Upping the gears: stepping into year 2

Originially posted 3rd Oct 2014

It’s surprising how fast the first year of a PhD goes by. I can remember my induction day and hardly believe that it’s now more than twelve months gone. On paper, we had a lot to deal with in our first year: coming to grips with managing such a large project, deciding what our research actually was, hammering out methodologies and literature reviews, the various reviews and forms we had to complete to progress through the year, beginning our research and writing up some… all this to name but a few. Yet I would still say that your first year is a bit of a ‘grace period’. It’s the time you’re given to acclimatise to your new role and responsibilities, and by the time that year is over, it’s time to step up to the mark as a PhD student. About a month before I officially entered my second year, the difference in what is expected of you is staggering.

Get Uncomfortable

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say that 1st year PhD students were networking whizzes. It’s been my experience that most of us are so involved with our research during this time, whether due to time pressures, or in an effort to try and prove something, that networking and meeting other people can sometimes get put on the back burner.

This is of course, to say nothing of that fact that the very idea of networking – something I was never exposed to as a Masters student – is awkward and uncomfortable. For instance, when existing PhD students would lament over it, on the brief occasions that I would speak to a few, they made it seem as if they were having to parade themselves, stockings and red lipstick and all, to potentially advance any future career.


But, I’m going to disagree on this count, and I know I can only do so with my own department in mind. Today I will be attending a symposium, and later in the evening a symposium dinner where I expect that I shall know no-one bar my current supervisors and former lecturers. Normally the thought of this would stress me out for weeks in advance – but I’ve just had to get over it.

Ties into it all for me is the idea that I’m still a student, and within that lies to former student/teacher dynamics. That’s the first thing that has to go. I previously blogged about shedding the ‘student skin’, and this is just another example of it. Say worst case scenario, and it’s just me and a bunch of lecturers, doctors professors etc. – I’m hardly going to be treated as leprous for going up and saying hello. This for me is a major difference between the first and second years. Avoiding networking isn’t an option anymore, and what’s more is I might now have to confidence to do it.

Responsibility knows no bounds…

Teaching! Seminars! Students! They’re all yours. How lovely. I was perfectly happy when I was only responsible for the quality of my own education. If I got poorer grades than expected it was my fault. But the university unfortunately couldn’t just leave me in this happy state, no no. Now I am to be responsible for the education of dozens of first year students by leading 4 seminar groups.


Now maybe I’m in a better state than some. I’m not terrified at the prospect (yet) and I’ve taught students before, though never on this scale. I enjoy teaching, really. But in the midst of lesson plans I’m realising the level of responsibility that comes with being a seminar tutor. You must be ahead a couple of weeks in advance – you don’t want that messy situation where you’re vying with your own students for the reading material, do you? You’re going to be their go to person most of the time, even if you have to refer them to the module leader. Remember all those daft questions you asked your tutors in your first year? Reap what you sow, my friend, reap what you sow. And then there are the small, tiny details which actually turn out to be quite important: like making sure you have access to the online community where you post class resources, or attempting to pronounce some of your students’ more complicated names before you actually meet them.

All this means that now is not the time to flag on any aspect of your work (research, writing, teaching, presenting, publishing). My planner is being filled in daily just to make sure I keep on top of things.

Leave the PhD behind!

This sounds a bit contrary I know, but bear with me. With the new attitude required of you in your second year, and all the extra stuff we have to do, it’s more important than ever I think to know when to take a step back. This doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing, but diverting your attention elsewhere. Personally, in addition to making sure I keep time for my home life at the end of each day, and mostly during the weekend too, I take time out for the gym (which I enjoy), but also soon I’ll be taking time out to pursue other academic endeavours not strictly related to my research. The work will be connected with other PhD students/academics from other universities. So it will force me to work with other people and keep my mind engaged, but will stop my attention from being wholly consumed by everything I’m having to do for my PhD. I have to say, I’m really looking forward to that.

Everything considered I’m quite looking forward to my second year. It’ll be a balancing act for sure, but I think it’ll also be what finally stops me from thinking like a student and makes me start acting like the academic I hope my future career allows me to be.

Publishing, presenting, posters. A crash course to getting lost in your first year

Originally posted 20th May 2014

I’m fairly certain that anyone reading this who has experienced the wonders of a PhD will laugh and shake their head in fond exasperation at their memories of the exuberance they had in the first year of the doctoral programme – the very same exuberance that stops me from getting more than 5-6 hours of sleep a night. I’m fairly sure they’d stress its transient nature, and how it pops in and out of your life as it pleases. ‘How adorable, they’re still so optimistic,’ I can hear them saying.


