Surviving the Second Year Slump: One Hold at a Time

15th November 2015 | by

There is a much maligned and dreaded phenomenon in PhDs, muttered about in labs, break rooms, dingy offices and canteens across the globe.

Surviving the Second Year Slump: One Hold at a Time

It strikes fear into the heart of first years and the results can be seen in the eyes of those who made it to the third year and beyond: The second year slump.

Also known as the second year blues, the second year slump is startlingly common and alarmingly destructive. It has cost many students their PhD and/or sanity.

A PhD is usually three to four years in duration. Mine is 3.5. The first year typically starts with buckets of enthusiasm and sheer joy that you managed to secure a PhD in the first place. With shiny eyes, you imagine all the feats that you will accomplish, all the discoveries that you will make, the earth shattering changes you will make to your field of choice. You go in knowing that you will give it your all, meet all the challenges head on and emerge, glorious, as a bona fide Doctor of Philosophy – an ultimate level achieved.

The start of the second year is…a bit different. For many, this is where things go a bit awry. It’s the time where you realise just how fast the first year has gone and how much you still have left to achieve. It causes a weird time paradox where, at exactly the same time, you panic as it seems as though there is nowhere near enough time left to achieve all that is required, while also sincerely believing that your PhD will never end. It can be truly mind boggling trying to rationalise, organise and envisage how you will complete all of your PhD components in a timely manner. This inability to conceive how you will possibly manage all of the various things that you are working on can be crippling. Many are gripped by the fear that nothing they planned will actually pan out, that the experiments or field work ideas they started in the first year have failed or proved to be infeasible; that they are essentially doomed to never feel the joy of being referred to as “Dr. such and such” for the first time.

I have stared into the beady and malevolent eye of the second year slump and felt it’s overwhelming power, heard it whisper its dangerous malignancies; “There’s too much to do, you’ll never do it all, why bother continuing? How about you just stay in bed a bit longer? Yes, you can work for ten hours a day, but you’ll still never get it done” (cue maniacal laughter). Trying desperately to see a light at the end of the tunnel, focussing on the end point, seeing my PhD in its entirety induced a feeling akin to swimming through treacle. And it’s this type of thinking, this broad scale, future orientated, ultimate goal thinking that is the crux of the matter for the majority of those hit by the infamous second year slump.

Here is where I bring in rock climbing. Bear with me.

I started rock climbing 18 months ago, beginning in my local bouldering centre and graduating to outdoor roped climbing after a couple of months. I’m extremely competitive and set high expectations for myself; for which I am quick to self berate if they are not achieved. I focussed entirely on getting to the top of each route that I was trying, feeling like an abject failure if I didn’t make it. Every time I didn’t make the top of a route that had a certain grade, I felt like a crap climber. My boyfriend and friends tried to tell me otherwise, but to me, getting to the top was the only goal that mattered and if I wasn’t doing that, I was failing. Funnily enough, I started to feel like I wasn’t enjoying climbing anymore. It wasn’t fun; it was a brutal way by which torture myself and erode my self esteem. I felt like I was literally banging my head against the walls that I was trying to climb. It didn’t help that I have a fear of heights, which had a tendency to paralyse me part way up a route, usually inducing a state of rage filled self-disgust. I considered giving up climbing.

At this point I decided to really work on how to improve my climbing mentality, and in doing so, I realised that the two things that have helped my rock climbing massively can also be effectively applied to the second year slump of my PhD.

For me, these epiphanies came when I was climbing a route called Fallen Slab. It’s got a low grade thanks to good handholds, the fact that it’s a slab climb (angled forwards as opposed 90 degrees up or overhanging) and that it requires relatively simple techniques to get up it. It’s also involves climbing up a corner of rock that juts out over a drop to boulders below, the only thing beyond those being the wide expanse of ocean. It’s HORRIBLY exposed.

View of Fallen Slab from the bottom of the route - doesn't do the exposure justice!

View of Fallen Slab from the bottom of the route – doesn’t do the exposure justice!

I have never been so afraid in my entire life as I was when climbing Fallen Slab. At the beginning of the climb, I kept looking up at the top, terrified by how far it was to go. I got to a point where I just stopped climbing, gripping the rock for dear life and sincerely believing that I may die. Which of course couldn’t happen, being as I was attached to a rope that would arrest my fall if I did come off. It was at this point, after months of disappointment, despair and anger at myself, that I decided that there was no way that I wasn’t going to give this my all. While the top was my goal, I concentrated on one hold at a time, breathing steadily (albeit through clenched teeth) and locking my eyes on the rock in front of me. Before I knew it, I had reached the top! I heard my boyfriend shout joyfully below before I shakily signalled him to lower me down. When I got to the ground, I couldn’t believe that I had done it. I was absolutely elated and so proud of myself for controlling my fear and pushing on.

Here you can see part of the beautiful boulder field and ocean view to the side of Fallen Slab - which also makes it kind of terrifying.

Here you can see part of the beautiful boulder field and ocean view to the side of Fallen Slab – which also makes it kind of terrifying.

SS Fallen Slab Sunset

Beautiful sunset at the end of the day’s climbing.

The two crucial things that saw me up Fallen Slab were:

  • Feeling the fear: Acknowledging it, reassuring myself that it’s OK to be afraid and being determined enough to push on through it.
  • Realising that thinking only about the top is self-defeating: It can be overwhelming and interfere with truly progressing. Go one hold at a time.

It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and anxious from time to time. Acknowledge it and be kind to yourself. Talk to other students/friends/family and seek support if you want some – guaranteed you are not alone. Being afraid does not mean that you are weak or incapable, it means that you need to take the time to properly assess how you are feeling, manage your emotions and believe in yourself enough to push on.

While it’s important to have an overall plan and timeframe in place for a PhD, it’s a good idea to break it down into small, achievable tasks. To be able to cross something off a list can so rewarding that it can provide the impetus to go on to the next item. Sometimes, the item to be ticked off can be as small as responding to an email, tidying a workspace or downloading a scientific paper. It doesn’t matter; all that matters is that something has been achieved. If you go too long without feeling like you have achieved anything, it can leave you feeling utterly drained and demotivated. One hold at a time.

My climbing improved dramatically after that day. I’m kinder to myself, have concentrated on improving my technique rather than aiming for brute strength, feel less afraid and am actually able to have fun. I have tried to apply this to my PhD, concentrating solely on one chapter for a while, and the resulting feeling that I have made tangible progress is exhilarating and liberating. I’m going to do my best to keep applying this philosophy, I hope that it can help others who are facing a similar situation. In your face, second year slump!

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