PhD: three months+ down the line

I think one of the things that no one ever really mentions in a PhD is how long it takes to settle down and find your feet. Surprisingly so as well. It’s kind of expected at BA level – especially if you don’t really know your way around your new university or place. It takes time to know where to go for XYZ, even if you know the shop you want any given item, you still have to find it, find your way around. Even more so with classes, and so on. Then there’s the slow understanding of what it is that is expected of you at Uni, how to write essays, how to deliver the original contribution that they’re looking for. Over the course of three years you grow – even as a mature student who knows a bit more about life and themselves (i.e. not experiencing so much the kind of self-discovery process that 18-21 year olds go through at that time) still grows. I remember learning about Gramsci and hegemony and seeing the world and history in a different way, for example. You read, and the process of reading, of absorbing, changes you – for the better. It’s not just about what you’re reading and learning and writing, but HOW you do it – there are certain changes that I think (and I hope) are held in common by all university students, regardless of actual subjects studied, such as the ability and awareness of the importance of questioning what you read. So, yes… these changes are expected at an undergraduate level.

At Master’s level, especially if, like me, you stayed with your undergrad institution, there feels like less of this kind of development. You know your way round (both uni and city). You know the people. You know what it is that you’re doing. It’s shorter, of course. The pass mark may be higher, and more expected of you. The Master’s degree gave me more confidence in what I’m doing and more knowledge, of course, but I don’t feel that it fundamentally changed me in the same way that the BA did. Instead, it felt like it gave my BA an extra polish, if that makes sense. And while I don’t want to dismiss my Master’s degree, or the work that I put into it … having gone from BA to MA to PhD and graduating from my MA during my PhD it feels somewhat like the MA is more of a ‘blip’ in the journey towards the PhD. The BA graduation felt far more monumental, coming as it did in the summer, a month after the course ended, and before I really knew that I would be undertaking the MA. It felt more like drawing a line underneath it all. The MA graduation, as special as it was (more about that in a moment), didn’t feel the same in that sense and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking or feeling that way.

The PhD, however, feels more like the BA in terms of the potential to change me in a more fundamental way. Maybe it’s because it’s longer – three years, like the BA, as opposed to the 1 or 2 of the MA. It’s more than that though. There is constant questioning. Questioning my ideas, my thinking. My writing is being picked apart (and if you are someone considering a PhD and you hate having your writing dissected: I’d urge you to reconsider the PhD plans or learn to love the criticism). My supervisors are questioning the use of certain words, highlighting the way I write. It’s turning me into a better writer so its not an unwelcome process, I don’t begrudge it (in fact, I’ve asked them to continue it because I KNOW it will make me a better writer). I’m reading – and no matter how much I read, it feels like it’s never enough; the “to-read” pile is constantly getting higher and higher. This is good, not bad (although I cheerfully admit I’d feel happier if the “to-read” pile would go down, instead of up). It’s the process of doing exactly what the PhD should do, what it says on the tin: to turn me into an expert in my field. There’s a very strange change going on – I’m growing in confidence, but at the same time I’m not. Growing in confidence in my abilities, in my skills – for example, learning how to deliver presentations, talks and papers. But the constant questioning of my ideas is having the opposite effect, making me stop and think before I deliver an opinion. ‘Am I really SURE about this?’ This uncertainty is making me hesitate before delivering any opinion, anywhere, except the really subjective ones, like ‘I love chocolate’. Oddly, I feel okay with that, mostly. I do have the occasional attacks of imposter syndrome (which is extremely common in academia) but I suspect the reason I feel okay with it is because I know that it’s a) temporary and b) for good reasons. There’s a huge difference between this process and the kind of way that some people behave when they try to make themselves feel better by undermining someone else, and I know that this process will make me a better academic in the long run. This is, most certainly, A Good Thing, rather than the kind of negativity that makes one want to curl up and hide.

