One year down, two to go – a summary of my first year as a PhD researcher

It’s now been almost exactly a year since I started this PhD. Can’t believe this has come around so fast! But then people always say that. You’d think by now we’d have learnt to expect time to fly but it still does come as a bit of a shock.

What have I been up to over the last twelve months as a PhD researcher? Well not a lot of research actually. I was speaking to more advanced PhDs from other universities at the QRA conference last week (see my blog post about this here) and one thing they all say is that first year is useless in terms of actually getting any research done. There is just too much reading to do, too many training courses to take and, of course, too much academic bureaucracy!

I agree with this sentiment to some extent but also disagree that first year is a total waste of time in terms of doing ‘real’ work. Certainly some things were a bit of a waste of time, particularly the time I spent getting myself removed from the social science ethics courses (don’t think my sarcastic ‘so rock, how did you feel about being overrun by ice during the last glacial maximum?’ interview plan would have gone down well). But a lot of the training, all of the reading and even some of the bureaucracy has turned out to be beneficial. In particular the upgrade process, whilst fairly time-consuming, did help to make me focus and to condense my ideas into a single project that is feasible and justifiable.

Another thing we were discussing at the QRA is the 3-year issue. The UK is unusual in only allowing 3 funded years for a PhD candidate to progress through the relevant training, complete their doctoral research and write up most of the thesis. The candidate then nominally gets a further 12 months to actually submit the thesis, although this period is generally unfunded. Other European countries vary between 3 and 5 years of funding, whereas in North America and Australasia it’s more like 4-5 years as standard I’m told.

We were wondering which system is the ‘best’ for environmental science students who need to do fieldwork; which takes up a lot of time in seeking funding, planning the logistics and actually doing the fieldwork. We all agreed that we knew very few people who actually managed to submit within 3 years. Most British environmental PhDs will have to use that extra year of no funding to get it done, often whilst working either full- or part-time to make ends meet.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe. But are the longer PhD systems better? Whilst the extra financial security is nice, it would also take the pressure off a little and perhaps cause PhD candidates to procrastinate a bit more. Or to have their time filled by teaching assignments and being made to do their research group’s donkey work. You hear a lot of sob stories about this kind of stuff coming out of North America and I don’t doubt it does happen in some places.

Personally I’d like to have the financial security of having some money assured for a fourth year, even if it was only half-pay or similar. I think that would be the best solution to keep me working to the 3 year deadline without too much pressure. However, I only have the standard 3 year funding. So I guess I’ll just have to get myself a part-time job when the money dries up and minimise procrastination in the meantime!


p.s. for an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of a British PhD vs a North American one, check out this post. Also, if you were wondering what the image at the top of this post is – it’s a brainstorm of all the broad categories in my reference manager’s library at the end of my first year reading bonanza.