The Annual Progress Review – stress, panic, tears & anger

Michelle K Jamieson

So, it’s that time of year again – unfortunately not holiday time for a lot of us – no. It’s that time of year when the PhD annual progress reviews start to kick into gear.

I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s safe to say that personally, my experience of my 1st year Annual Progress Review was a terrifying one. Trial by fire I think only scratches the surface. I had only a rough idea of what it would involve outside the work I had to produce for it (in my dept. it was a 20 min presentation to the department, 10 mins of questions, a roughly 10,000-word report on progress, and a meeting with an external and my supervisors). This I had been told, was far more rigorous a process than some of my peers had been through. One friend described hers as a “10-minute chat with her supervisors”.

I was scared. I was so relieved my years of work had paid off in getting into the PhD, and for the difficulty involved in actually doing it, I hadn’t given much thought to the Annual Review process. I felt a bit lost – others seemed to be comfortable and knowledgeable about what would happen. Some cited their parents’ experiences. Personally, I am the first in my family to come through school and enter University, so they had little specific experience I could draw on for comfort. Although my family are proud of my academic successes, they view the PhD as “a relatively easy thing.”, perhaps not as hard as a ‘real job’.

Throughout my preparations and as I move through the steps – report writing, department presentation – as the date of my review meeting comes closer, the more my stress levels rise. I also live with some complex mental health issues, and this stress obviously was not helping this at all. I know how to manage this through routine, but during the annual review process this went right out the window. I was staying up until 5 and 6am, going into the office a few hours later, being struck by panic attacks and writers block. All I could think of was how precarious a position I was in. This wasn’t a ‘real job’ per se, I could be fired or thrown out – I felt I had absolutely no security. If they throw me out, how will I pay my bills? How would I help support my family? How would I explain it to people was an absolute afterthought? I was stuck in this vicious cycle.

The day came. I was a wreck. I found it hard to control my emotions and remember getting angry at myself for showing such emotion in my supervision meetings in the run up to the review meeting. I go in, the review starts. I feel like I’m in a dream. Then my (near enough) worst nightmare (at that point) happens – my external reviewer has concerns. I felt like I was in freefall as I leave.

I get home and fall apart. This is it. I’m done. They are firing me. I remember phoning my supervisor and asking what happens next, would I have to leave? Should I look for a new job? He calms me down. No, this doesn’t mean I’m fired. I was to have an interim review, and if I follow the externals recommendations, all should be well. I take a few days. I become resolute – I’m doing this. The interim review is set for 3 months’ time. I produce the work, there are many late nights, panic attacks, Drs visits, coffee cups. I get the work done even though I know it isn’t healthy, but I feel I can’t take a holiday.

Interim review meeting day comes in September – I pass. One of my supervisors asks why I was so worried; my work is promising. I had spent days crying, panicked, dealing with worsening mental health symptoms that I live with. It was such a surprise to me, I asked if they were sure? Yes. They were sure. I went into my 2nd year, my name was placed on the office door along with those I share it with. It was a proud morning seeing my name there. Ultimately, the review process moved my research in a much better direction, and I’m thankful for that.

Now, I’m back in my routine, working well, although coming up against some humps. I hope they can be overcome. Last week an email dinged in my inbox. It was the paperwork for my 2nd year annual review. My stomach dropped, and I thought “What if?” So now I go through the process again – hopefully a bit more prepared, less stressed, and with my trademark resolution. I hope it goes okay. For everyone else feeling the same, and in the same boat – I hope it goes well for you too.

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