We’re frequently exhorted, as PhD students, to write. ‘WRITE!’, the cry goes up. No matter what, just to practice the process of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I’d echo that but I think what is just as important is the process of self-reflection, an awareness of the changes experienced over the three to four years of the PhD. I think one of the many elements that make for a successful PhD student is constant analysis, constant thinking and asking why. To give an example: on Friday, I graduated with my MA degree. It was a lovely ceremony, a lovely day – bright and cold – but throughout I was analysing, thinking and comparing the experience with that of 2.5 years earlier, in July 2014, when I graduated with my BA degree. The MA ceremony felt – to me – altogether more comfortable, more relaxed, but more serious as well. I had the same sign language interpreter for both ceremonies and I discussed this with her at the time. She agreed with me, that it felt both more serious and more relaxed, so it wasn’t purely a reflection of my own emotions on the day, but more to do with the general atmosphere within the graduation hall.

I should say, for those who do not know much about academic graduations in the UK: Graduation ceremonies are different with each university. At the University of Leicester, the ceremonies are held at De Montfort Hall, which is a lovely concert hall dating from 2013. It doesn’t seat many people so graduation ceremonies are smaller than some universities, and as a result, shorter. My BA ceremony in 2014 was just 2 hours long; the MA was just over 1.5 – I know some universities have graduation ceremonies that go on much, much longer. There are also more of them – the university will hold two in a day – in January, graduation lasts for 2 days (mostly for postgraduate students) and in July, for a week or so (mostly for undergraduates). There are some cross-overs, however – we had some undergrads last week, and in 2014, I remember seeing people who are now friends graduate with their MAs and PhDs. I think it is the fact that last week’s ceremony was primarily made up of postgraduates, who had already experienced a graduation (if not specifically the Leicester one) and who were therefore a tad more relaxed about it – but also more serious at the same time. For undergraduates, graduation can be the end of one stage and the beginning of another – often leading to a career, to the beginning of one’s life, a sense of coming of age. There was less a sense of that with a post-grad graduation, I think (although I may change my mind about that when I graduate with my PhD!). I know I enjoyed Friday’s ceremony more, not because the university was doing anything particularly different, but because I was different, more relaxed. I’d learned from the 2014 experience what to do, what not to do. Wear a blouse so it’s possible to attach the hood to the buttons more easily. Wear comfortable boots, rather than heels so you’re not praying ‘don’t trip, don’t trip’, as you walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. Pick up the cape, hood and cap early, get the photographs done and out of the way early. Don’t wear a ponytail, as it’ll interfere with the cap. That kind of thing. Still, I’m glad I attended graduation – it underlines the Master’s. Done, dusted. Put the certificate on the wall. Order the photographs. Turn my attention back to where it should be… the PhD.

In just over a week (1st February) I have to hand in the mid-year review, which is something I have to do as a Midlands3cities-funded student. It involves writing an extended research proposal for my project, a 5,000 word sample piece of written work, and then I have to defend my progress thus far, a sort of mini-viva (the Viva Voce is the oral defence of the thesis, which I have to pass to gain my PhD, and is done after The Thesis is submitted). This is a good thing; practice in defending work done is good for the ultimate viva that I’ll have to do, but I am nervous about the whole thing. There are three possible outcomes: either I pass (and can continue my studies); I am sort of on probation (i.e., I have to redo the entire thing in June); or I fail, lose my funding and probably get kicked out of university as well. We (M3C-funded students) have been assured that outright failure is very rare, and my supervisor has also tried to reassure me. I’m still nervous though, and I doubt I’m the only one. I’ve already written both the pieces of work that M3C require; I have two 3,000 word pieces of work which I need to amalgamate into one 5,000 piece, which is very doable, although I have had feedback on both which I need to incorporate into this new work, so there is some additional work to do there. I have also written the extended research proposal which was handed in to be marked as part of a doctoral research training module that the University of Leicester offers to all new PhD students. As an M3C student I did not have to complete (or even pass) the assignment attached to the module, which was a similar extended research proposal, but the recommendation was; do it anyway, as the practice and feedback will come in useful for the mid-year review. So I followed the advice. I’m not particularly happy with my work on that, and having discussed it with my supervisor last week, I know where to take it and how to amend it. Hopefully the changes will improve it to a point where I feel happier with it. The mid year review will, in many ways, mark the conclusion of the first four months of my PhD and is the first big hurdle to pass, and I’m sure that that point will bring further self-reflection about the changes that the previous four months have wrought (which I may or may not share here).

