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How long to study a (STEM) module that provides important background for your research


How long does it take? If it is an undergraduate lecture note, not long at all. I recall when I need to teach tutorials of a new module it probably took me at most 20-30 hours to prepare as the term goes on. For my own research, I rarely studied the whole modules, only the part I needed. I never studied it to the extent of scoring well in exams, because that would require practice and memorising, none of which was efficient for me as I was in my PhD already. If it is more advanced materials suggested by potential supervisors, then really as long as you need.

I would say, don't worry about reviewing modules you have studied but feel rusty in. If anything comes up in your new modules, go back to review that specific part. Nobody has that much memory to spare. I can't remember my own proof from two years ago. It is more important for you to know where to find a specific knowledge and how it fits in the bigger picture, then to be good at exercises and exams [A lot of profs are not so good at the exercises and exams of the undergrad modules they teach either.]

I am not familiar the specific topics you are interested in, but if you want (and depending on which country you are doing your PhD in) I can share a bit more of my experience.

How long to study a (STEM) module that provides important background for your research

I am passionate to answer the question because I feel like my experience is relevant [I have a PhD in math but didn't study it in undergrad, so I had to do a lot of study during my PhD to catch up].

Before we get to "how to go about", I believe what is more important is that you choose the right modules to study in your limit time:
Be absolutely clear what you want to gain from studying each module. Is it for you to decide which direction to move into? Is it to satisfy the prerequisite of a particular PhD programme? Is it to understand a potential supervisor's area and write your proposal?

As for "how to go about":
You said you wanted to look at topics that you didn't study in undergrad, which makes me think you are not sure what narrow field you want to study and are yet looking at potential supervisors. In this case, I would say don't worry about research, just study the modules (the ones you've never studied but may potentially be necessary if you do a PhD) as if you are in undergrad. Personally, I would read the lecture notes (try to understand the logic between different statements, not just remember knowledge points) and go through the exercise sheets. In your case, it may even be beneficial to take online courses so that you can provide relevant experience in your application. You should find yourself comfortable with the technique and the way of thinking before deciding on a PhD in that topic.

If you have some ideas of what PhD you are interested in (even if not certain), you should start looking at potential supervisors and even reach out to them. A lot of supervisors do list prerequisite and references on their websites. It is always more efficient to follow supervisors' lead than jumping into the abyss yourself. When you try to digest these materials, the topics you need to study will surface, and then you can find the suitable lecture notes to help you study. [The thing is, different lecture notes and textbooks may go about the same topic very differently. You can be studying a module thoroughly but completely missing the bit of technique you need because that module is designed to focus elsewhere.]

I hate my topic

Hi Hydra, I can sort of relate to this, but I also feel like the experience also strongly depends on the subject. It may be helpful for you to specify your general area of research.

I was in a STEM area where in most cases a very narrow topic is given by the supervisor. Even though technically we choose what topic we will focus on at our application, it is understood that the majority of us don't (and frankly don't have the true capability to) understand what we would like to focus on, but will pretty much stick to what we are given anyway.
Due to some administrative issue I never found out, I was assigned a supervisor and a topic that was different from what I applied for. The new topic also requires a skillset I did not have. For the first year or so, I was trying to learn the skillset and understand the topic, so I didn't feel either way about it. After my knowledge improved, I started to see the many flaws of how my topic was set up. It was also an awkward topic for presentation and never sparked much interest from the audience. Meanwhile, my original supervisor was no longer in the picture, and wasn't that helpful anyway. I decided to stay with the topic and stretch it to a different direction that is worth a PhD. It wasn't easy at all, and I was feeling lost pretty much throughout.

I would say some self-exploration is important:
- What exactly do you hate about the topic?
- What is this "pure discomfort" towards bibliography about?
- What is the dynamic between you, your project and your supervisor?
- How does the topics develop over the years for other PhDs in your area? For example look at the annual review report of PhDs in your school.
Two month is a very short time to develop such strong feeling. I think it is important to identify how much of it is about the topic, and how much is about the anxiety of adjusting to a PhD. In general, it would take a lot more than two months to develop enough understanding about the topic. However, it is also possible you already have some accurate concerns about the topic. Asking appropriate questions to your supervisor and older PhDs in your area usually helps speed up your understanding to the topic and clarify/confirm your concerns.

