Upping the gears: stepping into year 2

Originially posted 3rd Oct 2014

It’s surprising how fast the first year of a PhD goes by. I can remember my induction day and hardly believe that it’s now more than twelve months gone. On paper, we had a lot to deal with in our first year: coming to grips with managing such a large project, deciding what our research actually was, hammering out methodologies and literature reviews, the various reviews and forms we had to complete to progress through the year, beginning our research and writing up some… all this to name but a few. Yet I would still say that your first year is a bit of a ‘grace period’. It’s the time you’re given to acclimatise to your new role and responsibilities, and by the time that year is over, it’s time to step up to the mark as a PhD student. About a month before I officially entered my second year, the difference in what is expected of you is staggering.

Get Uncomfortable

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say that 1st year PhD students were networking whizzes. It’s been my experience that most of us are so involved with our research during this time, whether due to time pressures, or in an effort to try and prove something, that networking and meeting other people can sometimes get put on the back burner.

This is of course, to say nothing of that fact that the very idea of networking – something I was never exposed to as a Masters student – is awkward and uncomfortable. For instance, when existing PhD students would lament over it, on the brief occasions that I would speak to a few, they made it seem as if they were having to parade themselves, stockings and red lipstick and all, to potentially advance any future career.

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But, I’m going to disagree on this count, and I know I can only do so with my own department in mind. Today I will be attending a symposium, and later in the evening a symposium dinner where I expect that I shall know no-one bar my current supervisors and former lecturers. Normally the thought of this would stress me out for weeks in advance – but I’ve just had to get over it.

Ties into it all for me is the idea that I’m still a student, and within that lies to former student/teacher dynamics. That’s the first thing that has to go. I previously blogged about shedding the ‘student skin’, and this is just another example of it. Say worst case scenario, and it’s just me and a bunch of lecturers, doctors professors etc. – I’m hardly going to be treated as leprous for going up and saying hello. This for me is a major difference between the first and second years. Avoiding networking isn’t an option anymore, and what’s more is I might now have to confidence to do it.

Responsibility knows no bounds…

Teaching! Seminars! Students! They’re all yours. How lovely. I was perfectly happy when I was only responsible for the quality of my own education. If I got poorer grades than expected it was my fault. But the university unfortunately couldn’t just leave me in this happy state, no no. Now I am to be responsible for the education of dozens of first year students by leading 4 seminar groups.

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Now maybe I’m in a better state than some. I’m not terrified at the prospect (yet) and I’ve taught students before, though never on this scale. I enjoy teaching, really. But in the midst of lesson plans I’m realising the level of responsibility that comes with being a seminar tutor. You must be ahead a couple of weeks in advance – you don’t want that messy situation where you’re vying with your own students for the reading material, do you? You’re going to be their go to person most of the time, even if you have to refer them to the module leader. Remember all those daft questions you asked your tutors in your first year? Reap what you sow, my friend, reap what you sow. And then there are the small, tiny details which actually turn out to be quite important: like making sure you have access to the online community where you post class resources, or attempting to pronounce some of your students’ more complicated names before you actually meet them.

All this means that now is not the time to flag on any aspect of your work (research, writing, teaching, presenting, publishing). My planner is being filled in daily just to make sure I keep on top of things.

Leave the PhD behind!

This sounds a bit contrary I know, but bear with me. With the new attitude required of you in your second year, and all the extra stuff we have to do, it’s more important than ever I think to know when to take a step back. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing, but diverting your attention elsewhere. Personally, in addition to making sure I keep time for my home life at the end of each day, and mostly during the weekend too, I take time out for the gym (which I enjoy), but also soon I’ll be taking time out to pursue other academic endeavours not strictly related to my research. The work will be connected with other PhD students/academics from other universities. So it will force me to work with other people and keep my mind engaged, but will stop my attention from being wholly consumed by everything I’m having to do for my PhD. I have to say, I’m really looking forward to that.

Everything considered I’m quite looking forward to my second year. It’ll be a balancing act for sure, but I think it’ll also be what finally stops me from thinking like a student and makes me start acting like the academic I hope my future career allows me to be.

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