So, three months down the line. Still trying to find my feet. Still trying to find a routine. I do feel that I overdid some things in the months before Christmas; I have dialled those things back substantially to allow me to focus more on what I should be doing. I’ve made decisions about the way that I will be working, and some of the short term aims that I need to achieve, which I will focus on once the mid-year review is complete. It is a different way of working to the BA and MA, and it takes time to develop that. The uncertainty of the first few months is, in some ways, a good thing. It’s a process that has to be gone through because it isn’t like when you move to a new city, and you’re struggling to find your way around; that is fairly easily rectified. This is more complex, and you learn from the process – its not something you can learn about from reading, but only from doing. I just wish more books/blogs that discuss PhDs mentioned this. That it’s okay to be uncertain, to wobble, to struggle with finding one’s feet. I do think though that I’ll come out of this unsure period as a much stronger student, more sure and able to forge ahead and make progress very quickly.


Just over two weeks have flown by since I last blogged, oh-so-confidently, that I thought things were beginning to settle down. Well.. they are. And they aren’t.

See, in all the advisory reading I did about embarking on a PhD, one idea chimed across the board – that the next three (or four) years would absolutely fly by, and that while 3 years sounds like absolutely ages and ages to research anything, in reality, it won’t feel that way. After waking up to find that two weeks have gone in the blink of an eye I very much fear I might wake up next Wednesday to find that the final submission deadline is upon me. Ulp. Continue reading

PhD Induction: the absolute last one… ever

… I hope!

Yesterday we had the final inductions, the College of Social Science, Arts and Humanities (CSSAH) induction, and the AHRC Midlands3Cities students were pulled out in the middle of that to have our own induction. By my count, that made induction number five, not counting mini ones like induction to the library, etc. Fortunately the people who make up the welcoming team seem aware of the fact that we’ve been more than thoroughly inducted and welcomed, and even made a joke of it yesterday. One brave soul, who has a foot in two different departments, admitted to enduring 7 inductions!

The CSSAH session was useful – they handed round a sheet that asked us to think about different positions with regard to managing the supervisory relationship between supervisor and researcher, and then to discuss with our nearest neighbour in twos. One useful thing that came out of that discussion was to consider numbering our drafts in the same way that software programme designers number theirs: for major changes, number them by 1, 2, 3 etc., for minor changes, number them by 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, etc [the amusing part was when we both turned to each other and said at the same time, ‘write that down’!]. I also thought about making meta notes: making a note of where things are, a sort of overview document of not only WHAT kind of documentation and files I have, but how they are stored, where, the sub-files, etc. Those who have never studied at this level may be thinking I’m ever so slightly nuts, but yes: That much paperwork DOES get generated and its important to keep ontop of it all, keep it sorted out.

We then went onto the M3C session, where we met the Leicester site directors, three students who have preceeded us in the programme and who gave us tips, and we talked through some of the requirements that M3C have of us. What was most useful for me was meeting the person who is responsible for approving my communication support expenditure; putting a face to a name is always good. While we’ll sit down for a more in-depth chat at the end of October, it was good to do some preliminary chatting and agreement on practices to get me through the next few weeks.

The inductions weren’t the only event we had yesterday. Class 2 of the Research Design and Practice module took place in the morning, with lots of heavy discussion on formulating research questions. The group work made me realise that I had taken slightly for granted that there would be one particular kind of primary source evidence in existence, and that I didn’t really know what to find in answer to the question that I was posing for part of my research. This is something that needs to be addressed, fairly quickly I think, and possibly brought up with my supervisors for discussion in November. Having said that, I’m not worried about this. Even if it turns out that the primary source evidence that I had assumed did exist, doesn’t, then it’s not an insurmountable problem: the absence of evidence/material is something every researcher has to learn how to deal with/handle sooner or later. It’s not the absolute disaster that it may otherwise appear on first sight – and in some respects, it’s something I’ve already had to deal with. My first ever article (written from the research I did for my undergraduate dissertation), on the battle at Cursneh Hill, grew partially out of a lacunae in the primary source evidence, as it forced me to look elsewhere to understand not only the gaps in the evidence, but also the impact of the event that I was seeing in evidence much, much later.

