The Tiniest Sandcastle or My first few weeks of a PhD

When you tell someone new that you’re about to embark on a PhD journey, you’ll get one of a predictable set of responses. You can’t help but categorise them in your head: the professionals are politely interested, the undergrads are admiring, the academics are approving. But the most telling response comes from other PhD students, especially the ones nearing the end of their journey. They’re pitying. They give you a wry smile, shake their head, and wish you “Good luck”.

Chocolate, notepads and pens

I’ve spent the last few weeks oscillating between two extremes. One minute I’ll be panicking, wondering how I can possibly discover anything meaningful if everything is known, but the next minute I’ll be struck dumb by just how little anyone knows on the subject, and how can I possibly discover anything meaningful if there aren’t any basics to build on? I’m telling you; my emotional readout is a cosine of confusion. Situating my project in the literature has felt like trying to build a sandcastle out of the entire Sahara. It goes on forever. Everything looks the same. I swear it shifts when I’m not looking.

But I’m sticking with it, and I’m happy to. Why? Because nothing can ever beat the feeling that you’ve discovered something truly new. It’s like solving one of those twisty mysteries from NCIS, except instead of figuring out a whodunnit you’re discovering some fundamental truth of the universe, or building a piece of some grand puzzle that no-one has ever seen completed before.

So maybe I’m just thinking about this the wrong way. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise, considering everyone has been telling me that exact thing for months. “Don’t try to do everything at once,” they say. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” they say. But hearing good advice is one thing, internalising it is quite another. I didn’t grok it. You have to live things to grok them.

So maybe I don’t need to use the entire Sahara for my sandcastle. After all, my PhD will eventually be just one more handful of sand. That might seem disheartening, but that’s how we got this grand Sahara of research in the first place, one handful at a time. Who knows, the next person to come along might need my handful for their castle. And I will tell them the same things everyone’s been telling me: “don’t try to do everything at once”, “it’s a marathon not a sprint.” “Good luck”. But the only thing that will really help is coming up with their own way of grokking their journey. I’ll just be over here in my corner of the Sahara, building my tiny sandcastle.

Photo: My supervisor says chocolate is an essential part of a PhD student’s kit. Should I be worried?