Starting your PhD for real is getting you down? Don’t forget that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.

by Giovanna Pasquariello |

Undertaking a PhD is a challenging choice: you are committing yourself to three (at least) more years as a student – but not exactly a student – during which you don’t feel like a professional but neither like a freshman, you are working hard on a product knowing that its expected results will be collected later, and later those results might actually be unexpected… What a struggle, right?

Well, these feelings are more common than you think. Understanding and accepting them is a really good way to grow and rethink yourself as a researcher and as a person.

The first week’s ‘honeymoon’

For many of us, starting a PhD meant changing University, city or country – in a few words, changing life. Whether it was moving from one place to another or just stepping into this new academic experience, it represented an important turning point. As scary as it might have been, it was also very exciting, wasn’t it?

That’s the ‘honeymoon’ phase, during which everything sounds great, stimulating and inspiring and you really wish to throw yourself headlong in that new world.

The ‘reality shock’

However, after a few weeks (or months – everyone’s experience is different) something changed. You may have met your supervisor(s) and discussed your project, you might have had to restructure something, your schedule may have become unexpectedly overloaded and you gradually started to doubt yourself and the energy you are investing in your study.

No problem! This is perfectly comprehensible and usual: it’s the ‘reality shock’, the moment when you really get into the PhD experience, when you concretize it out of the foggy cluster of expectations you had in your mind. This is good, this is instructive.

Re-think yourself

What helped me was accepting the facts: I truly am at a turning point in my life but this is far beyond the simple excitement for the newness, it also means that I need to re-structure and question myself – alongside with my research project!

Interrogate yourself: why did you decide to apply for a PhD? What don’t you like about yourself right now? What do you like instead? If you had to imagine a ‘happy future’, where would you be and what would you be doing?

This is a starting point, you don’t have to give specific answers or to prepare structured plans to reach all of your goals, no matter what. You just need to know something new about yourself and to accept it. Then…

Enjoy where you are

Even just for this, you are doing great! Your research and your life will find their path, as long as you give yourself the chance to enjoy the experience. If you decided to apply for a PhD, you must be someone who loves studying and learning something new. So, what is better than committing yourself to it? Even if your rhythm might seem slower than you wished and you struggle to find the right way to approach your research, just enjoy the fact that you are where you are: in a PhD programme.

Keep going, be humble but proud of yourself and don’t forget to have a little bit of fun in the meanwhile!


Giovanna Pasquariello is Contributions editor for “Pubs and Publications: the PhD experience”. She’s a first year at the University of Edinburgh, studying something old, very old: Greek inscriptions about the Celtic tribes who settled in Anatolia in 3rd BCE. Apart from this, she swears she is a funny person. 


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