It’s already been a year. Bernard describes the first year of his PhD studies…
I am about to start my second year as a physics PhD. I originally come from Belgium where I got a master degree in physics before going to UCL in London where I did a MSc in math modelling. I have the big luck of having supportive parents that helped when I was unsure of what would the next step be. I had a vague idea of enrolling in a doctorate program but it faded away as a lack of conviction. It only came back when I was in London and really started looking, initially for jobs, and then for PhD’s. I was just not ready so instead of doing a year of who knows what I studied a bit more. A PhD is a beautiful challenge and additionally, an alternative to a job for a company. I would probably be picky figuring out if they do good, morally speaking. Probably because money has not been an issue so far either. Quite idealistic then. I applied quite late and got very lucky in securing a place at Warwick. I am grateful. So that is briefly how I got here.
I believe research requires to be committed and talented, (with commitment overtaking talent at some point?). This first year went very quickly and let me experience two ”principles”. The first one is face yourself. Research is about facing yourself (before facing it it itself). The second is loneliness kills, especially when you do not know exactly where to goand what to learn in a completely new environment (away from friends and family). My supervisors are great and patient too. This is gold. They really help, particularly when I was side tracking and needed to be back on the railways. Despite this, in the end, the work is mostly personal, when facing yourself.
Waking up is the start of the day, big struggle for me if I listen to my internal clock (which leads to non social schedules). For the time being, as long as I work, I am trying to minimise the issue. It is more complicated when attempting to balance it with a social life as I leave the office late in the evening. There are also directions to give to the project and the decisions to make that are important. I mostly do simulations so if there is a problem to fix, which solution if (m)any should one aim for? What is to be learnt and how is the timing implemented? That is mostly what is at issue now. Especially, I often want to fulfil a task and end up tackling another. I am satisfied and do not regret what I am doing. The overall process is sometimes tedious, especially at the beginning. As time goes on, I slowly build confidence and find myself asking more relevant questions and the joy that comes with the answer, hopefully. On the short term, when stuck on a problem, and perceptive enough, I would just stop and have a walk on campus, or just disconnect for a few minutes and go back to the task. On the long run, since we have got towards this stage, then let us make our way by pushing it a bit further, one pace at a time.
Facing myself is the least I can do in regards of education and luck I have had thus far. Regarding loneliness, I have found fewer opportunities to meet people AND have them become my friends than it was as a student. To my burden, I was mostly absorbed by work, sometimes weekends included, but as a student too. I have very nice housemates but we did not get to meet much during the week either. In the department, we have good conversations at coffee breaks (if willing to take it), but have not had common activities. Around April, we had to submit a progress report. I therefore decided I would not come home around that period. But panicking, I booked a Eurostar at the very last-minute one day in advance to meet my family and my friends in Belgium, and to confront with myself. Though most was to be done at my return, I was in a better mind having unplugged, and stepping back, that was a good choice. Now I am trying to make room for casual meetings and allocate time for sport sessions more systematically.
Bernard Reman, PhD student in Physics, University of Warwick