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.


5 thoughts on “This Much I Know – Starting a PhD

  1. Reblogged this on Philip and Mary and commented:
    Interesting, although I’m not sure myself about the usefulness of twitter. Perhaps I just don’t use it enough, and I’m fairly confident that I don’t know how to make the most of it, but I have yet to work out how anyone has the time to folllow what everyone’s saying and filter the usefulness from the dross. That said, I’m sure I don’t use the blog to its full potential either. I’m getting on a bit as far as all this new-fangled technological stuff goes! Just call me granny….

    • Hi Jenni. I found Twitter really intimidating at first too, but following a few key people / institutions (societies related to my research, libraries, active academics and fellow students) exposed me to further useful contacts so eventually I was getting an excellent range of research-related tweets on my Twitter feed most days. How to escape the ‘dross’ is a tricky one – I use Twitter in a personal capacity as well as professional so I actually rather enjoy it as long as it’s amusing dross. But you can always unfollow if someone has proved neither useful or amusing…

  2. My sister (who went to York too!) linked me to this. THANK YOU. I am in the 4th week of a PhD in the USA and have come home most nights feeling inadequate, wrong, unintelligent and just plain sad. I’m hoping that sometime soon I’ll start enjoying myself, and this has given me hope. I’ll be revisiting to read when I get down again…

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