This Much I Know – Starting a PhD

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! It’s that time of year again. The air is crisp, the leaves are falling and York is suddenly thronged with freshers, both undergrads and postgrads – some bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, others clearly already suffering from the first of many appalling hangovers. I arrived here in York exactly two years ago (almost to the day). I remember my sense of wonder at the city itself – the fresh air after the smog of London, the glorious jumble of architecture ranging from the medieval to the kitsch, the buzz of the bars, the smell of warm chocolate from the Nestle factory – and this late September weather always rekindles in me that glorious sense of discovery, possession and potential that makes York such a very special place to live. But I also remember feeling terrified – that I’d left everything I knew to move to a new city where I didn’t know a single soul, but also about the process of starting a PhD. I’d spent my twenties to date flirting with the idea of a PhD – skirting around it, coming close, fleeing into the arms of the civil service, igniting the spark again, finally making the leap and committing myself. I’d done as much research as possible, but I still felt like I had no idea what to expect. I felt like not only a novice but also a fraud.

When I recently wrote a piece for the Independent about the reality of being a humanities doctoral student, I got a vast amount of feedback from people all over the world. The most gratifying messages were from those who were about to start a doctorate and said they were interested and/or reassured by what I had to say. It was lovely to cast my mind back to my own feelings of trepidation two years ago and think that the feature might have helped to set others’ nerves to rest. With that in mind, it occurred to me that it might be nice to write a less generalist piece than my Indy one, more targeted at those PhD students starting their humanities doctorates now or contemplating applying for them this year. So here it is. It’s heavily influenced by the late and great Jane Moody’s Top Tips For Surviving A PhD, which was delivered as part of the York Humanities Research Centre’s excellent graduate induction course. And I nicked the ‘This Much I Know’ format from the blog of York head teacher John Tomsett, who in turn nicked it from The Observer magazine. I think it’s a good one because the title manages to connote the sharing of knowledge but also a very important sense of humbleness. Because although I know this much, I very definitely do not know it all. Only two years in out of three (or more likely four), I’m still feeling like a complete chump every day as I regret things I didn’t do earlier, worry about things I won’t do until it’s too late, or ask myself how I didn’t get around to this until now. All the more reason though, I think, to share the tips I wish someone had shared with me back in 2010. Please  share the post if you think it might help someone you know.


1. Often during your first year, you will feel as if you’re flailing around in research outer space without oxygen. This is entirely normal. 

What I mean by this is that it’s okay to have no idea what your project will look like as you blunder your way through your first year. Yes, we all had to write a proposal to get on to the PhD programme, and pretend we were dead certain that it would pan out exactly as we said, but that’s just a hoop that you have to jump through – albeit an entirely necessary one – to demonstrate that you’re capable of knowledge of your area, forethought and careful planning. As you start to read around (hopefully with the guidance of a supportive and knowledgeable supervisor) you’ll realize that some of your assumptions and theories that make up even the best proposal are old news and have no originality whatsoever. Others are wrong. Others are laughable. Part of being a good PhD student is reacting to this by adjusting your project accordingly, which can mean that you rather wildly redefine your project from day to day, hence the floating around in space feeling. Eg. I started off wanting to talk about naming in the novel within a forty year period. In the middle of my first year I read so much exciting stuff about the radical novel that my project lurched rather unsteadily into being about the novel as a forum for political debate, with emphasis on transit and crossing physical borders. I then realized that this subject had been rather exhaustively covered already, and that I was in fact still interested in names, so I went back to my original focus but with a circumscribed time frame and an interdisciplinary focus and a far more carefully historicist approach. My supervisor oversaw this reeling and lurching around with superb calm. It’s all normal.

2.  Your supervisor is, metaphorically speaking, a tool. Not a taskmaster. 

This is not a criticism of the supervisor. Quite the contrary. I and many of my friends started the PhD terrified that each supervision was some kind of test; that we would be found wanting and chastised unless we put in a superb ‘performance’ every time. This is rubbish. They really don’t care how you ‘perform’. I find it far more productive to think of my supervisor as a very sophisticated, expensive, useful tool. She has these vast stores of knowledge, these excellent critical faculties, these unrivalled contacts. But fundamentally the relationship exists to make my research better. Not so I can get a gold star every term. It’s tough to bear this in mind when your supervisor’s as impressive as mine is, but I try very hard and I think it helps.

