I have just finished (well, almost finished) writing my report for my upgrade from MPhil to PhD and submitted it to one of my supervisors (the dedicated one who gets to see my roughest writing)
It’s fair to say this past year has been one of the most difficult of my life. I would like to say it hasn’t been it because of the PhD, because that’s what everyone expects – that the PhD has been harder than I expected it to be; that I’ve found my supervisors more hands-off than I thought they would be (knowing nods from senior academics here “well I don’t think anyone gets an undergrad level of supervision in the PhD” (someone actually told me that last week)); “It’s only going to get harder, wait until final year”; learning to manage your own project has been so much more difficult and time consuming than you thought; how much more work there was to do in very little time; etc, etc, etc.
These are all perfectly valid reasons, I think, for PhD students in general. I don’t think senior members of staff should laugh at any of them – they should think back to when they first started and take it from there.
But no, none of those are the reasons why months 3-14 of my PhD have been some of the hardest of my life. I would like to think that I had a pretty reasonable idea of what to expect from a PhD before I started one. Probably about half of my closest prior-to-PhD-friends are doing or have done PhDs. Several of them warned me against doing one. I also got to watch my boyfriend do around a year’s worth of PhD before I started mine. I had a day-to-day rundown of what it entailed for both him and his closest office mate (opposite ends of the experience spectrum there, I can tell you).
However, nothing or no-one could have ever prepared me for the past year of no supervision, followed by some supervision in the form of a fortnightly email, followed by being tossed around between supervisors combined with no supervision again. No amount of prior warning could have made me understand the effort it is to undertake a PhD when you have to research everything you do and how to do it and what to do next when you don’t have anyone to check with (you can’t just drop by an office to check you are doing the right thing, or even expect an email back straight away; this can take days). Or the amount of stupid you feel when you’ve spent weeks on an experiment only to realise when you look at the results that you’ve omitted to include a fairly vital control. I get a head- or stomach ache every time I think about my current supervisor situation.
I have become fiercely proud and protective of my research, it’s all my ideas after all. Whoever told me that I should be happy because at least I get to choose what I do instead of doing what my supervisor wants me to do was right, sort of. I hope my supervisors, now having to read through some of what I’ve done in the year, agree with what I’ve done.
It’s been a bloody steep learning curve, and I’d be lying if I said I’d enjoyed every minute of it. I can only imagine how much better it all would have been had I had proper supervision. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, either. I love my PhD.