The end of induction certainly does not mean that the uni is now shooing us out into the world to toddle off and research alone like good little doctoral students. The Research Design and Practice class is running till the end of term (before Christmas), and I think there may be a subsequent module to run after Christmas to the Easter break; I have the beginning of a two-part course on history teaching and training starting tomorrow and a brief meeting with my primary supervisor to discuss training needs; and an event at Nottingham Uni next Tuesday which may give me the opportunity to try something I’ve long wanted to do. In between those, I’ve lots to research, as I said before, I have a historiographical review essay on C17th Herefordshire to write and an abstract for a conference. The abstract is coming together in my mind, and I’ve made a few brief notes on that, so I know how I’m going to approach it. I’ve a huge stack of articles that I’ve printed out to read for the historiographical review, so there’s lots to do! In some respects, Induction really doesn’t represent what a PhD is like for a student, in that there’s far more socialising, networking and talking than normally happens (I think, usually, that the life of a PhD student can be quite isolating). Which is why New History Lab is so important. Their next meeting is on Friday, and I’m baking…. I’ve promised to bring along a batch of the infamous cookies from my supervision, so Thursday evening I’ll be batch-baking those. I just hope I don’t end up with a soggy bottom or a Mary Berry glare of doom!!

The First Supervision


the infamous cookies

You might think, since I’ve been quiet in blog land for the last two days, that I’ve been enjoying time off. Not a bit of it (although I will be taking next weekend off). I’ve spent the last two days nose to the computer keyboard, plugging solidly away. Part of the reason for that was the decision to hold my very first supervision meeting today, with all three of my supervisors (And while who they are is a matter of public record, I do believe in respecting their privacy, so I won’t mention them much, or by name). I have three, by the way, because when I was considering the team and my proposed project, I felt strongly that I needed an additional voice to help guide the archaeological elements that are included in the project, as well as the other two who are more focused on the documentary side of things.

This morning I was nervous, I freely admit. Daft, perhaps, but I was. Supervision meetings were new to me, and it’s not like anyone can really tell you what they’re like as they’re highly individual to the person being supervised, as well as to the supervisors themselves. I am lucky in that I know one of my supervisors fairly well – he supervised my MA dissertation. But that doesn’t negate feelings of nerves. I always want to do well, and the first meeting is important. First impressions and all that.

We went for lunch beforehand, with another PhD student. It was good to see more of the University of Nottingham’s lovely campus. Very different to Leicester – much bigger grounds – and the views are quite amazing. This is one part of the AHRC Midlands3Cities partnership that I really do like, the opportunity to visit other universities, to see different campuses and set ups. That broadening of experience is something that can only stand me in good stead, I think, in future, and prevents a certain insular perspective. It’s good to break out of the same places, the same routines and experience new things, both on a personal and a professional level.

The supervision itself went well, I think. I took cookies! I think they were appreciated (I’m taking something else next time. Don’t know what yet. We’re meeting before lunch, so I have to think imaginatively, perhaps). It seemed to set the tone for what I thought was a nice, relaxed meeting, with some laughter and some seriousness. I had some good news about my dissertation results (unofficial, so not saying anything here till it is official!) and I’ve been set an assignment to do for the next supervision, a 3,000 word essay on the historiography of Herefordshire. It’s one of the ‘positioning’ essays that they want me to write between now and Easter, there’ll be three or four of them, and it should be fun. I’m itching to get my teeth into it – and I may start researching that tomorrow. I’ve also got an abstract to write, for a CfP (call for papers – basically an application to speak at a conference), so that’s exciting too!

Tomorrow: I’m on Leicester campus all day – in the library in the morning, digging into that essay, and in the afternoon I’ll be attending the graduate school induction. Should be fun. Fingers crossed I make good progress with the research!