On a related note…

3. Your project takes up about 75% of your mental space. It takes up about 0.75% of your supervisor’s. If that.

As per above. Submitting work is an intimidating process. I and my peers used to operate on the principle that that each quavering book report submitted for inspection would be dissected with the ferocity of a mad surgeon intent on finding a tumour of bullshit. This is not the case. Your supervisor will have a gazillion other things to think about, including their own research, the research of their other PhD students, the MA and undergrad courses they’re teaching, departmental duties, conferences, networking and their personal lives. They will be reading your initial work briskly and broadly, and commenting on only the things that jump out to them (though they will obviously be giving more careful attention to, say, your final thesis). I found this thought extraordinarily comforting for some reason. It stopped me feeling that submitting work was an ordeal, and gave me the confidence to challenge my supervisor’s criticisms on the basis that, even if I wasn’t as extraordinarily intelligent or experienced as her, I had given my project more thought than she probably had.

4. Do the boring stuff now. You’ll be glad of it later.

I’m talking about all the induction week things that you miss because you’re suffering from last night’s Cheeky Vimtos. The library tour. The ‘Using Resources’ session. The IT induction. Go. Go. Go. By listening carefully and taking away the notes to consult in the future, you will save yourself hundreds of hours of future grief agonizing about how to work the catalogue, the best archive search, the referencing guide. This stuff is bum-numblingly dull, but it is important. And it is necessary, if you’re to waltz off at the end of three or four years with that delightful doctorate.

5. Use Zotero. 

I CANNOT BELLOW  THIS LOUDLY ENOUGH. I did the first two years of my PhD without any referencing software whatsoever, largely because I failed to follow Tip #4 above and failed to realize that such things existed. Embarrassing. This meant, in short, that I had to manually enter every citation and every bibliography, which resulted in (a) boredom (b) errors (c) mislaying useful references or late-night Google books discoveries because it was too much of a blag to note them properly. Zotero is a free iTunes-style library of bibliographic information, which lives in your web browser and enables you to record all the information (publisher, ISBN number etc) of any useful resource you find on the internet with just one click of the mouse. You can then insert this info into your writing, in one of thousands of referencing styles, by dragging and dropping. It is like magic.

I’d like to note that I’m not paid by Zotero to say this. Honest. I believe there are other similar programmes out there and they might be just as good. But personally I’m loved up with Zotero now. You should be too.

6. Join Twitter.

JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. JOIN TWITTER. If you’re not already on it, that is. I firmly believe that anybody in academia who’s not on Twitter is shooting themselves in the foot every day that they stay away. Their foot is now a puddle of bloody smithereens. Pretty soon they’ll have no foot at all. You get the picture. #overextendedmetaphor

I have found funding opportunities only on Twitter. I have seen amazing jobs advertised only on Twitter. One of my best friends got her studentship after seeing it advertised only on Twitter. I see conferences, Calls for Papers, Calls for Panels and exciting projects advertised only on Twitter. I have obtained valuable research leads and had fascinating discussions with a range of both fellow academics and eclectic others including higher education specialists, novelists, historical biographers, policymakers, Private Eye cartoonists and interested public – ALL ON TWITTER. You can’t rely on posters in the grad common room and the odd expensive conference for your networking opportunities. GET ONTO TWITTER.


7. Go to conferences. 

See my post here for why I think they’re still useful. Although Twitter is an ESSENTIAL part of academic networking, there is nothing like face-to-face contact to forge contacts and enable detailed discussions. Chose your conferences carefully (they are frequent, far-flung and expensive) but try to go to as many as you can within reason. Always try to write a paper that will push your research forward, not distract you from it (I have slipped up here, but am trying to mend my ways). Arrive early and stay late. Talk to as many people as you can. You never know what opportunities will emerge.


8. When somebody is unpleasant to you, ALWAYS try to put it down to awkwardness rather than malice.

This was the Hot Tip of Jane Moody’s that I remember best. She told us that it is one of the downsides to academia that you will meet a lot of very awkward people; brilliant intellectually but not so great socially. Some of them will express this awkwardness in conventional and easily interpreted ways; by blushing, mumbling, shuffling etc. Others will ignore you when you speak to them; or turn away abruptly when you’re talking about your research and start a conversation with someone else; or say something slighting; or react aggressively to an innocuous comment about their own research. All of these things have happened to me on occasion, and my first response was always to run away and cry. My second was to remember Jane’s excellent advice; try where at all possible to understand that these people are awkward and not malicious. Don’t take it personally. Smile and be unruffled. Continue to try to be friendly. Generally, I feel like this is very very effective, although also very very hard to do.