Don't want to travel

Hi curious_mind,
Just want to say how relatable this is to me. I was also in committed relationship but without care duty to pets or kids. It made me feel like I had no excuse to reject opportunities (especially a lot of my colleagues were committing to years of long-distance relationship in order to finish their PhD). My main worry was that I'd seem passive and unmotivated to my supervisor, and I was a bit ashamed that I chose the quality of my relationship over my career. I couldn't discuss it with anyone because the general vibe I get from peers only confirms my shame.
Ultimately, as long as it is not written in contract or your programme handbook, you cannot be forced to travel. However, depending on your supervisor, their personal stake in your PhD project, and the exact benefit of the placement, their reaction to your refusal may or may not have a negative impact on the rest of your PhD. It would be great to prepare for that, and suggest an alternative if possible, as rewt mentioned.
My general feeling is that if you wish to stay in academia after PhD, traveling and other sacrifice are more expected, and the conversation with your supervisor may be a little harder.

About to quit my PHD

Hi lala216, I certainly can relate to a lot of what you described: don't know where my PhD project is heading in my first two years; feeling incompetent and lack of knowledge in my field when I started (I switched field); feel so much shame that I was unable to communicate with my supervisor and peers; panic about my career if I quit.

I did push through in the end. My mental and physical health suffered, but it is on the mend since my graduation. In retrospect, my takeaways from my experience are:

Don't feel shame and guilty about who you are and how you feel when facing your supervisor. You don't owe them anything. They accepted you knowing you are out of school for awhile but have relevant work experience. If they are decent supervisors, you should be able to communicate with them candidly. Like replies above said, PhD is a slow process and your supervisor has seen it all. Tell them about your worries, ask how they expect your progress to be like, are they confident you will pass the first year review, what theoretical knowledge you need immediately, etc. For me, a lot of disastrous belief were just in my head. If I was brave enough to communicate with my supervisor, I could find out that they were not true.

Priorities your tasks. If your first year review is imminent, I would say passing the review may give you some breathe room and confidence. Maybe ask your supervisor to help make sure you get through for now? It also seems that you have work responsibility outside your PhD? I don't know whether this comes with your previous job, but PhD itself is a full-time job; if you are pushed to take on other work responsibilities, you have all the reason to put it to a stop. Maybe change to a part-time PhD? Maybe ask for less work responsibilities? I don't know what works for you, but the important thing is you are treated unfairly here and it is not sustainable.

Future career, again my suggestion is find out whether your current belief matches reality. Look on recruiting websites, talk to recruiters, go on this forum and reddit to read other people's experience. It is difficult to start researching, because of all the unknown and self-loathing. But I think it does help one reduce irrational fear and make informed decisions.

Talk to a therapist if possible. Your institute should have some free resources. I think a lot of the overwhelming fear and shame are deep in us, and PhD is just a trigger.

All in all, you have work experience and get pushed into a PhD -- that is a head-start in career a lot of us didn't have as a first year. It may or may not be a suitable step for you, but whatever you choose, you are not a failure, and you will have a lot options in your future career.

Feeling numb and hopeless

jw5, I'm glad you find my sharing helpful.
I don't think quitting PhD is a failure/waste of time at all. If you dig in this forum or some subreddits, lots of people will tell you the same. Being accepted in a PhD programme is an achievement. Quitting early in your PhD can simply be a decision to leave a career path that is not suitable to you. Also with COVID, there are many ways you can tell your story in a positive way in job interviews.
You mentioned this PhD is to get your career on track. I was pretty much in the same mind set when entering my PhD, and felt pretty guilty about not having a 'real' passion in research. Obviously I am not familiar with your field or your situation, so my experience below may not be at all relevant. What I learnt through my journey is that I had a lot of belief about my career that didn't match the reality at all. I could have been more candid with my supervisor about my fear, used my enrolled student identity to get some internships, and started job searching early so I understood what the market actually wanted. I could have looked into others' experiences online so that I knew I wasn't alone. I think my guilt, shame and fear at the time made me too afraid to do research about my future and talk to people. Now looking back, I think what was in my head messed me up more than my mediocre academic ability. You've got counselling -- that is already a good start.
Overall, I'd say you are in the first year so you still have enough time to explore all possible outcomes and make a decision. You have good support system and many practical options. Trust yourself that you will be fine either way.

