After spending so long applying, and then waiting to start my PhD, it feels strange to be a month in already.
I’m going to try and post updates every month or so (and get back into regular blogging) as something to look back on, and to help people thinking about doing a PhD.
What is my PhD about?
Broadly, I’m looking at tourist decision making regarding where they decide to go wildlife watching and what that means for sustainability. Sustainability here could refer to the environment, wildlife, animal welfare, or the sustainability of the communities they visit. I would like to try and touch on all of those things if I can, as they’re interlinked.
Over the next few months, I’ll be doing a lot of reading and trying to develop clear questions and some kind of plan for my project.
This is my magic unicorn project. I applied for a few projects before this one which really interested me, but this one is my dream project. As soon as I saw it advertised, I thought “this is mine.” It was so perfect that I had serious anxiety about the fact that if I didn’t get it, it would hurt a lot and I wasn’t sure how I would deal with that.
How do you start a PhD?
It feels like it should be something monumental; some kind of declaration about what you’re going to do. Alas, nope. It’s a lot of reading.
I met with one of my supervisors on my first day and we had a chat about the project, and I went away and started researching the impact of tourism on wildlife. I have spent the past month reading about as many areas of wildlife tourism as I can; doing through references in papers; and writing notes about each paper.
Researching without an immediate output feels strange
I always loved school, enjoyed my undergraduate degree, and thrived during my masters. All of those things are fundamentally different from a PhD because they are structured. You have set subjects or modules, and you have to turn in essays and presentations regularly. Being told to go and read and not be given a deadline is weird.
At first, it was exciting. I ended up going down so many rabbit holes, trawled through references sections, set up goodness knows how many folders in Zotero, and had some great ideas about what kind of thing I might like to do.
By my third week, I felt like I had hit a small wall. I felt like I should be doing something with everything I’d read. I had written notes for each paper, but it felt so weird not forming essays. In general, my third week could be characterised as mostly feeling unsure.
However, I was assured by everyone in my office, and everyone else that I spoke to, that it is normal, which made me feel a lot better. It seems that doing a PhD is existing in a perpetual state of “what am I doing?”, “will this work?”, “is this right?”.
To get away from feeling a bit lost, someone suggested I decided to learn how to use r. (r is a programming language and ‘program’ for carrying out statistical analysis.) This was a great suggestion because I felt like I was progressing with something, even if it was the most basic baby steps (if you’re like me, the r swirl package is perfect for complete beginners).
At the end of my third week, my supervisor ran through some r code with me and we began running some code to collect data. I felt like I was doing something, and was inspired to get back into reading during my fourth week. It’s easy to feel like reading papers isn’t being productive, but it is; if you don’t know what’s been done before and what questions need answering, you can’t progress in a way that makes sense and is justifiable.
Outside of research
It is nice to be doing something that I enjoy and care about. The last 12 months before I started this PhD were tough at times. You don’t need me to tell you how disheartening it can be getting rejected from jobs and PhDs you really want to do, and have to keep working at a job that your heart isn’t in. But you have to shut up and put up, because it’s hard to get a job in the sector you want to work in.
I’m not sure what to expect from month two. I’m looking forward to meeting the other students and hearing about their research. I’m hopeful my r skills will improve even more as I analyse some of the data we’ve collected.
Since I started a month earlier than most PhD students at this time of year, I’ll sign off by wishing you luck! You worked hard for this; enjoy it.