8. Do earthy stuff to stay sane. 

It’s a popular York joke (again perpetuated by Jane) that academics are obsessed with cakes, and baking more widely, and I know a number of PhD students across an international network of institutions who keep food blogs. I think there are good reasons for this. When you spend so much of your time grappling with intellectual problems, there is something marvellous about escaping to an earthly realm for a while, doing something very physical and tangible (no lewd jokes please). And what could be more so than making food with your hands and then stuffing it into your greedy craw? This is one of the ways I stay sane, along with boxing and running, and all three make me feel so much better and saner when I’ve had a long and tortured PhDay. It doesn’t have to be those hobbies, obviously. But I would recommend developing some kind of extracurricular life that’s unrelated to your PhD. Otherwise, you might finish in three years, but you’ll also be a shell of a human being.

9. Don’t compare yourself to others.

One of the things about doing a PhD is that you’re in a cohort. You start at the same time as a few other people – intelligent, talented, competitive people – and you progress at roughly the same pace throughout. What do you think happens? Someone gets a paper published first. Someone gets told their upgrade was the best their supervisor’s ever had. Someone wins a prize. Someone gets offered teaching where others don’t. The easiest thing in the world is to measure yourself up to your peers and wail “I’M SHIT!” and start to resent them for being so bloody excellent and smug. Resist this like the plague. Firstly, it doesn’t do you a shred of good and it does you a lot of bad. Secondly, there’ll be something that hasn’t even crossed your mind that they’ll be resenting you for (or trying not to) at the same time. Collaborate with your peers, learn from them, get drunk and have superb times with them… but when it comes to progress, try to view yourself in splendid isolation. Are you going at the right pace for you? That’s all that matters.

10. Enjoy it.

This, inspired by a fellow PhD student @pathadley on Twitter the other day. “It’s not about ‘getting’ a PhD. It’s about doing one.” Slightly cheesy though it sounds, this is extraordinarily good advice. Try to relax and enjoy what you’re doing – the reading, the drafting, the socializing, all of it. Even the shitty parts, and yes there WILL be shitty parts, like when you’ve been rejected for funding or a conference and your writing makes no sense and you’ve got no money and you’re ill and it’s all gone to hell. Try to find SOMETHING to enjoy. Because when you’ve finished, when you’re holding the diploma and you’ve changed your name on your credit card, I reckon the acquisition of ‘PhD’ will feel pretty anti-climactic. As with most acquisitions, the sense of pride/satisfaction will fade rather quickly, and you’ll be left asking what memories you have from the three or four years of your life you devoted to this. Make ’em good ones.


Pity the sockpuppeteers

Alright. It’s been a rather indecent amount of time since my last post, close to a month I think. A month in which, after the madness of launching Rites and the subsequent burst of reviews and publicity, I’ve sort of changed lane a bit to concentrate on other projects.

But when I go out to the pub and run into people I haven’t seen for a while, they still invariably ask me “How’s the book going?” or (more frequently if I’m honest) “How’s it selling?” So I’m forced to consider those questions quite frequently. It’s often a bit awkward because the fact is, funny as it sounds, that I don’t really know. The book is out in the ether, selling or not-selling, being talked about or not-being-talked-about. I get the odd google alert that somebody has said something about it somewhere on the internet, and if I pester my publisher reasonably determinedly they will tell me the sales figures as far as they can make them out from the mysterious web of distributors, retailers and sale-or-return, but it’s all very vague and in general it has just sort of gone off my radar.

My sister got pregnant with my gorgeous niece Amelie at about the same time I found out I was going to be published, and it’s often amused me to compare the two situations in my mind. Authorship is remarkably subject to the same sorts of tropes as pregnancy – the conception is fun, the birthing a horribly painful process but worth it, etc etc – only the other day someone asked me if that was my only book and I said without thinking, “Got a second on the way”. But here is one very distinct difference between the two roles. When you have a child, you’re a “mother” or a “father”. You have changed state in quite a primal and intrinsic way. Your primary function is different. Whereas the idea of being a “writer” just doesn’t seem as real and permanent and earned to me. I don’t really think about Rites that much any more. It doesn’t define me, when I’m no longer writing it.