Feeling numb and hopeless

Hi jw5,
I would like to put in my own two cents. You have great fear and pessimistic view towards your research and relationship, you feel like you have responsibility to lots of different parties, and guilty for not good enough. I experienced the same thing too. I think it is important to examine the basis of these feelings with other stakeholders, namely your supervisor, your partner, etc.

Is your supervisor/school seems to be decent and care about (at least respect) your welfare? If so, do discuss your progress, your worries and insecurity with your supervisor. It may turn out that they are more confident with your prospect than you think. On the other hand, if they are nasty or unhelpful (especially for a first-year review, if they are not confident in ensuring you pass), you know it is never too late to stop the damage. The same applies to your partner. Maybe talk about your concerns, ask how he feels right now and what his boundary is in terms of housework, finance responsibilities, how and when to vent, etc.

Guilt is a powerful thing. For me, what helped was time, and logical reasoning. In many countries, PhD is a student, not an employee, and your supervisor is paid (by you or by your sponsor) to educate you. They want you to graduate and they really appreciate that you take ownership of your project and ask for help. They have seen all sorts of obstacles in academia and in their students. There is no shame in not knowing enough and you are entitled in more resource than you believed. First one or two years are difficult, when you feel so inadequate. If you choose to stick it through, it will improve with experience, when you see you are so not along feeling this.

The same goes to being in a relationship. Proper communication allows you to establish what you are contributing and receiving in your relationship. Your partner seems to be supportive of your PhD career and depression so far. To keep thinking you are a burden to him is somewhat undermining the fact that this is his choice too. Guilt is so draining in a relationship, and you probably want candid communicating and mutual understanding instead. Personally, knowing my partner was okay (emotionally and financially) with whatever path I chose (even if I choose quit and stay at home) really helped me push myself through. Maybe your psyche is different, but it will help to know.

Exiting after third year Progression Review

Highopes above has some really good point, especially regarding the writing process. I find it really helped.
First of all, I've never met anyone who enjoy the writing process. I went through a similar time thinking I wasn't finishing on time, but it worked out to my surprise.
Secondly, the usual practice I've seen is to take MPhil if getting out at 3rd year, which doesn't exactly spare you the writing process. If you don't take MPhil, thinking about the explanation you need to have in front of job interviewers.
Third, communicate with your supervisor or reviewers. Maybe their view on your progress (even publishing opportunities) will reassure you that you will finish on time with good result.
If you still have doubts, maybe try not to force yourself decide at 3rd year review. The pressure of time and review itself may cloud your judgement. Even after the review, if you can't finish, you can't. Life has its magical way of working out. If you have a positive 3rd year review, take some time off and then rethink your preference.

Good luck to you.

Desperate: Major corrections and visa expires soon

Hi there,
From a different angle, I would suggest that you also get in touch with your international student / immigration advice office. I am assuming that you are based in the UK based on the thesis grading system.
I am not super up-to-date about the latest immigration rules, you may be eligible for one of: extending your current T4 visa (especially due to delay caused by COVID ), or applying for the new Graduate route visa.

Your new employer only needs to know an expected graduation day, right? Maybe you can talk to your school about the administrative deadlines and use that at the date. My school does have an absolute administrative deadline that the examiners need to respond within (it is fairly lenient and I have no idea whether it is enforced, but it is regulation in writing).

I would also pay attention to the COVID-related concessions of the Home Office. Depending on the situation of your home country, you may also be able to argue that you have problem returning to your home country and can ask home office for legally remaining in the UK after your visa expires.

It is a very impressive achievement finding a sponsored job this year. Please, please consult an immigration export and also do extensive research on home office regulations. I wish you the best of luck.