PhD student pushing button about Doctorate of Philosophy concept

January 17, 2020, by Leah Sharpe

On to the second; a post-hoc analysis of my PhD year 1 and where I think I’m going

By Andrew Wihelmsen, PhD student

It feels an awful lot like I started my PhD no more than a few weeks ago, yet here I am writing reflections on what has actually been an entire year. I’m not sure where those mysterious 365 days went in all honesty. I’m fairly confident I’ve spent longer times waiting to be served in a pub than my collective time as a PhD student, but here we are – time waits for no one. 

If you happen to have read a previous blog post of mine, you might recall that I somewhat stumbled into doing a PhD, and commenced my work with a limited idea of what I hoped to get out of it and where it might lead me. So, what’s changed in twelve months and how have my ambitions changed?  Well, I’d be lying if I claimed to have experienced some great epiphany about my goals, but I have learned a thing or two about myself along the way. 

Lesson 1: Jobs that involve achieving task mastery and then performing repetitive tasks are not to my taste. 

Firstly, this year’s been tough for me. Really tough. I’ve struggled with my mental health a lot, I’ve had some difficult personal situations to handle, and my experiments haven’t always gone to plan to say the least. Yet, a year on, I’m still here plugging away at it and optimistic for the rest of the PhD. That’s partly because one thing I’ve learned about myself is that I need constant challenges to overcome. I work best when presented with a problem and a little bit of pressure. I find non-challenging work quickly becomes monotonous and a chore.  

Lesson 2: I’m a writer first, and a scientist second. Whatever I go on to do, I want written communication to be a core element. 

I’ve been fortunate enough this year to have a paper recently accepted for publication in a decent journal, following a great deal of curative support and feedback from my supervisor. The process revealed to me how much I enjoy the writing and editing process and the challenge of effectively sharing knowledge. Strangely, perhaps, I found responding to and rebutting the seemingly endless list of reviewers’ comments to be quite an enjoyable experience (more so than the work I do at the lab bench itself).  

Lesson 3: I like having a routine and maintaining clear boundaries between work and non-work life. 

One thing I think I’ve started to really get a hold on is the sometimes delicate balancing act of managing a healthy, happy work-life balance. Of course, the very nature of a PhD is such that it occasionally necessitates unsocial working hours, and as my project is something that is intrinsically interesting and of value to me, I don’t mind doing so. However, I strive to ensure that such practice remains occasional and does not become the norm. For the most part, I arrive at the office at 9am and leave around 5pm, five days a week, leaving my evenings and weekends free to relax, and to get away and spentime in the great outdoors (something that for me is very important).  

Lesson 4: Don’t sweat the small stuff. 

So where does that leave me as I venture into my second year? Well, I’ve narrowed my career focus a little. Drawing on my interest in writing and sharing, I’m confident that I would really like to work within science communication/strategy/policy. Perhaps working for medical research charities to direct grant funding, or within the Civil Service to influence policy, could offer careers that would play to my strengths and interests, while ensuring constant challenges and evolving projects. These are just a few ideas and I’m sure they’ll change and evolve as I progress through the second and into the third year of my PhD. But they’re a start. A foothold into figuring out what I’m passionate about and where I want that passion to take me. So, I’ll keep toying with new ideas, attending careers service events, listening to people who inspire me and doing what makes me happy for another 365 days. Then I’ll see where I’m at.

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