This feels both depressing and liberating. On the one hand, considering the amount of blood, sweat and tears I put into it and the sacrifices I’ve made in other areas of my life to give it my all, it can feel sad that feels like such an ethereal entity at the moment. On the other hand, I find this very ghostliness quite exciting. I’ve been able recently to throw myself back into academia with renewed energy and without feeling it’s a chore after fiction. I’ve also started an new kind of creative project. I wrote a short screenplay for a friend, and got such a taste for it that I’ve now started a full length play. I’ve got a good feeling about it. More on that another time.

One story that’s been setting tongues wagging in the publishing world at the moment is the exposure – mainly by the crime writer Jeremy Duns – of the practice of ‘sockpuppeting’. I’ve been following this story with some amusement and quite a lot of cynicism of the Bears Shit In Woods ilk, but considering it in light of my own brief experience of the aftermath of publishing a book gave me a new perspective. For the uninitiated, “sockpuppeting” refers to the practice of posting positive reviews of your own books under a fake identity, usually on websites such as Amazon. The nastier breed of sockpuppeteers also trash their rivals’ books under these identities. Duns has generally caught the culprits out – most notably the crime writer R.J.Ellory – by noticing when they sign the wrong name on an account. Essentially what the whole thing shows is that lots of writers are vain, cynical scoundrels out to fool the public and scupper the public’s trust in online reviews.

Or does it? While I hereby politely invite anyone who loves me to shoot me in the head if they ever catch me crouched over my keyboard logging into my fortieth Amazon account and swearing Rites was “guaranteed to touch your soul” (really, R.J.Ellory? Really?)  I can also weirdly sort of understand why the sockpuppeteers do what they do. I can understand – though this is nothing more than a vague fluffy hypothesis – how it just might be not a cynical strategy designed to generate income, but instead a coping mechanism generated by a failure to dissociate in the way that I’ve found myself doing, once the hype dies down and life goes back to normal. If you don’t move on, if you continue to define yourself by the book which must in 99 cases out of 100 end up floundering around in the bargain bins, then how terrible must it feel? To receive “No new results” on your Google Alerts every day, to check Amazon again and again for five star reviews but see none, to search the shelves in Waterstones in vain? Impotent in every other sphere, how easy is it to create another Amazon profile? To write what you wish others would? Perhaps to set up a few different ones, create a few different voices, to start a bit of controversy? After all, nobody would ever know… or so you imagine, until Jeremy Duns comes along.

Pure hypothesis, of course, and probably a slightly sentimental view of a nasty practice. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing these writers are exposed – quite the opposite, especially if they trash their fellow scribblers while hiding behind a pseudonym. Just that I think there is something in the very lonely, isolated activity of creative writing*, and in the very little amount of interest that the world seems to take in one’s hard work, that might make this kind of behaviour tempting. I also think the importance of sockpuppeting shouldn’t be overstated, because the nature of anonymous reviews lends itself to skulduggery of one form or another, and anyone who places too much trust in them is a bit of a dolt. I’ve encountered some writers personally who have asked me to write them a positive Amazon review. Once, when somebody sent me an unsolicited glowing review of Rites, I suggested without thinking that they might want to put it on Amazon myself, then immediately felt so cheap and grotesque that I vowed I would never ever do so again. Is this practice so very different from sockpuppeting?

One thing’s clear to me anyway; the most reliable way to avoid ever falling into that deep dark long-drop bog of ignominy is to keep your eyes on the prize of the next thing. September’s an exciting month. I’m writing a new thesis chapter, making research trips to find out about name changing in the 1780s, gearing up for the launch of the Strange Bedfellows project, chipping away at the next novel, and getting this play written. In which, as I tweeted yesterday, the characters are just as odious (delightfully so, from the writer’s point of view) as those in Rites. Will do my best to up my blogging rate along the way.

*perhaps in academia too, anyone remember Orlando Figes? –

The best junk email I have ever received

Ok, I’ve been horrifically neglectful of my blog recently, and I’m planning posts on sock puppeting, the Strange Bedfellows project and my first experience of scriptwriting, the first of which will go up in the next couple of days. But for now, this junk email I received made me laugh so hard that I choked and started wheezing like an epileptic walrus, so I just wanted to share it with the world. Form an orderly queue, ladies.
Nathan Kiganda
14:18 (19 hours ago)

to undisclosed recipients
Dear friendThis is to introduce to you my Presidential Marriage Insurance Project.This project has been in place for now 17 years.As you are already aware my future ambition is to become President but i cant succeed without a firm foundation and your support.I have dedicated my future marriage prospects to building a firm politcal foundation for myself and that’s why i called itMy Presidential Marriage Insurance.My Presidential Marriage Insurance started way back in 1995 when i was still a student at Mbale Secodary School and it has been all along running upto now.This programme was very active at Kiira College Butiki,Makerere University,Delhi University and in all the areas i have been to.

