’s strange to think that I’ve been at this for an entire year already.  Actually, it was quite scary when I was at a conference earlier this month and realised I had to admit that I was a second year – somehow it seems that you are suddenly meant to be much more knowledgeable than you were a few weeks ago as a lowly first year.  Thankfully, I do feel like I’ve got something to show for the time, energy and emotion I’ve invested into my project.  I have read an enormous number of papers so that I can put what I’m doing in context of the work that has been done before.  I’ve taken over management of a long term experiment.  I’ve learnt loads of lab and field techniques and used them to gather a massive pile of data, which I’m slowing working my way through to see if any of my hypotheses have been supported by the experiment.

It hasn’t all been fun and games though.  I’ve had to split my time between my home in Nottingham and my PhD at Imperial.  My supervisor has been on sabbatical in Australia since January.  She’s done her best to be available, but the distance and time difference inevitably presents some problems.  As I’m the only student left in her lab, I also have felt a bit isolated.  I’ve faced dreadful weather with one of the wettest springs and early summers on record, which is no joke when you’re running a rainfall manipulation experiment.  I’ve had three major pieces of equipment breakdown, hampering my data collection and costing me a lot of time and stress.

These are problems that most PhD student will relate to.   Basically every person I know who has done or is doing a PhD has dealt with broken equipment and field or lab issues (including unexpected wildfires on study sites or floods in the lab).  Most have also, sooner or later, felt a bit isolated.  One friend told me that doing a PhD was the most isolating experience of her life, because the deeper you get into it, the fewer people there are that really understand and relate to what you’re doing.  Strangely, I found that heartening.  At least I know I’m not the only one who has felt this way!

For all the challenges, I’m still very glad I decided to leave my job and start a PhD last year.  It’s exciting to be doing research, and hopefully adding my own small something to our collective understanding of the world.  I am lucky enough to have a very supportive husband who understands what I’m going through, having done a PhD himself.  I have also made some wonderful friends, from the technicians who have saved my broken equipment, to the fellow students who saved my sanity when it all seemed to be going wrong.  I know I’ve done a good job so far, and look forward to doing a lot more in the coming years.  The stamp of approval from the review panel is the icing on the cake.

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