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The first year of my PhD: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This month’s blog comes from Noushin Saadullah Khani. Noushin started her PhD just a year ago at University College London and she offers a reflection on her first year. The title of her project is: Can genomics enhance care and quality of life in psychosis? Investigating the cost-effectiveness of pharmacogenomics in mental health.

In October 2021, I started my PhD at the Division of Psychiatry, University College London. To sum up the past few months in one word, I would describe it as exciting. While it has been undoubtedly difficult to adjust to the workload and expectations, it has also been a year full of new opportunities. As I draw closer to that one-year milestone, I have been reflecting on my PhD journey.

The good

Starting a PhD can be challenging and confusing, but I have been fortunate enough to have an incredible supervisory and research team who have made the journey so much easier and less daunting. I started my PhD expecting it to be an isolated and lonely process, but the support and guidance I have received has meant that my journey has been much better than the expectation I had in my head. As a result, I have been able to seamlessly transition from my Master’s degree to my PhD. This experience has also allowed me to learn the importance of collaboration in scientific research. Yes, my PhD is an independent piece of work, but it is also supported by different researchers offering their expertise and specialist knowledge. While I manage my own project, there are also opportunities to collaborate with other students and contribute to their projects. I have learnt that science is, ultimately, a team effort.

The bad

As a PhD student, you do not have set working hours, and your time is up to you. This can be a great thing but can also be dangerous for students who predominantly work from home, like myself! It was very easy for me to continue working through the evenings, nights and/or weekends. This is counterproductive, because working too long without rest can reduce your ability to concentrate. Regularly scheduling time during my day to rest has helped massively. For example, I avoid eating at my desk or sacrificing my lunch break to do work; I try to spend this time having a meal with my family, colleagues or just as a time for myself to unwind. Most importantly, my weekends are to myself, and I try my very best not to think about anything work-related. Come Monday, I feel fresh and ready for a productive week ahead.

The ugly

The saying goes, “comparison is the thief of joy”. While it is extremely motivating to meet so many like-minded, intelligent PhD students during my journey, it has also made me feel somewhat unproductive. I am working as hard as I can, but my progress feels stagnant compared with theirs. However, every student progresses at a different rate, so in the end, the comparison is futile. The nature of my project means that there is a slow data collection process, so it takes longer to analyse data and produce spectacular results. The only real comparison is one with myself, so the question I should be asking myself is “what progress have I made on my journey and with my project since I began my PhD?”.

To conclude, the first year of my PhD has been a steep learning curve. Through a rigorous trial-and-error process, I’ve learnt what works for me and what doesn’t. I am looking forward to the next few years and the challenges it might bring!

Noushin Saadullah Khani

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