Second year and still don't know what I'm doing?!


Hey, I'm new here. My husband STRONGLY suggested I find others who have had similar experiences/advice before quitting, which I am seriously considering. Here's the problem:

I am beginning my second year and still have not completed a research proposal, much less obtaining ethics approval, which can take a long time. I have had several committee meetings, however, none have yielded any clarity into what I should be focusing on. Just today, my supervisor suggested that my problem statement and objectives need to be broader which was the final straw. I keep telling him that I feel overwhelmed with the project, and his most recent response was "Get used to it, that's the nature of the field you are in". I don't think I can handle this feeling for the rest of my career.
I am stressed to the point of crying all the time. Thought it would get better after my proposal meeting, then thought it had to get better after my comprehensive exam (which I passed), but no luck. I am miserable.
Sounds horrible after reading through it, but this is my life. I also work from home as my university is in a different province than my home. This, I'm sure, has contributed to some of the problems I am experiencing.
Hope someone can provide guidance or a similar experience?


I know how you you feel. I have just started the second year. I don't think I accomplished much in the first year but I was upgraded from MPhil to PhD anyway. I don't really think my supervisor knows what he is doing as he is not an expert in my area of research. I am torn between wanting to leave and return to teaching English in Greece, which is what I did before starting the PhD, or stick it out. However, I am then concerned that I might spend another two or three years doing it and fail anyway. I have no real direction to my research and I am not sure I will really understand my project to be an expert in what I am doing. Anyway, a few weeks ago I came across an interesting article, which you might find useful. Hope things get better.


Hi Jaded,
What you are feeling and experiencing is not uncommon but is certainly not helped by being out of the university environment. If your defined research proposal is absent use it to your advantage: define it for yourself and submit it for supervisory approval. Remember that you are training to be an independent scientist, so something like this is a gift - you do not require your supervisor to do this for you, show them your initiative. You have the opportunity to focus exclusively on what is your interest. Bear in mind that you original proposal frequently does not match your final project; another reason not to worry about it too much and the rationale behind your supervisor suggesting you make it broader.
I assume you are in the UK and in a scientific background? If so then ethics approval can take up to 6 months. But you cannot apply for it untl you have a project proposal, defined aims and experimental design -catch 22!
So start by breaking things down into manageable chunks: begin by coming up with what you want to research, then flesh it out with how, when and why. Presto: one proposal! If you want to chat direct, use the personal message function and don't let yourself get tied up in knots - be calm and all will be well. (up)


Don't panic. This is a common feeling going into your second year. I felt I had wasted the first year and had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I had a bad first year review and it made me realise I had to focus and take control of my work. Luckily I had a change of supervisor as my main supervisor had been on sabbatical and returned for my second year. She has been fabulous at helping me get back on track again. The turning point was when I decided it was my PhD (even though I am part of a wider project) and I had to decide what I wanted to do rather than doing what other people told me. I felt I had wasted time preparing things for panels for other people which weren't relevant to my research. Now I tell them what I am working on and what I will submit to my supervisor and when. I sat down and really thought about what I was interested in and what I wanted to focus on. I'd suggest to take some thinking time and write down ideas etc - not for anyone else to see - just so you can work out what it is that you are doing and what direction you want to take. Do a bit of brainstorming and take control of your own work. I feel so much more positive now and am really excited about what I am doing. I know it's easy to give advice when you have come through something so I hope I don't sound too glib about this. But rest assured you are not alone in your feelings and I'm sure there will be other advice for you and you can work out the best way to get through this for you.


Hi Jaded,

Funny thing is I was sitting at my desk feeling exactly the same as you are right now, wondering if any one else did! I have my upgrade next week and preparing for it seems to have sparked off a complete loss of confidence in myself and my work. My supervisor has blithely recomended I get upgraded but to be honest I am not sure how much of my work he knows as he hardly ever reads anything. To add to that, one of his comments on my submitted manuscripts was that he didn't want me to get too far into the area I have done most work on. So I am in exactly the same position now, having no idea what I am supposed to be doing or what to be looking at. I don't really know whether this is just a blip or not or whether I will still be doing a PhD in a few months but I am going to hang on just a little, give it one last try and see what happens.


So I'm really not the only one that feels like I wasted a year???!!!!

I also have my upgrade next week and am so worried about it! I feel like I know nothing and that everyone else around me is doing just fine....

I really have not achieved much in first year and feel under so much pressure now. I don't see how i'll get my upgrade and every actually get my PhD!


Thanks all for your posts! It's nice to know I'm not the only one going through this, even if it doesn't change the situation. Things are looking a bit better after a very direct email to my supervisor outlining the problems I was having. Gonna stick it out awhile longer. Plus, the job prospects if I quit are quite unappealing, which is an additional motivation to continue. Thanks again for sharing your experiences/advice, I appreciate it!


Feeling of being overwhelmed with the project is very common among the first/second year PhD students. One common case when student gets this feeling is when the adviser does not do enough to ease the PhD transition for fresh students. Remember that the Profs and some others you meet might have been working in the field for decades, that's why their level of knowledge may be much higher. You should make a long term plan for your PhD, set up regular meetings with adviser, if possible discuss about the turn around time so that you will have a time frame in mind by when you can graduate.