In 2007 i added more vigour to this programme by including it in my Biography,a book that i myself wrote and sent to President George Walker Bush of the the United States of America for Publication.In 2008 i designed a concept paper which has been acting as a guide line to this project.In 2009 i enlarged the concept paper and transformed it into a booklet which will soon be published.

You could be a pressman, a politician or president, religious leader, Ambassador or a useful citzen but the most most important thing that i need from you is support.Your support is very very paramount towards the success of this programme.I am not yet married and am still searching for the most suitable patner.I am still single and infact i don’t even have any serious girlfriend.

Previously, i had girlfriends i had considered for this programme but i have taken over 8 to 10 years without seeing some of them and so they only remained my girlfriends in words but not in reality.I am alone and my heart is yearning for miss right and it is the reason why i am searching. I am in Love, therefore my door is wide open for any body who is interested.

I need a lady who is between the age of 18 and 25, however those exceeding 25 but below 30 years of age are also acceptable if they meet the set requirements.I need a lady who is intelligent,ethical,trustworthy,caring,Loving,Supportive and with good moral conduct in the society.She must be beautiful with a figure 8 shape, an attractive face ,a soft and killing voice.She must be an Orator or a good public speaker.The desired lady should be highly educated with atleast a bachelors Degree or should be an undergraduate student at any given University.Mother Africa is a continent of honour therefore her dressing code should depict a lady of honour.I need a lady who puts on trendy but descent clothes that can earn her respect and honour in the society.The cosmetic makeup on her body and hair should also depict a lady of honour ,respect and Dignity.

You can participate in this programme in a number of ways.You can recommend your most beautiful sister, relative or friend or yourself if you meet the set standards.You can also participate as volunteer in spreading this message or you can contribute assets such as car,Land,Camera, house etc,gifts or some money ,academic scholarship,foreign tour/travel sponsorship for two people etc towards the success of this programme.I need you for you are my success.Together we can succeed.Please forward this message to a friend, a relative or any other person.

May God bless you,

For God and My Country.

Kiganda Nathan
Tel: 256 78 2 230826

NB:I sent a copy of the Concept Paper on my presidential Marriage Insurance to President George Walker Bush when he was still at White House.

Money contributions should be made to;
ACCOUNT NAME: Kiganda Nathan
ACCOUNT NUMBER:1004100269906
BANK: Equity Bank Uganda Limited
Swift Code:EQBLUGKA.


This refers to the ways means and choice of marriage partner in preparation for my my future political career of becoming president .It involves the search for the most suitable lady with the desired qualifications and requirements.It is a sheme that has been designed to build a solid foundation for the future first family.

To build a solid foundation of Peace,Love, Unity, Leadership,Joy and Happiness for an examplary first Family.

1-To select/get the most suitable marriage partner with the desired qualifications and requirements.
2-To prepare, train and bring up a future first lady .
3-To avoid future cases of marital instabilities within the first family.
4-To improve on my Social and Political position/Image in Uganda and the World over.
5-To pave ways of improving and building a viable personal financial base/stand for myself with a view of being self reliant and independent.
6-To promote civilized and positive cultural practices with a view of building a united and peaceful nation.
7-To promote literacy and higher level education .
8-To prepare and plan for all my marriage related ceremonies and obligations.
9-To provide an alternative to military force as a means of ascending to political Power.
10-To promote God’s creating abilities and values as he wished them to happen in their natural state.
11-To promote peace ,love,Unity,Good governance,Joy and happiness in our Nation.
12-To build a solid foundation for an increased role of the first lady in public and Social Affairs.

Kiganda Nathan
Tel: 256 78 2230826
NB:Check my recent picture from the above attachments.Take time to read through the information in the attachments to this email message.Picture Kiganda Nathan.jpg (in Kanzu was taken on 2 April 2011 at Kansanga Kampala and picture 004.jpg the most recent was taken on 18. February 2012 outside Mengo Teachers Union Hall during a wedding reception for one of my relatives.

NB. I  am currently at  Bunga  Kampala-Uganda and teaching at Trinity Secondary School,Katimbo zone,Kirombe-Nanganda Lukuli, Makindye Division,Kampala,Uganda.

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