And to be honest, it’s not just those who know what it is I haven’t realised yet. My supervisors – a truly wonderful team  – have taken to warning me against taking on too much. I think they’re trying to train me to say ‘no’. If you’ll remember, in my last post I became an eco-warrior for the 1st year PhD student – Recyle Your Material! Right? Right. Except this really shouldn’t translate to non-academic publication, presentation and a poster, because, as it turns out, even with the same material, on top of your research, teaching (icky practical lab work or exhausting scientific field trips) it’s  a lot of work.

So, with gentle prodding and much, much digging of heels into the sand, I ended up opting out of doing my poster presentation. Now, as far as the next couple of months is concerned I only have to give a presentation, submit my first article to the editors, complete my RDC2 and prepare for my mini-VIVA. By the end of the Summer (I’m ignoring July completely and hoping for August) complete another chapter, and start the research for a couple of others – this is before the next semester starts in October and I begin the joys of teaching. I also need to find time to take on another 2 MRes electives to get my PGD.

This, apparently, is a very effective way to get lost in the first year of your PhD. I feel as if I haven’t actually touched research or any structural components of my thesis in a while. I have hassled numerous archivists and the people who give your permission to records, stressing the utmost importance of my requests, only to have given the archivists radio silence now that the permissions have come through.

So in short, it’s an entirely different form of procrastination. How do we avoid it – well we kind of can’t. Presentations, conferences, publishing, publishing and publishing are critical elements in your PhD. At least for folk like me, who are using it as training for what I see as my future career.

I think a more appropriate skill would be learning how to manage this form of procrastination. Because as it turns out, it’s really, really easy to ignore your research.

The way I’ve handled it personally, has been to work double time. No early afternoons, or lazy days ‘working’ from home. I’ve been in early and left later and none of this nonsense about taking an hour for lunch. Although weirdly, I’ve also had to learn to admit defeat with the added workload. I have seen me in the past few weeks waste an hour staring at the same sentence or puzzling over the same wording in the RDC2 form. If it’s not working, move on to something else. I was astounded at how quickly I got things done once I got the hang of it. Honestly – here I am finished all my targets with two weeks to go. Redrafted and everything.

I have also realised the supreme importance of a wall planner. Need to get me one of those.

The Article

I went to a seminar on academic publishing, and what struck me was the rigmarole. It was structured, you had ticky boxes to check, and so on. Well I’ve just written an article for a non-academic publication and made the mistake of thinking it would be pretty easy. Took me two months and more drafts than I’ve ever done of anything to get it finished.

Problem 1: The language. Because it is a non-academic publication, I couldn’t runaway with all the fancy language of the day. You have to make your paper accessible, and not just to fellow academics. So although we want to sound very clever and all that, you wouldn’t really be doing yourself any favours. You probably wouldn’t even get read – if published in the first place. Because, well, in that case say hello to your readers…


This was the hardest bit for me. I can write quite freely, but when it comes to my research, not so much. Which brings us into problem 2: re-writes. I thought I had written it quite well but nearly had to do a full rewrite. Resubmission to my supervisors: some of my points weren’t clear enough. Resubmission again: “Jennifer a general audience might get offended at the term ‘lunatic'”. Whoops. Resubmission numero three: the rewrite has meant that whole new parts don’t make sense. Resubmission four: still on my computer as the final version, read the style guide, have 20-odd footnotes when you’re supposed to avoid using footnotes…
That minor blimp asides, I’m so pleased with the final result. But academic publication or not, make no mistake – it’s a little bit of a marathon to get there.

The Presentation
At this point I’ve only compiled my presentation and practiced it – I don’t actually give it until the 28th of this month.
As you might have noticed, this is a lot later than I anticipated in a previous post. I suffered from a distinct lack of spine in approaching the leaders of the student-led PG seminar series and so have to give my first presentation in a department-wide conference day. With the second-years. Because I opted out of doing a poster.
So my first piece of advise? Get over yourself. Get it done.
Saying that – although I’m sure I’ll be nervous on the day I am feeling pretty confident about it. I’m using my article as the basis for it, and simply relating it back to my research as a whole. For someone as awkward around people as I can be, and although I wish I’d done it sooner, I’m glad I had the time to get it together.
Another lesson learnt from this, is that it’s never too late to start playing with PowerPoint, or whatever software you want to use for presentations. Viewing my slide show for the first time I didn’t know what was happening. Bits were popping in and out when they weren’t supposed to, and I won’t even tell you about when I tried to zoom-in on a slide. Learn the limitations and reaches of your software, because it’s all very well having a great idea but it won’t get you anywhere if it’s outwith the capabilities of the software available to you.

