Lonely, lost and struggling with start of PhD - any advice?


Hi all,

I just started a FT PhD a month ago after years of industry work after losing my job and finding a studentship. I've also done a significant amount of WFH in the past so don't have a problem with working solo for long stretches when I know what I'm doing. However, I've found myself almost completely at sea since starting the PhD both emotionally and in terms of the work I'm supposed to be doing, and it's really starting to affect how well I'm coping.

Because of COVID 19 and having an extremely vulnerable partner, I can't go to campus to meet people or study. I've heard that a lot of the support and networking that people build and experience is based around these meetings and sharing of spaces on campus and I'm really feeling the loss of that - I feel like I'm doing a distance PhD by myself, almost with no communication other than the monthly supervision meetings via Zoom and generic workshops. It's really lonely and isolating. I know that a PhD is supposed to be about discovering things yourself, not being led by the hand, but this feels extreme. Also, starting my PhD was also seriously delayed due to red tape, 3 weeks later than everyone else, and am only due to have my welcome induction next week (!) so I had no idea what I was supposed to do for the literature review initially, and have only figured it out through blogs, articles and books on PhD life. In the first supers meeting, they asked what ref management I was using - I didn't even know what they meant at the time, or even that I was meant to be conducting a literature review. Now I'm using Mendeley and am reading as much as possible, but instead of feeling motivated and enthusiastic about hunting for papers, I feel like I'm drowning in an ocean of knowledge I'm supposed to absorb, while my initial proposal feels like it's becoming progressively more irrelevant. I know that proposals never end up how they start out, but I feel like it's a catch 22 - I need more direction to focus my research, but my supers just tell me not to worry about direction yet, and the proposal will naturally evolve. I get what they're saying but how can I feel purposeful about reading if my sense of direction is shrinking instead of growing?

It's really lonely trying to figure out what 'normal' feelings of displacement are when there's nobody else to talk to. I've tried to bring it up with my supers, who are generally nice people, but they don't seem to be interested in the emotional support end of it at all. I know not all supers are, but it doesn't help when I don't have peers or colleagues to turn to instead. For example, when I wrote to them about experiencing imposter syndrome, all I got back was 'I see no reason to worry about this yet'. I'm sure you don't, because you have a good idea of what's due to happen. I have none, and telling me not to worry isn't going to help me stop worrying.

I'm sorry if this post is rambling. Any advice for a lost starter?


Hi! I know you've read and commented on my experience, so you know it's entirely normal to feel like this. Getting overwhelmed by data is normal, I have weirdly close attachment to post it notes. I would read something, jot down the take away message from it, and put it on a post it note and stick it to the wall. After a bit I was noticing similar conclusions, so I could group them. Once I had this, I started to ask questions about my area of the wonderful wall of post it notes. From that I was able to work out areas that were lacking in my field of study. Then I started to look for literature specifically related to that, form then I was able to find out what needed questioning. So start broad, and slowly start to tailor your research down to some distinct questions.Is the work you'd like to do already done? If so, hows the methodology, can it be improved? Can it be expanded on? Or is what your interested in unanswered, if so, how can you answer it or design studies that begin to explore it?


Hi @lingobod

I could have written the above myself! I have also just started my PhD and feel exactly the same as you have mentioned so as far as I am aware these feelings are totally 'normal' and expected for most PGR students.
Someday I can read and think I have some understanding and the next, have no clue again!

Feel free to PM me and we can discuss further if you need to offload to someone who's in exactly the same space as you, if not, let me know how your getting on now.



Hi everyone,

Sorry it's been so long since I logged back in to thank you for your posts, but I do want to let you know I really appreciated your advice, support and offers of PMs. I'm now about 8 months in and, despite having difficulty finding data (dammit), I'm in a much better place mentally than when I started. I think the biggest shock about starting the PhD is just how different it is from any other form of earlier study, and that was extra disorientating having a delayed start and with the pandemic. It hasn't been easy, but I gradually found my way. I also tried to stop putting so much pressure on myself to know exactly what I was doing all the time, relax a little, and remember why I wanted to do the research in the first place.

Anyway, I hope you're all doing well, and thank you again.