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Third year of PhD life: A slow-burning trial by fire

Third year of PhD life: A slow-burning trial by fire
Jun 24, 2019 551 views

The third year of your PhD is weird. You’ve passed your qualifying exams, probably have a focus for your thesis, and the second half of grad school lies ahead, glittering with possibility.

And yet.

You’ve passed your qualifying exams, taking away the pressure of having an immediate end goal. You sort of know what your thesis will be about, but you also know that it’s likely to change completely in the next two to three years. You have a few years left, but you only have a few years left to finish everything you want to do.

What you’re left dealing with is a complete rollercoaster of an academic year. You’re working on papers, still planning projects and experiments, maybe taking a class, maybe working with undergraduates in your lab, and generally trying to plan the next three years. One day your data looks amazing and your writing is going smoothly; the next day, you find an error in some calculations and realize you have to redo multiple days of work, and writer’s block suddenly strikes. One day you and your labmates are stoked on academia, the next you’re all planning your joint business and daydreaming about alternate lives. In short – you start to question everything. Do you even want to be here?

Qualifying exams are the typical “trial by fire” experience in grad school, but I’m here to say that third year comes hot on its heels in terms of mental difficulty. And it’s a year, not just one stressful afternoon. It’s emotionally exhausting and counterproductive to find yourself questioning your ability to succeed and your life choices on a daily basis. So how do you get through it? How do you come out stronger on the other end, more certain of your choices – or just as unsure as you were a year ago? It’s a slump, one my advisor warned me about during my first year but I swore I’d avoid. Ha.

The thing that has been most helpful for me is hands-down a strong support network of a mix of people – (hopefully) your advisor, other professors, grad students who can either commiserate or tell you that fourth year is better, friends outside your own department who know what you’re going through (and who can remind you that you’re doing just fine), and a supportive partner who can help put everything into perspective. Having a wide range of folks who you can lean on – and who in turn, can lean on you – is essential for well-being in grad school in general, but especially during a period of questioning and self-doubt like third year.

What was also helpful, perhaps surprisingly, was really dwelling on that uncertainty. Questioning your motivations and goals is uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary check for whether your life is heading in the direction that you want it to be, one that will make you healthy and satisfied. Is grad school sometimes unbelievably busy and stressful? Absolutely. But for you, is that stress worth it? Is it balanced out by the things that you enjoy and find rewarding in grad school? Would it continue to be rewarding as you progress through academia?

My go-to thought experiment on this front is my imaginary, alternative career based on my other undergraduate degree. Had I chosen to stay in the field of communications, I probably would have been applying to lots of corporate PR jobs. Had I gotten one, I would probably spend my working life in a typical 9-to-5 job (perk!) with much less flexibility (boo), writing emails to spam an emailing list (double boo), and with little control over what I was working on (triple boo). In contrast, doing my own research in a university setting lets me decide what I want to work on in a flexible setting, surrounded by capable, intellectually engaging people. That, for me, makes the stress worth it. But without the pressure of the third-year slump leading me to think critically about my path, I’m not sure I would have arrived at this decision. And even with this thought process, some uncertainty remains, and there’s a good chance that I’ll feel differently tomorrow, or next Monday, or a year from now.

But for now, I’ll stick with my decision to stick it out in grad school. It’s also important to remember that there are paths after grad school outside of academia which all too often get shunted aside as an “alternative career path” to academia. It’s not alternative, it’s just a career choice. Who knows? Maybe my daydream of becoming an internationally-renowned science writer will come to fruition and I can quit my day job.

Default Alt textSometimes taking lab selfies for instagram feels silly but is actually a fun little way to remind yourself what you love about your job! I just get to hang out and do chemistry! 


Rebecca Dzombak (@bdzombak) is a PhD candidate in Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan. This story was published on March 29, 2019, on Rebecca’s blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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