That’s actually what led me to drop doing a poster in the first place. I had an idea to do this jazzy, electronic number only to find out it absolutely had to be on paper. That in mind you might want to make doubly sure of the medium you’re supposed to be working on. If the room of your presentation doesn’t support projection etc, guess what your poster/presentation isn’t going to be?

And all the rest…
I won’t go too much into the RDC2 or the mini-viva they put you through with it. By the time it’s come along, you’ve been working on your methodologies, your literature reviews and your general introductions – that’s more or less what your RDC2 is. Apart from some timetabling and that pesky personal development plant, you’re good to go. I found it miles easier than the RDC1 I have to admit. So, thankfully, I haven’t had any problems in this area. Surprising since it’s all happening in an accelerated time-frame for me because of holiday clashes between me and my Director of Studies.
And my viva? I have no idea what to expect. But rather than dreading it I’m actually chuffed that we have one. Since it grants or denies us our PhD at the end, it’ll be good practice I think. Although, my supervisors have told me that it’s more or less a plagiarism check rather than any rigorous scrutiny of your work and/or arguments thus far.
All in all I’m starting to appreciate how intensive doctoral programmes can be. Gone are the lazy afternoons with PDFs in the coffee shop. I have a kettle in my office now, instead.

“I’m a Dr! Well…kind of”

Originally posted 6th February 2014

Although I’m fairly new to all this interactive social media, especially for my academic life, I’ve just come across an interesting blog post from Pat Thompson [there’s a link at the bottom of this post. Clickity click]. It’s a discussion over the name doctoral ‘student’. Which got me thinking, how does our perception of ourselves and our role affect us?

In my first post, I mentioned about the Guilt and about the constant validation of what we do, to others who can’t seem to get past that ‘s’ word. Yet, especially in your first year, I think you don’t consider yourself as anything beyond a particularly advanced student. The Supreme Student maybe… but if we think of ourselves as students, does that mean we act more like one?

As a PhD-er we are project leaders. We are the workers who go around collecting all the data, but we are also the ones who design the methods (or experiments) which give us this data. We are methodical, picking through piles and piles of evidence to glean the bits we need, yet we are also creators of sophisticated expression of our findings, weaving the facts seamlessly into our arguments. We wield rhetoric really quite well.

Or at least we do by the time we’ve been awarded those lovely letters at the front of our names.

So the word ‘student’ – does it boil all that down underneath a reductive title? As students (when we were doing our undergrads, college courses, postgrads) there was an element of being led to the end, but there’s no direct, explicit guidance now. Our supervisors are there of course, but the final say is ours, and in my experience your supervisors are very reluctant to say ‘do this’, or ‘you can’t do that’. The knowledge of this alone is really quite startling.

I for one definitely support shedding the student skin. Time to put on the big girl (or boy) pants. There’s no dropping the responsibility to your lecturers or tutors, there’s no ‘winging it’ as seemed to be our mantra for the past few years (No? Just me?). If you accept that you’re a researcher, a casual lecturer and tutor, a networker – that you’re training for the early years of your professional career, I think you’re more likely to thrive under this new-found responsibility. Don’t most of us have to sign contracts anyway? Taking this on board I think, will make headway in a few of the other obstacles we’re sure to meet on the way as well. For example, the Guilt…

Well, I’m in my fourth month now, so I’m still acclimatising in a way. But I’ve learned fairly quickly to let the guilt go. I used to agonise about spending any less than my minimum required 35 hours a week researching, but you need to be able to figure out how you work, and control your productivity. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a license for laziness, but if you force out work the odds are that it will be substandard and you’ll be on more of a low than you were when you decided to grit your teeth and get on with it. What we need to do is figure out what maximises our productivity, yet allows us to enjoy ourselves as well. Another blog I read suggested that you work in 30-90 minute bursts, then give yourself a break. Feasible. Yet it also goes on to say that 2-3 hours of work a day at full productivity is enough. Not so much – at least in my opinion.

I’ll share some of my ideas with you.

