beyond the CV, or: how I learned to stop worrying and love my subject association

This is the third post in a set about what to do during your PhD. Its been written by Sarah Burton, who is in her final year of a PhD in Sociology at Goldsmiths. Sarah describes her research as “using the concept of ‘mess’ to examine the relationship between practices of writing, power relations, and the production of legitimate knowledge”. Sarah tweets as @MsFloraPoste and is a convenor of the British Sociological Association Postgraduate Forum aka @BSAPGForum.

Poke your nose into the academic hash tags on Twitter or other social media and you’re head-on confronted with reams of instrumental advice: all the things you absolutely must do in order to form the best CV ever, and woe betide if you don’t, because you’ll only have yourself to blame when you end up unemployable. I jest – some of this advice is useful, and junior researchers often appreciate the help of their more senior colleagues in pitching our CVs in the most effective and creative ways. But consider this perspective: the PhD process is about more than just securing a job.

There are things we do along the way which push us to engage with our academic community in a way which is affective, supportive, and stock-full of what RuPaul would call ‘realness’. One of these is working with your subject association or learned society. Joining the British Sociological Association was something of a strategic decision: pitching up in Sociology from English Literature, I thought going to the subject association conference might give a measure of the discipline and hopefully provide a few friends. At the same time I spotted an advert for Postgraduate Forum Convenors: what better way to learn about how a new discipline works than to actually work in, and for, it?

The PhD can be both learning about the game as well as learning to play the game

The PhD can be both learning to play the game and learning to subvert the game.

Probably the most obscure form of support I’ve received is best described as spatial. It’s hard to come into a new discipline and work out its Machiavellian manoeuvrings (and even the nicest of disciplines plots and schemes!), but being part of the subject association gives a vantage point where you see how stuff happens. You see how people relate to the Association – even when you’re resented and hated, that exposes how the power relations work. Ultimately – and I feel certain the BSA will adore me for saying so – you get to see the dirty laundry of your discipline. And that is enlightening and powerful. For a ‘baby academic’ (as one of my research participants insists on calling me) this is incredible: it’s basically critical theory in action, uncovering the machinations of power in order to critique and destabilise that power. Awareness of how your discipline works, how it inscribes and implements rules, and how others circumvent and rebel against these rules, means that you can move more knowingly within it. This isn’t always related to building your career – though undoubtedly it helps. It’s both building your own field, whilst being aware of how others build theirs. It goes to social, emotional and intellectual support. Moreover, it gives you a seat at the table – even if that table happens to be the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Being part of my subject association allows me to position myself in the discipline and it brings with it the legitimacy of that position. Of course, this often means tacitly buying into hegemonic power but doing so is productive: it means getting our voice heard instead of shouting into the void.

It's in the PhD everyday that we see the relations of ruling and how they are constructed ands textualised

It’s in the PhD everyday that we see how gendered, raced and classed social relations of higher education are constructed and mediated

The security of position that working with a subject association brings is reassuring and empowering, but for me the crucial benefit to working with the BSA is social and emotional. It brings supportive connections – from my fellow co-convenors, from the convenors of other groups, and from the central BSA staff themselves. Doing BSA work bluntly means that I get to meet vast numbers of people in my discipline which gives me more opportunities for finding like-minded folk and making friends across the career spectrum. There are more subtle emotional and social advantages though. Getting to know people through working with your subject association brings an extra layer of embeddedness in academia. People see your work, they see your labour – administrative, intellectual, emotional – and they appreciate it (no, really, they do). Through working with the BSA I get to support other postgraduates through our funding and conferences. It’s really heartening to create positive, open, creative spaces for postgraduates to come together. I also get to support senior academics by inviting them to speak at events. Speaking of, I won’t lie – we do plot our events to work out our own emotional angst within academia. Often (actually, always) choosing the themes for conference panels or who we get to speak is as much a political decision to tackle the dominance of powerful groups and voices, as it is about getting a line up we think will attract people. This gives emotional succour: you feel like you’re doing something and this means you don’t feel so helpless and at the behest of a behemoth-esque edifice.

There’s a hash tag – #survivephd15 – from a MOOC designed to help you ‘survive’ your PhD. Some people have terrible thesis experiences and these sorts of courses are, of course, useful to them. But I worry about entrenching the notion of ‘surviving’ our PhDs, and I suspect that this rhetoric comes from a narrative which sees the PhD purely as training for a very particular job rather than a period of exploration, creativity, and intellectual nourishment. If that job is precarious (and it is), then we naturally relate to it through concepts of survival, or Academic Hunger Games as my perspicacious friend @MinxMarple describes. But what if we thought of the PhD as beyond than that – as valuable for more than what it might bring to our CV? My academic activities aren’t about what goes on my CV; rather, they’re geared towards being part of a community, making space for myself and others, engaging and supporting strangers who then become friends, and going boldly into the unknown (to paraphrase Patrick Stewart). Lots of things help with this (I have the best supervisors ever, no contest), but being an active member of my subject association has provided tangible and agentive means of moving in academia in a way which is both affective and intellectual.

