By Emily Betz |


As we near the end of November many of us are now settled into the second year of our PhDs, myself included. While the second year means different stages of work for different subjects, what seems to be almost universal is the arrival of the dreaded Second-Year Slump.

The slump that comes with the second year is anxiety inducing, to say the least. The first year of PhD work is spent immersing yourself in your new subject, but by the second year the pressure is on to start producing original work. Continuing to forge ahead in spite of often unclear research paths is difficult, but knowing that others have encountered the same obstacles and conquered them can be reassuring. With that in mind, I asked my fellow PhD students at the University of St Andrews how they made it through their second year. Here’s their advice:


1. Utilise your support system

“The second-year slump of writing your PhD hits every student: it can come out as anxiety, depression or homesickness. I was lucky enough to be working closely with an older PhD student, who kept emphasizing that I was not alone in feeling so low. She encouraged me to get out of my own head, a message which was echoed by members of my close-knit family. You may write your thesis on your own, but support from your community will help you finish it.” – Anne Rutten, 4th Year PhD Student


2. Keep a research journal to organise your thoughts

“Second year felt a lot like not being able to see the forest for all the trees. All the research data can seem overwhelming, especially when you cannot yet see the big picture of the thesis. I started keeping a research journal or notebook in the second year to keep track of ideas, outlines, and random thoughts (even frustrations). It became something I could revisit when I started drafting chapters.” – Kimberly Sherman, Lecturer in History, Cape Fear Community College


3. Write, write, and write some more (about something other than your thesis!)

“One of the hardest things about entering the immediate post-Progress Review season of the PhD was figuring out how to start to write. And my advice on this point is going to sound counterintuitive, but to get over your reluctance to start writing any component of your thesis, I urge you to go write something else. Anything else, really: a poem, a letter (with your actual hand and real paper), a blog post about how hard it is to start writing. I write to myself about what I am trying to argue in my thesis, until I am – somehow without my noticing – actually writing the thesis in fact.” – Jamie Hinrichs, 3rd Year PhD student


4. Don’t lose contact with your supervisor

“The second year is among the most challenging because there is no longer expected written work at the end of the year like in the first year review (at least at St Andrews). Therefore, the best way to prolong energy and progress is to work closely with your supervisor in establishing goals and deadlines. To further increase your motivation, ensure these goals aid in demonstrating your progress to your second-year reviewers.” – Konstantin Wertelecki, 4th Year PhD Student


5. Plan time for work and fun

“Make a schedule and (mostly) stick to it. This includes having both a work day planned out and leaving room for fun. In particular, scheduling time for fun helped me stay on track during ‘work hours’ by giving me something to look forward to. Also, have non-PhD hobbies. For me, that means cooking.” – Chelsea Reutcke, 3rd Year PhD Student


6. Enjoy where you are right now

“Appreciate your surroundings. In my first year I mostly just went to my office desk and then returned home in the evening. Yes, you are here for a PhD but don’t forget where you are. For me, being in Scotland is amazing- I’ve joined the Breakaway Society at St Andrews, taken weekend trips, and tried to figure out where Mary Queen of Scots hasn’t been!” – Chrissy Simons, 3rd Year PhD Student


7. Not experiencing the second-year slump? Don’t worry

“I had always heard that the second year was the worst but it wasn’t that bad for me.. The third year seems more of a challenge for me: a lot of writing and more deadlines…” -Clementine Anne, 3rd Year PhD Student


Admittedly, this article was born out of self-interest when I recently fell victim to the second year slump myself. I hope my colleagues’ advice will inspire you on your journey like it has inspired me. One last piece of advice that I’d like to impart is to make your mental health your first priority. Every PhD is stressful and full of setbacks, but by focusing on your health first you will reap rewards in your thesis that otherwise would be unimaginable. Journaling, going to see a counselor, or taking some time for yourself when you need it will help you remain calm and sustain your project for the long run.


Emily Betz is an American PhD student at the University of St Andrews. She is currently in her second year, and her research focus on Renaissance melancholy and its role in the national identity of Early Modern Britain.

Image Credits: Pexels; Anne Rutten; Kimberly Sherman; Jamie Hinrichs; Konstantin Wertelecki; Chelsea Reutcke; Chrissy Simons; Clementine Anne; Emily Betz.