A change of scenery. I love my little office. It’s quiet, comfortable, plenty of room – and for the most part completely mine. My fellow firsty is in for half the week normally if I’m lucky. Yet staring at the same walls and everything plastered on them, hearing the same sounds – all that familiarity can get a bit dull. And with that, your mind and your productivity spirals. So some days I head out for a cup of tea and acquisition a comfy chair in a cafe or coffee-shop for an hour or so. Other days, I head home after half a day. The walk to the train station and the 35 minute train journey helps clear my head. Then at home I can free-write or read for two hours at least.

One of the tips my supervisors had for me is to structure my day. I didn’t see the value of this at first but I do now. If you say to yourself, ‘today, I’m going to peer-review’, or write or whatever – give it 3 hours max and that’s gone down the swanny. However, if you say ‘from 9-11 I’ll do this. From 11.30-12.15 I’ll do that, then I’ll take a break, then I’ll do that other thing I’ve been putting off for five weeks for a couple of hours…’ so much more gets done. Admittedly you need things to fill your day with if this is going to work. I’ve met this approach with mixed success, as all I’ve got to do at this stage is purely research and writing. No lesson planning or teaching, no classes of my own. The busier you are the better this works. I’m getting other things on my plate at the end of this month though, so hopefully…

I realise I’ve went off on a bit of a tangent here. There’s not much structure to these blogs you’ll find. But I think my point is clear. Once you’ve accepted that ‘student’ just doesn’t quite cover who we are and what we do, and you recognise and work with your new responsibilities, I think everything gets a whole lot easier.

It has for me at least.

Pat Thompson’s blog post:  http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/whats-with-the-name-doctoral-student

The starter kit

Originally posted 6th Jan 2014

Writing targets, publications and presenting my research were all the centre of the discussion at my last Supervisory meeting of the year. Pretty daunting – especially since they’re all scheduled for the first quarter of 2014. So here are a few suggestions on how to get through the first major milestones of your PhD.

1. No matter what, keep writing. 
Seriously. This has been one of the hardest things. The last position you want to be in is with several deadlines looming round the corner and zilch on paper. I’d been in this mindset where everything I was writing pretty much had to be in the higher echelons of the academic standard. Let go of this presumption immediately. Even if it’s guff – which most of it will be at first – it’s something to build on.

2. Recycle.
It’s a 3-in-1 bargain for me. My writing targets will include parts of the introduction (historiography, lit review and methodology) and also for my first chapter. All of this is great stuff to include in my first presentation and my first attempt at getting published. For the humanities at least, you are expected to introduce your PhD to the world – or the circle of academics that may be interested enough to come along to the seminar series. So with one lot of work, I can get a heap of goodies out of it. Hurrah.

Which brings me onto another point…

3. Be part of the postgrad community.

Most universities have a postgraduate research seminar series. Attend them. They’re an invaluable education tool, and will tell you everything you need to know about good and bad presentation skills. The more diverse the better, as you’re not going in with that lovely and warm security blanket of previously acquired knowledge. Though if there is a series specifically for your discipline (say medical history for example), latch on. The more the merrier. I have three series that I attend, myself. Yes they are great for meeting other research students, but lets be honest, sometimes that’s hard to do, especially when you’re new to this whole networking-and-putting-yourself-out-there malarky. But it is worth it. Just keep at it.

4. Share, and don’t take it personally.
Over the nest three years, we’re going to develop a counter argument to any possible criticism our VIVA could throw at us. At least, we will if we share our work. Doesn’t matter if it’s your baby and you want to keep it all to yourself, you have to get critical feedback to make it better. I’m in a pretty lucky position here. I trust my supervisors enough that I know I won’t want to crawl into bed and die after submitting something, and I’m in a shared office space with two other students (one a fellow first year, the other just finishing) who I feel quite able to share ideas and work with. These guys are also of a completely different discipline, so it’s really useful to get an ‘outsider’ perspective on your writing. That way they can tell you if your falling out of ‘specialist language’ and into jargon. On that note, you could also give samples to families and friends to read.

