I was told about this in advance. When I applied to various graduate program in Europe and the States, the current PhD students described the typical first year experience: “You work really hard trying to get your project working – once it is up and running you can relax a bit.”
I thought that my first semester was bad. I had to adjust quickly to the teaching, learn how to run quickly from the classroom to the lab, get settled. Then in semester 2 I was handed my research project and told – crack on with it.
In a science PhD, the research projects will make or – mostly – break the grad students. If you have a series of unsuccessful research projects then your graduation could be delayed by a year or more, or you’ll grow fed up and quit. On the other hand, early success on 1 project means plenty of opportunities for successful projects to grow out of that…then bam, you have your thesis. It also makes life easier when you come to draft the research proposal necessary to advance into PhD candidacy.
Right now, life is composed of stupid-hour days and too much bad food from the student centre. Winter has turned my skin into cracked, itchy parchment. The snow has mostly gone (…for now), but I don’t have much opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight. I get up early, knock back too espressos before I leave the apartment each morning. I come back late, decompress for a bit on the internet and then go to sleep.
I’m holding up. The research project is actually working. I guess that is worse, in a sense – because I have no excuse to ‘just call it a day’ or ‘try sleeping on that problem’ – but more importantly the reason I’m working so hard is because I want to, not because I’m being forced to. As I prepare conference abstracts, format spectral data and draft journal manuscripts I feel that I’m finally hitting the “legitimate academic researcher” jackpot.
Slowly I’m passing out of the data gathering phase of this particular project and moving into the manuscript prep – the former is labour-intensive and time-consuming; the latter can be accomplished in a coffeeshop whilst listening to Paul Simon albums. I’m also beginning to (re)appreciate that working 7 days a week at a sustained intensity just isn’t productive and not really necessary.
I’ve passed through the worst of the first year craziness – I hope that calmer times are to come.