• Khadijah Saeed Khan

TOP 10 CHALLENGES DURING MY FIRST YEAR OF PHD


I just started my second year of PhD in 2020 and thought to jot down the big challenges that I faced during my first year of PhD. Eventhough, I have faced many challenges, here are top the 10. These challenges were hard to overcome but are there to learn something from these. Let's see!

The first main challenge was that I had no funding or grant to financially support myself for the first year. Applying to different relevant external and university grant application rounds were time consuimg and energetic work. And, getting the rejections from those applications, above all, have made me less-motivated and disappointed to carry on with my journey. I even thought to quit PhD and start looking for something else. But, my innerself was shouting on me to " Do what you love and you know you love to do research ". I could not simply quit what my initial aim was behind moving to the Finland. Importantly, my supervisors have been highly helpful in writing recommendation letters for grant applications and in motivating me towards continuing and progressing (even litle bit) in my PhD journey.


After receiving a short-term grant, I was moved to a university in Sweden to conduct my research for six months. I was in my early PhD stage and changing the country was challenging for me - to learn new environment, new university, new office and new home. Renting a new apartment is not easy in Sweden. Anyway, my study advisors, the professors, other PhD students and researchers welcomed me warmly at the university and I had good but challenging time. I learned many things but 'change' is always 'not easy'.


During my first year, it made me feel as a 'Cinderella at the Palace", completely new to a place and do not know any one. I felt loneliness. I did not know how to behave as a PhD student and what I am expected to do. May be because I did not have any role model in my mind before starting this journey. What should I say or what should not i say? Where should I seek information about PhD courses, which courses are best for me to take and how should I start progress? These questions were all over but no answers.


We do not have a big department at my host university in Finland and this is the reason that I did not know any other researchers besides my two supervisors and one senior PhD student who graduated before me and left the university. Another reason could be that I did not have any office space to sit in the university during my first year because I did not have any funding/grant and was working full-time somewhere else. If I would have time and office space, I could have an opportunity to interact with other people at my department and make connections with other PhD students. I did not know any social media group of PhD students or was not part of any students' association. This has left me alone. I strongly felt a need for a PhD network.


After enrolling into my PhD officially, I was advised for some practical things by my supervisor such as, how to find and enroll for PhD courses, how many credits I am required and which seminars I can attend etc. But personally, I was not confident enough to ask to my supervisors about my problems e.g. where I am stuck and why I am stuck in my studies. I always felt that my supervisors would think that 'I should know it automatically if I am enrolled as a PhD student', but it's not true. I do not know and that's why I am a "student". Most of the time, I was not even sure about what to ask to my supervisors. I was blur.


I faced a huge challenge of lack of information during my first year. I wish I could know some things before I messed up with them, for example, reference management tools etc. But I guess we all learn by our mistakes and our experiences. There is no fit-for-all guide for all PhD students and I understood this in my second year.


I am sure most of the PhD student face this challenge of losting in a wide literature. For me, my research is multi-disciplinary, with primary field of 'information studies' and secondary in 'social science'. I got more interested in the social science literature rather than my primary field of 'information studies' literature which was clearly a distraction. I read a lot of literature which I never used and was not relevant to my study. But a good experience and knowledge.


Unfortunately, I had some breathing issues and had to go for an operation for my nose which was not an easy process. The pre and post operation process has made me feel sick and away from work for few months.


One the the biggest challenges that had caused me depression, anxiety and stress was my behavior of comparing myself to other students. I was evaluating my progress with the lenz of others' progress. And there is always someone doing good and ahead than you out there. I did not realise that I am an international student in Finland who have extra challenges than the local students - such as, managing the cultural shock, home sickness, learning new language, making new social network and many more. There is no comparison!


I was working days and nights without having any rest and without realizing that my body and mind needs some rest and my heart needs to do something I like. I was even working on weekends. I did not have time to talk to my family on phone and no time for my friends. I was feeling guilty the day when I had not study at all.


Overall, I have learned from my mistakes and still facing some of the challenges even now. Hope to overcome all challenges soon.


Do share your experiences in comments!


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