5. Patience, when it comes to research, is not a virtue.
I know a lot of people will disagree with me when it comes to this. But by this, I’m referring to getting yourself out there and doing the research. Of course, with the hard sciences again this might be different, but with record-based research, simply saying ‘I need to visit archive x, y and z’ is completely different from actuallydoing it. Today, I had to stop myself from making an appointment a month away, and a booked it for next week instead. Realistically, archival research takes some fine tuning. It’s all too easy to get distracted by some shiny (or particularly worn and interesting looking) document, the wonderfully convenient titles of collections are often misleading, the very information you look for just might not exists or be in such a lack that some serious supplementing is required. All in all, leave yourself plenty of time to make full use of the archives and collections you need.
To give you an example, for my masters dissertation I only used about a third of all the notes I made from research trips, yet only a teeny, tiny reason for this was because of word-count constraints. It was because I took too long looking at the wrong material, and left myself with no time to get the supporting documents that would have made my paper. But live and learn.
Don’t get me wrong however. Getting access to archives and certain collections isn’t always as simple as ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ (though never forget them – ever.). Restoration and repairs, the transfer of  collections, the needs of other researchers, or the massive backlog of online requests that archivists have to deal with are all circumstances which pop-up pretty frequently. For this, yes you have to be patient. Unfortunately for us, the world doesn’t stop for our theses.
One final thing to do with archival based research – talk to the archivist. At the point of a PhD, you know this already. But it’s like a disclaimer, it needs to be said. These people are terrifyingly brilliant. The know where the little hidden gems are, and come armed with an arsenal of alternative sources incase everything goes to hell. And I have yet to meet one who isn’t genuinely helpful to the nth degree. They are a grossly under-used tool.

There you are, 5 simple tips to get the ball rolling for your (and my) PhD. You may already know all of it, and are quite frankly sick of being told the same ‘great ideas’ over and over again. But if they’re so important, we shouldn’t be dismissing them so easily. Hopefully over the next three months I’ll have kept to my own advice and this blog with be showered with the evidence of it’s efficacy. If not, it’s all on me.

Better late than never?

Originally posted 12th Dec 2013

Two months and elven days in, and I’m finally starting my first (ever) blog. I still don’t properly understand what a ‘blog’ is and what it’s supposed to do, but here I am.

It was recommended that we find ways of talking to other people, networking, and essentially staying sane over the next three years of the PhD. So for anyone who will follow this blog, I’ll be talking about my experiences as I work my way through my thesis, the challenges and the opportunities, my own research and so on and so forth. Maybe it’ll help those who are also new PhD students, or who plan on undertaking this endeavour sometime in the near future. If nothing else it’ll give me something to track my mind.

The title of this blog is quite appropriate I think. ‘Method and Madness’ are essentially the two components that make up the successful PhD experience, or so I’ve deduced thus far. Some people would have you think that you start with one, and end with the other. But I’m still a newbie, so that remains to be seen.
It also tells you a bit about my research. I am a historian, and get far too excited over the history of psychiatry and insanity. Hence my thesis: ‘The Marginalized Civilian Lunatic: Scottish Psychiatry in the Great War, c.1914-1930s’…or something along those lines. I won’t go into great detail here – but looking at something other than the shell-shocked, the rank and file Tommy and the Officer as psychological casualties has me endlessly curious. But we’ll talk more about that later. At great length. Sorry.

Maybe then, I should start this blog with what I expect from a PhD and what I expect it to be like. But, honestly I don’t know. If any of you have experienced a research student induction day, you’ll be aware of the plethora of warnings you hear about the hardships, motivation, loneliness (they’re quite fond of the latter at my host institution), so I think you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to be three years of abject misery. But, so far, it’s not. To be fair, I still feel a bit ‘up in the air’ in that some days I’m quite focused, and others I have no idea what to do (which given that I’m at the very start of my studies, I think shouldn’t really happen. This is the stage to be bursting with ideas, right?). Mostly though, I feel quite relaxed and optimistic about the whole thing. Though after reading a few of these types of blogs, I’m starting to think this is just the blissfully ignorant stage before I realise what a PhD actually is.

Although there is the ‘Research Student Guilt’ to contend with – and yes that deserved to be capitalised. You know, that feeling where you realise that eventhough you’ve worked unfathomably hard to get here, you’re still a lucky sod to have this opportunity. Maybe more so for humanities than the hard sciences in my opinion. You get to read things you find intensely interesting. You get to disappear into the archives (remember, historian) all the time. Your time is flexible to an extent as long as you commit to a certain number of hours. Live in a house with the full-time employed and this point gets driven home to you a lot. And I’m getting funded to do this? Mad.

Well I think that’ll do for now. As I said before, this blog won’t be all about my personal experiences over the next three years. I hope to use it as a sounding board for my research and my writing too, and anything else I feel like really.

So until next time.