PhD induction: M3C Residential School Day 2

It’s quite amazing. I arrived home from the AHRC Midlands3Cities residential school in Birmingham just about 36 hours after I left, but I feel as though I’ve been away for weeks. The last two days have been so intense, intensive both in terms of the amount of information thrown at us, but also the …. changes that the school have created within us. It’s a difficult process to try to describe and I’m not at all sure that other people who attended are also feeling it (I’d be most interested to know if they were). But, I guess I feel a bit like I found myself. This is where I was meant to be. Since getting the news about winning M3C funding a few months ago, its felt slightly unreal, especially since there was so long to wait before it all began, with very little information about what the next three years would be like. Its felt dream-like, out of reach almost, and when PhD induction week started it seemed a bit hard to believe that it was now finally HERE. The last two days, however, have delivered a hefty, hefty dose of reality, validation and messages of success and ‘this is the beginning’ and all kinds of other lovely phrases, and it’s starting to really sink home, the magnitude of all this and what it means.

There’s a lot going round in my head, obviously and it will take time (And a fair few night’s sleep I suspect) to sort it out out better in my mind. I am so very very tired which is certainly not helping matters! I slept well enough last night (woke up at 5.30 am wondering why the window wasn’t where it should be), and this morning started with breakfast rolls and coffee. It was a more conventional day – a series of talks and presentations on a range of topics that we needed to know about. For example: Midlands3Cities run several funds that their students can apply to for things like funding trips to places that they need to go for research. There was a lot of explanation of the funds, what the differences were, how to win them, when to apply and so on. That took up most of the morning, then lunch was provided (a delicious beef lasagne followed by a lovely rhubarb and apple crumble). The afternoon session was about work placements. Midlands3Cities work with partner companies/institutions, and allow their students to work for/with them on a variety of projects or placements. They’re never for very long, six months at most, and our own research is extended by the same time, but it allows us – the students – to gain work experience in relevant fields to their research. So, for me, that could be working with a heritage organisation like the National Civil War Centre, or the National Archives, or even the diocesan archives. It’s not a compulsory thing to do, but it does add value to your qualification and help boost your career. This afternoon however, real companies/organisations were brought in who are setting up projects for the future that they want to try to find doctoral students to work with. We were organised into groups, and the facilitator explained their project and asked us what sort of skills and experience they thought students should have in order to work on the project. There were some really interesting-sounding projects and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on some of those, for potential opportunities in the next few months.

Dr. Nick Barratt (Chair of the M3C DTP Partner Advisory Group) then presented the closing plenary lecture. This was an in-depth, warts and all, reflection of his own, rather zig zag career, where he felt he went wrong, what made him change careers and jobs when he did, how opportunities seemed to come his way, how he was, essentially, very lucky. Or was he…? He himself called that interpretation into question and spent time discussing how what some might see as luck, others might see as the sucess of knowing the right people, and being available and willing to take risks at the right time. One thing he said that really made me think, really struck home was that we have to sell ourselves, be our own agent, because no one’s going to advocate for us. And he had a point. We do have to sell ourselves, not just by being ourselves and striving to excel to the best of our abilities, but by actively promoting ourselves whereever possible, and making the most of possibilities that come our way. There was so much to think about from this weekend. It WILL take time to percolate through my mind, I’m sure.

Tomorrow: back to earth, back to my home institution, Introduction to web-research & the school social.

PhD Induction: M3C Residential School Day 1

Today has been exhilarating and exhausting in turns. I’m currently having a much needed, quiet cup of tea in my hotel room, relaxing before the evening event.

