I may have overestimated myself…

Registration day is an amazing experience. I remember for both my undergrad and postgrad registration days there was a hum of activity around campus and a hum of alcohol off all the students as soon as it was over. The excitement was contagious! You scoured the uni bar. Trying to decipher who present would be your future best friend/casual ride/ boyfriend/ ex-boyfriend/ rebound/ ex friend/ new friend, thinking about how in just a few months’ time you would look back and think “Ah if only I had known/not known you then”.

Registration for a PhD is very, very, very different. They talk about a PhD, as a process, being an isolating experience. But my god, I thought I would at least get a break on the first day. I arrived early (something I absolutely did not do for my previous degrees but start as you intend to go on and all that) and saw that there was nobody there.

Nobody.

I thought, well I will never meet people now. So instead I went away for a coffee, had a cigarette (maybe two) and went back an hour later. And still. Nobody! I went through the ridiculous looking rope-seperated queues, considering I was the only one there, and let them take my picture for the ID card which, despite my efforts every time, made me look like a drenched, Victorian-era prostitute. (Honestly, every time). I then strolled out feeling a bit deflated. Was that it? No orientation? No meet and greet? Nothing?

Well, I thought to myself, long and lonely road it is. No post-registration session for me! But, I also thought, look on the bright side. You won’t embarrass yourself on the first day or end up making the first lad you sleep with your boyfriend for the remainder of your degree. Feeling a bit more pep in my step, taking my experience thus far as a sign that this time I would be a respectable student, I went to meet my supervisors. They were lovely by the way; very informal, welcoming, funny and (it has to be said) I feel they dialed down the academics a little to make me feel less inferior.

It did not work.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes you realise how little you know than when you meet your supervisors for the first time. You see, you get through the proposal by bluff. You throw down anything that seems acceptable or like it is ‘breaking new ground’ or ‘making a contribution to this research area’; all those phrases that are useful and overused. And when, by some miracle, your proposal is accepted you think ‘well surely they knew I was pretending to know what I was talking about? And surely they will now give me the benefit of the doubt that I have the next 3-5 years to actually know the stuff?’.

Níl.

Despite my supervisors’ best efforts to reassure me that I was not expected to know anything, that I had the next three years minimum to read everything, it was still apparent that they were not prepared for just how little I know. And by God, how little I know!

Luckily, the first few months of the PhD are taken up with everything and anything BUT your PhD project. For the first two weeks you are working on refining your project down even further, though you thought since you got in that it was absolutely perfect. Again, níl. You can never narrow your project down enough. If you can sum it up in a word you’re onto a winner, though I doubt anyone has managed that feat.

Then, you’re onto the fun stuff: funding!

Or lack thereof.

You spend two months writing up a form that is repetitive in format and serves as a reminder of how little you have accomplished and, in turn, how little you deserve funding. You will probably send each draft to a minimum of four people who all have vastly different but nonetheless helpful opinions on what you need to rewrite/cut. Your previous day dreams of whipping out your funding offer letter, fanning yourself and saying “obviously I got the bones of 25 grand off them, sure my project is pure class” are gone. You don’t blame the panel now. Oh no! In fact, upon further reflection, you may even type up a wee apology letter for making them read through it, perhaps ending with a “my supervisors told me to go for it regardless, you know yourself, all the best, sorry again, sorry”.

 

Luckily, to help ease yourself in, you find yourself wanting to delay having to get to know anything. You fear you have bluffed yourself into a sticky situation this time. You have gone much too far! You have flown too close to the sun and your wings are not only melted but there are stones attached to your feet. So you sink. But luckily the life float that are the Postgraduate Modules are there to catch you. (Ok, enough with the metaphors). Though you have to spend money you don’t have travelling up and down over a period of six days to complete two postgrad courses on skills you, arguably, already acquired in your undergrad at least it means you have an excuse for your supervisors when you tell them you have yet to start any reading. You might plámás them a tad, saying something vague like “I have been focusing on getting a really in-depth plan together for my methodology” (watching any college-based films on Netflix) or “I am really focusing on putting together a bibliography at the moment” (I’m copying and pasting references from semi-relevant pages on Wikipedia).

Suddenly, before you know it it’s the end of January. And that annotated bibliography you promised to do? You now have to complete it alongside 2 x 3,000 word essays on what you learned in the post-grad skills modules. But since PhD students are destined to be broke, the chances are you also work so when in the feck were you supposed to get all this reading done and still get a night out every now and then? (You know, ‘cause your nerves would be at you from all the stressing about not doing any work). And now you find that while 6,000 words is nothing, (I’ve composed more lying about all the work I have done) it is not nothing when it is for your PhD because this is your time to prove you aren’t just faffing about. This is no quarter-life crisis option (although it was for me but – alas!). So twenty-odd thousand words of assignments later you still feel like you haven’t properly read anything. At all. The rare time you come across another PhD student you feel like they are miles ahead of you.

Welcome to the first six months of your PhD, lads! Things can only go up from here! Surely?

The good news is that they absolutely do! Absolutely every PhD student will feel this at some point; the isolation, the lack of motivation, not knowing where to begin and, worst of all, imposter syndrome (but that is a post for another day). Unfortunately there is no magic solution. UCC guidelines recommend sixty hours of research a week for a full time PhD. This is a tough feat even if you are one of the rare few who is funded and not technically allowed to take on too many extra hours of a part-time job since your job is to, you know, research. So for those who are not funded and need to work full time too this may seem impossible.

Listen, you know your own strengths. You know what will work for you! If you feel like cramming 30 hours into the weekend and spreading a few hours out in the evenings works for you then do it. If you are someone who does better under pressure, then sin go bhfuil. Cram all your research and paper writing into a few all-nighters. (But it is worth noting that this is probably not maintainable).

Essentially, don’t sit at a desk from 9.00-5.00pm if you spend most of the time on social media or staring into space. You are better off working unconventional times and doing great work in that time than conforming to what you think you should be doing and ending up with nought. Get out in the air, regroup and try doing it at night time instead. It might not be timing that is the issue, but the location. Library or office not working? Try a café lie on your bed, or sit out in the bog. I don’t know! It’s all about trial and error. Don’t feel like you have to follow what everyone else does.

Once the time you do spend researching is enjoyable and you’re feeling like you are starting to retain some fragments of new knowledge then you know you have truly started your PhD!

By Éadaoin Regan