chemistry dog

The Second Year Slump

Also known as the Second Year blues (but I prefer the alliteration). If I’d have known about this before it hit me, I wouldn’t have been so worried. As it turns out, the second year slump is a ‘normal’ part of the PhD process, as normal as any PhD can be. Saying that, we need to remember that maintaining our mental health is of the utmost importance.

If you think that you or somebody around you is suffering from any mental health issues and needs help, please get it. Although mental health issues within academia are higher than that found in the general population, it doesn’t mean it’s right.

Even though a slump happens to almost everyone at this stage, it sucks big time. I’m just getting over mine now, and it was a tough couple of months getting through it. New students, fresh-faced, raring to go, and so excited by every little result they get. Older students are so close to the finish, getting so many results and are panicking that they won’t be able to get everything done in time. Meanwhile, there’s you. Stuck in the middle, results coming few and far between, if at all. Suddenly, getting to the stage where you’ll be thinking about writing up feels like there’s a m
arathon in front of you.

Here are some of the major thoughts that I plagued me during the slump:

  • Nobody cares about my project anymore
  • I wish I had [insert name here]’s project, it’s much more exciting
  • Everybody else has more results
  • It’s not like I’ll be able to get a job anyway

Now I’m out of the other side, I can see that this just isn’t true. At the time, it’s difficult to see through the haze and self-doubt, but speaking from personal experience, it does get better. Let me tell you why the points listed above are complete crap.


Nobody cares about my project.

Even if you don’t, I can assure you that your supervisor does. For anybody to put the time and effort into putting together a grant application surely says that they’re invested in it. If you aren’t particularly feeling it at the minute, take some time to actually think about what you’re doing, and more importantly, why you are doing it in the first place. I do cancer research, but because I never see patients, it can feel so distant when I’m growing cells on plastic to think about how it could have any effect on a person experiencing the gruelling regime of chemo, surgery and everything else that comes along with a cancer diagnosis.

If I think nobody cares, I can guarantee there is a woman in the hospital next door to my building that would whole heartedly disagree with me. Our research is important, that’s why we’re doing it. We may not see the whole picture, but without the piece of the jigsaw that you’re working on, maybe the rest of it doesn’t make sense to the people who can put it all together.

I wish I had [insert name here]’s project

When you’re on your 10th Western blot or PCR of the week and it’s only Wednesday, the world seems like a terrible place. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minute detail of your project when you don’t have much variation at the minute. Seeing other people present their data made it much worse for me too. It always seems so much more interesting! I guarantee if you spoke to them about their project, they would most likely think yours was the most interesting, not theirs.

Everybody else has more results

It doesn’t matter how many results you have. For me, it turned out that the results I had based my entire first year on were wrong. I was working with the wrong cells. After I had a minor break down, my supervisor got together a contingency plan and pretty much rescued my PhD. It was at this point that over half of the people who I spoke to about it in my Institute told me of the various things that meant their first years didn’t give them anything to go into a thesis or a paper either.

Five months down the line, I have some results that will definitely be going in my thesis, and I can already envisage the chapter that they’ll fit into nicely. If anything, it’s made me re-evaluate what results I have gotten since then, and how they’re going to fit into my overall thesis. It’s easier to find the holes now and fix them, than to try to fill them with three months of funding left when the panic sets in. If you aren’t sure, I highly recommend making figures and trying to put things together now. It’s only when you’re staring at a figure when it becomes obvious that you’re results don’t quite link up and make a cohesive story just yet. The connections are clear to you, but not to others.

It’s not like I’ll be able to get a job anyway

This is completely wrong. At this point, I felt like I was going to be stuck in academia when I finished. Going for post-doc after post-doc, desperately applying for grants. Not having a ‘safe’ job or being able to start a real life and settle down until I eventually started my own group.

It turned out that this was a really good time to look for alternative career choices. What did I find? It’s actually staying in academia that’s the alternative. When you look at the amount of PhD students that become Professors, it’s something ridiculous like 0.3%. There are many career options for PhD graduates. Going into Industry is always said to be the only alternative, but what does that even mean? Here’s some of the options I found;

  • Medical Scientific Liaison
  • Medical writing
  • Clinical scientist
  • Clinical trial management
  • Consulting
  • Working as a scientist in a startup or a bigger pharma company.

These are obviously biased towards biology-based PhDs, and mainly the options that I am interested in. There are so many options, academia is not the be all and end all. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Taking some time to look at career options, and speak to other people that have made the transition away from academia really helped me to see my future more clearly.


I managed to get through my slump with sheer stubborness. I’ve spent so much time getting here, I wasn’t about to stop now. Finding time away from the lab, and not thinking about science, helped a lot for me. Friends and family were really important around this time. I actually found it most useful to speak to other people in the lab, because any Post-Doc or 3rd year student will have had a similar experience, and might even be going through something similar right now. If it’s really starting to get to you and affect you, speak to your supervisor, or anyone else in the hierarchy that you feel comfortable speaking to. They’re there to help and set your mind at ease, and they want to get you through your PhD as much as you do.

A quick google shows that many more people have gone through, and are currently going through this awkward time in their PhDs. These are some of the thoughts I had during mine and how I tried to find ways out. What were your experiences of the slump?


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