We – one of my interpreters and I – caught the train from Leicester this morning. A very cramped and crowded train but we had fun chatting all the way. Met up with my second interpreter, and another AHRC Midlands3Cities student from Leicester at New Street station; went for coffee, then hightailed it over to the ICC. More coffee, then the welcome, introductions and then, after more coffee, the first of two Vox Coaching sessions. This, the first of two workshops, was led by two actors, who were, I have to say, extremely good. The first workshop walked us through a scenario where a researcher was struggling with his boss, a professor. The two men – Pete and Dominick – played their roles very well, got us, as a group, to ask questions of the two, via an imagined big brother-style diary room chair, and to offer them advice for resolving the issues. Finally, they replayed their scenario, and each time we saw something wrong, we buzzed them, stopped play, and for them to correct the issue. Lots of laughter and hilarity ensued. It was so much fun and a really inventive way to get us involved in thinking about expectations and managing our own supervisory relationships. It worked far better than if we’d been sat down and lectured to.

After a lovely lunch, we were back in with Vox Coaching, same two gentlemen, who walked us through ideas of assertiveness, of being aware of our own body language when meeting people, of just simply saying ‘YES!’ In our heads when passing people. We walked through how we present ourselves when we’re just answering the question ‘what do you do?’, which is – apparently – what royals like the Prince of Wales ask people when they’re working. We discussed different levels of ‘I have a right to speak’ness, from the ‘barely heard, I apologise for even breathing’ level, through to the bombastic ‘I HAVE DECIDED TO SPEAK ABOUT SOMETHING INTERESTING AND ALL YOU PEONS WILL LISTEN‘. No – this was not what was said, at least verbally. This was all done through body language. The actual words the actor used was the same in each example and was something like ‘I have recently been researching something interesting and I’d like to share it with you’. (Great acting. One of them succeeded in doing creepy in three different ways – deliberately so!)

Although the two workshops were very different, they were extremely inventive in getting the material across to us, and I think, if I’m honest, that I shall probably still be absorbing lessons from them for quite some time. This was brilliant, interesting and inventive teaching, and there needs to be more of this – Not just within M3C, or in universities, but everywhere, as part of pedagogical practice, I think.

After that final Vox session, we broke for coffee, then worked on something called the VPP (Virtual Postgradate Platform). This is an M3C website where public information is available about all the M3C researchers. We control what goes up there, but generally, there’ll be something about our thesis, our sphere of research, maybe some info about papers we’ve given, or publications. Admin goes on behind the scenes, related to our research and the work that we need to periodically produce to pass each stage of our studies (we don’t just get a free ride for 2.5 years and then frantically rush to finish!). So lots of info about that and how we manage that. We then closed, had a group photo taken, and we scattered to our hotels.


My face is actually aching now. I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much, or laughed so much in ages. Tonight was a sit down three course dinner, but what was brilliant about tonight was the level of conversation. All of us there tonight, I think (I hope) had good conversations, but tonight, in a lull, I looked around and everyone was passionately engaged in discussing ideas with their neighbour – Not just polite ‘yes yes’ chit chat, but active, interesting, fully engaged conversations that paid little respect to things like nationality, language, or disciplinary boundaries. For example: I’m a historian, not a linguist, but tonight I spent a substantial amount of time discussing linguistics of sign language with a German linguistic student, who knows German, English and Spanish, and a dancer studying identity through dance and Caribbean music, talking about her experiences of how languages were used in Senegal, and my sign language interpreter. I wad able to offer not only my experiences as a deaf person, but also my experiences with my Dutch in-laws, and how I’ve used – or not used – communication in both The Netherlands and Germany. It was a cracking conversation, but the German student apart, none of us were trained linguists – what mattered was experience, and sharing ideas regardless of disciplinary boundaries or language.

And while I freely admit to being absolutely shattered now (and really struggling to write this) I also feel energised, and enthused. I have a taste now of that the next three years are going to be like, the conversations I’m going to have, the ideas we’re going to achieve as a group, and there is something amazingly inspiring about that. I can’t wait!

I think no record of the evening can go by without mention of the two University of Birmingham students who presented performance pieces to us, one entitled ‘Never Rehearsed, Never Repeated’, involving squirt guns and lemon juice, and a final piece involving lots, and LOTS of sellotape. Wonderful performances that will most definitely stick in the mind for a long time to come!

Tomorrow: day two of the residential school, then back to Leicester (and earth!) for the rest of induction week.