10 personal reflections of a 4th year PhD Student

After each year of my PhD, I have spent some time reflecting on the past year and writing up these reflections in blog posts. You can read my reflections from my first year here, my second year here, and third year here.

After a really difficult third year, my fourth year has become one of my most enjoyable years yet. Since everyone’s PhD varies so greatly, here is some more context on what my fourth year entailed. I wrote and defended my thesis proposal. I taught for two of the terms (winter and summer). I wrapped up an extensive research project. And began my data collection. But the best news of my fourth year was finding out that I was pregnant and expecting our first baby in January 2022.

With all of this happening, here are my 10 personal reflections from my 4th year as a PhD student:

1: Track your progress

After my first two years of course work, my third year was a bit of a shock to have to create my own schedule. And I say shock because I actually thought I would thrive at creating my own schedule. I pride myself on being organized and staying disciplined in my work. But something about being out on my own, far away from my colleagues and mentors, made me feel like I was swimming in this big ocean alone. Maybe it had something to do with the daunting 3(ish) years still ahead of me in my work, or perhaps it was my physical distance as I was in Toronto and my school in Ottawa. Or maybe it was not having strict deadlines. Whatever the reason, my fourth year has made me feel even more alone and lost. This makes it really easy to go through my days and feel like I have accomplished nothing. So, halfway through this year, I began tracking my progress. Now this will look differently for everyone. For some, this could be to simply track some big goals. But for me, I wanted to track my hours to certain roles and responsibilities I had. Not only did this allow me to see how much work I was actually putting it, but it has helped me estimate how long certain tasks will take in the future.

2: Have accountability buddies

When I was on campus in my first two years, and even a bit of my third, it was so easy to meet up with colleagues and chat about our progress, trials and tribulations. Again, now being off on our own, plus the pandemic physically keeping us apart, it has been more important than ever to put in effort to stay in touch with folks. I still have a handful of colleagues I stay in touch with every so often. I am part of a group chat on What’s app where we message eachother sporadically to do pomodoro units together – and it’s just the best. However, two of these relationships are more structured. With one of my colleagues, we meet every month to review our goals and progress. Another one of my colleagues and I keep in touch through text weekly to check in and mostly complain, but what a release it is to vent to someone who is going through the same thing.

3: Say no more often

Accountability buddies can also hold you accountable for focusing on your end goal of finishing your PhD. As we progress through our PhDs, we might be heavy in our teaching and research and not so much or publications, for instance. When I meet with my colleague every month, we review our CV’s to see what it is we need to do more of, and what it is we need to say no to. It is such a great time to talk through challenging situations or get someone else advice about whether to take on that additional project that you probably shouldn’t but looks very shiny. Holding eachother accountable to our goals makes it a little easier to say no and stay on track.

4: But stay involved when you can

While learning to say no to things that won’t serve me, I give myself the gift of more time and space. Staying involved with my department is super important to me. So when I have that time, I try to make the effort to attend those administrative meetings or connect with colleagues. It’s always worth it.

5: Get organized

Something that has really helped me when “off on my own” is getting organized. I truly believe that taking time upfront to get organized will actually save you time in the long run. This is why I created The Scholar Refresh, a 30 day challenge of daily organizational tasks to refresh your mind and space. Getting organized is not a destination. Getting organized is a journey and an evolving practice. This year, scholars from all over the world joined me in the Scholar Refresh, which provided us with tools, resources and suggestions for how to get organized and achieve our goals.

6: Prioritize

Prioritizing allows me to focus on what is truly important. I make a to do list every day for the week ahead. I am constantly reassessing the urgency of each task and prioritizing the most important. Trello allows these tasks to be flexible so I can easily move them around day to day, week to week, or month to month. By prioritizing items, I can assess where I need to give my full attention and where I can give less energy. I have learned that I do my best work in the morning, therefore my hardest, most important tasks are completed at the beginning of the day. Constantly prioritizing helps me stay focused on my end goal and not get distracted along the way.

7: Try not to compare

The comparison game is something I was caught up in a lot this year. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others who are passing you on certain milestones or achieving accolades when you aren’t. It is easy to compare, but the fact is, everyone is on their own path, working towards their own unique goals. No two journeys look the same. And at some point or another, they are likely looking at you too, playing the very same comparison game. So, when you find yourself comparing, gently remind yourself to come back to your own unique path and goals and stay focused on that instead.

8: Enjoy the ride, finally.

As I mentioned above, my fourth year has been the most enjoyable yet. This is the time where I could finally prioritize my work through my proposal and data collection. The reason I applied for my PhD was to pursue this research, and it finally became a reality this year. Dreaming and refining the plans in the proposal was exciting. But actually carrying it out in my data collection feels like a gift. After facing so many barriers to get to this point, I had to remind myself to sit back and finally enjoy the ride (at least until the next set of hurdles up ahead).

9: Give back, if and when you have the capacity

One thing that helped me so much in my first two years was the generosity of upper-year students. Whether this was through meeting with me one-on-one, or sharing drafts of work, these acts of kindness made learning much easier and also much more enjoyable. If you feel you have the capacity and are in an upper-year, don’t forget to give back to those students just starting off in their journey. We are all in this together.

10. Continue to live your life

And finally, don’t let your PhD get in the way of your living your life. Is getting pregnant during my PhD the straightforward route? Definitely not. But I am not getting any younger, and I want to start a family. Of course, this is going to come with its own set of challenges, but when does a PhD not? Continue to pursue your goals and dreams outside of your work as well. These aspects are more interwind than we think.

I would love to hear your reflections from your 4th year below.

Were there any similar to mine?

Until next time,

Christine xo

P.S Don’t forget to use #ScholarCulture #ScholarSquad to keep me updated on your experiences as grad students.

P.P.S Applying to grad school for the 2021/22 school year? Check out this FREE eBook on 5 steps to a successful grad school application. Are you in grad school and struggling to find easy lunches to bring to campus? Check out three FREE recipes and full nutritional information here.

2 responses to “10 personal reflections of a 4th year PhD Student”

  1. Great post and congratulations again on your pregnancy! ❤️

    1. Scholar Culture

      Thanks so much! Really appreciate it <3

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