By Jordi Cabanas-Danés

Since my own PhD times, I have regularly heard of the so-called "PhD dip" or "second year blues", often in a frivolous context, such as in the following sentence: "He’s in such a bad mood lately, he must be going through the PhD dip". After having experienced it first hand, the truth is, there’s nothing frivolous about it. Although each PhD dip might look and feel different, they all have one thing in common: they are events fully loaded with uncertainties and disillusions, which can lead to low confidence, low energy and negative thoughts and emotions that need to be worked out. It just sucks!

The 2-year time point

Not only was I surprised to find out that there has been academic research done on this topic, 1 but also, our own data suggest that the PhD dip happens after the "magic" average of 2 years into the PhD project. What is so special about this time point? Well, when we envision our PhD trajectories as a finite training (let’s take 4 years as an example), we naturally segment and adjust our expectations accordingly. For example, we can convince ourselves that from the 4 years, it is "normal" to spend 1 or 1.5 years on learning new techniques, a new environment, key collaborators and getting acquainted with the topic. At this point, our excitement and energy to discover and learn surpasses many other emotions and we decide not to look much further in time and enjoy the moment. The truth is that during this initial discovery and learning path, we also come to terms with the reality and become aware of the potential of our PhD project but also the limitations and challenges. At the end of the second year, we tend to extrapolate these realizations to cover the "remaining" time and we experience thoughts such as: "I have not collected enough data to finish on time", "This project is never going to work", or impostor thoughts such a: "What am I doing here?, I can’t pull this off!". At this point, you might also adopt a habit of comparison or complaint and even consider stopping altogether. All this might take a heavy toll on your energy level and mental health.

A well or a valley?

Acknowledging that this phase is nearly inevitable is key to navigate through it. So if you experience any of the thoughts or feelings mentioned earlier, it is always good to discuss those with colleagues or with supervisors, to validate whether the project is truly prone to failure, whether you are receiving poor supervision or that this is just an emotional phase you are willing to endure, while knowing that it will pass. Either way, the ‘PhD dip’ is a valley and not a well. Even if you decide to stop your PhD project and do something else instead, you will also be escaping the phase. Knowing that this phase will anyway only be temporary, talking about your options and ultimately, doing something about it only shows your strength.

What about prevention?

Due to the intrinsic uncertainty that comes along with a PhD program, thereby making every PhD trajectory different than the other, it’s difficult to give a magic cure on how to prevent the PhD dip. Nevertheless, there are many things you can do to decrease the slope towards the dip or to push you further up the valley. For example, investing in creating regular moments to reflect upon your progress and expectations in the context of a long-term plan, asking for help and emotional support when needed, being aware that research is never done and that you and your supervisors are responsible to determine when your PhD is completed and finally, taking care of your wellbeing with a balanced work-life style.

Looking back, I realize that one of the underlying reasons behind my impostor syndrome was my own PhD dip and instead of battling against my impostor feelings, I wish I had told to myself that everything was going to be fine and that I had believed it. Because in fact everything turned out just fine.

1 Barry, K. M., et al. (2018). Psychological health of doctoral candidates, study-related challenges and perceived performance, Higher Education Research & Development, 37:3, 468-483, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1425979

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