With the fall semester officially over, I am now halfway through my third year as a Ph.D. student, and hopefully halfway through my Ph.D. As a first and second year student, I really thought that if I could just get to my third year, everything would be so much easier. Between taking classes, doing research, and studying for comprehensive exams, I expected that having less structure in the third year would be a blessing. Instead, I actually miss having such clear benchmarks of my progress in completing the Ph.D.
As an undergraduate student, you know that you need x number of units to graduate. Your department tells you which courses are mandatory and which you can choose from as electives. The requirements to complete the degree are generally very clear-cut. My first two years of graduate school were very similar. I knew exactly how many courses I needed to take, how many I needed to pass, and how many exams were required in order to complete the Masters portion of the Ph.D. I have found the area beyond that, however, to be very gray. Without clear benchmarks, it’s hard to wrap your mind around where exactly you are in the Ph.D. process. Even the time required to finish the degree just “depends.” I’ve tried to think of the third year as a transition period of sorts, one in which I need to make some progress with my research, but also one in which getting stuck or changing directions would not be too consequential. At the same time, I certainly feel more pressure to pick a research topic that will align with what I want to do after graduation and where I want to work.
I have been told that the last couple of years of the Ph.D. will fly by and that I will wish I could slow it down to have more time to write my dissertation. With this in mind, I am afraid of starting my fourth year. I find myself questioning how much I should know by now and doubting if my research is going in the path of least resistance to graduation. Without concrete indicators of progress from things like grades, it almost feels like blind faith is required to believe that you will get to the point where you know enough to be given the Ph.D. In the end, I know that it’s not magic, but hard work, that will get me to the finish line.