It’s called the Second Years Blues– that time in a PhD candidate’s life where they question their studies, future career and life’s very existence.
Ask any PhD student why they decided to embark on post-graduate study and a large number will tell you they wanted to be called a doctor. Sure they’re inspired by the love of their field and the excitement of discovery, but those two little letters are an unusually tempting force.
So, it’s little wonder then when students first embark on their PhDs, they have little idea of the realities of research. The academics that encourage higher education don’t willingly elucidate these realities either, choosing instead to focus on the possibilities of the unknown.
It’s in this omission that the second year blues finds itself rooted. A career in research does have moments of exceptional ecstasy, but the majority of the time is spent toiling through failures, cumulative stress and the gravity of a never-ending road.
While 3-4 years spent doing one PhD degree (that’s if you’re lucky by the way) doesn’t seem overly daunting, the challenges and expectations that arise are a pressurised power weighing in from either side of your tired soul.
To obtain a PhD, you must produce enough new research to qualify a full thesis. The problem with this is that research doesn’t always play by the rules. Every time a new endeavour is taken, whether it be a field study, survey or lab experiment, failure moves with shadows.
What starts off as a relatively simple aim or hypothesis turns into a monstrous entity. And while the possibility of success becomes nearer with each cut of the monster, so too does the enormous fall.
This is where the blues are born. In the second year of your PhD, you no longer have the enthusiasm of first year blood, nor have you progressed to the third year, where the end can be tangibly appreciated from afar.
In your second year, you have experienced the realities of your decision and find yourself perilously stuck between the rise and fall. You begin to question your abilities as a researcher and the very decision to do a PhD. You dread the inevitable question from friends and family of “How’s your PhD going?” and wonder whether this is all worth it.
The monster you have unleashed consumes your days and night, injecting stress and depression where enthusiasm and hope once lay. But you can’t quit; you’re bound to this choice and the romanticised prestige of a doctorate.
Of course we’re told by other PhD students that the light does eventually find the day. We’re told of similar experiences and assured that research does sometimes work.
But whatever counsel is received would be better suited with truth. No one tells the aspiring PhD student of the realities of the pursuit of two letters. No one warns you of the harsh emotional terrain, gridlocked in a mix of fear, hopelessness and stress.
As much as a PhD is an intellectual journey, it’s also a test of character, designed to break even the most resilient of minds. You can’t help but wonder, is it worth it?
Written by one very PhDemotivated student