(Photos: the late Pierre Bourdieu and Dorothy Smith, living academic treasure: the captions are all Pat’s fault.)

Posted in learned society, PhD, Sarah Burton, subject association | Leave a comment

things to do during your PhD – organise an event

Nicola Sim is in the final year of a collaborative PhD ( Tate and the School of Education, The University of Nottingham). Her PhD examines partnership between youth organisations and art galleries. She tweets as @nickyjsim and blogs at youth/culture

I took on my PhD having spent five years running events at Whitechapel Gallery in London. After regular late nights, occasional nightmares about ticket sales and constant negotiations with speakers’ diaries, I saw the PhD as a welcome relief from event programming! But as soon as I started my PhD, I was itching to return to the event format as a tool for informing and extending my research.

Obviously, academic conferences feature heavily in the research journey of a PhD student. The major conferences can host vast numbers of delegates from around the world. Most students will be encouraged to present papers at these events, and I did so in my first year at a couple of large-scale education conferences. While I found other researchers’ sessions useful, naturally very few related directly to my area of study. And in the early career researcher sections (where I was presenting) most sessions were lucky to pull an audience of seven semi-interested people. Nevertheless, I did find it helpful to connect with academics in the special interest groups (SIGs), and at one conference, organised by the British Educational Research Association (BERA), I met the Convenor of the Youth Studies SIG, and together with a fellow PhD student we hatched a plan to host an event on youth work and the arts.


Collabor8, Nottingham Contemporary

Organising the event under the auspices of BERA’s events programme meant we had access to a bit of funding, a specialist mailing list and some administrative support. We also named our associate institutions and research centres as partners, which, alongside the BERA endorsement, helped to create a credible platform from which to announce a call for contributions. Our targeted call-out to practitioners and academics drew submissions from across the country, and a full house of delegates. As a result, we were able to bring together related interdisciplinary research, highlight key issues in the field and draw attention to our own projects. The event also led to an article in BERA’s newsletter, a writing collaboration and the start of conversations around the formation of a possible research network.

Another way to bring some focus and coherency to the events you participate in is to propose a symposium or workshop within a wider conference. I have done this a couple of times, and am currently working on a creative workshop with practitioners associated with my research. While these types of events can act as dissemination moments for the PhD, I think the main benefit lies in the coming together of a research community, and the production of new connections and ideas. I’ve considered the events I’ve attended and organised to be part of my fieldwork, rather than a stage for it.

Cylch, Tate Liverpool

Cylch, Tate Liverpool

Now in my third and final year, I’m contemplating what kind of event I’d like to host at the end of the PhD. In the fields I’m researching (gallery education and youth work) practitioners are more likely to attend talks and conferences than access an academic journal article, so I see the event as an essential channel for sharing my findings.

If I can offer a few nuggets of advice for PhD beginners, I would keep in mind the following…

1. Get stuck in
If you are relatively new to coordinating events, or you want to get involved in the broader scholarly life of your department, you might want to join the organising committee of your school’s postgraduate research conference or help to arrange lunchtime seminars. This is a great way to get to know other students and lecturers and experiment with different formats in a supportive environment.

2. Allow time to research and network
The second year feels like a good moment to start organising more focused, public-facing events. You’ll have had time to go to different conferences, to identify the gaps and to hear notable speakers. By the second year you should have a decent list of early career and established researchers who could be potential contributors to your programme.



3. Collaborate
There are major advantages to working together with like-minded peers, and/or more experienced academics when devising events. Support from various agents can instil a sense of confidence in the project and spread the workload, while the backing of reputable institutions can lever high profile speakers and diverse audiences.

4. Clarify your aims
Ask yourself who the event is for, why you’re doing it, and whether it brings something original to a particular research issue. If you’re doing a call for abstracts, make sure the copy you use is clear, inviting, and open enough to encourage a range of submissions.

5. Plan ahead
Think strategically about the timing and location of your event. Steer clear of possible clashes with major conferences or holiday periods and make sure you leave ample time for promotion. Don’t try to pack too much into one event (I’m guilty of this) and leave generous time for conversation and debate in the schedule.

6. Reflect
Build in the means to reflect on and share your post-event conclusions. If possible, record the event and write up a summary as a blog post. By doing this, you will reach a secondary audience, generate useful data, and will be better able to demonstrate the value of the event when it comes to writing reports about the all-important research impact!

Photos of youth events organised by Circuit, a Tate national programme which connects galleries and young people ‘to spark change’.

Posted in Nicola Sim, organise event, PhD | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

things to do during your Phd – an internship, with granola

This guest post is written by Dr Lexi Earl. Lexi has just completed her PhD in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her research looked at the experiences of food in schools. Lexi blogs as philosophy and madeleines: surviving a PhD with cake and tweets as @lexiearl.

It was when Molly O’Neill told me that I was going to have to re-dry roughly 30 pounds of granola a second time, that I seriously questioned my decision to spend the summer cooking at cookNscribble. I’d already had to dry this batch of granola twice. What had happened to it that it was now damp again? Part of me wanted to curl up on the floor in tears at the thought. Most of me wondered how I had ended up here, in upstate New York, worrying about whether granola was crisp, crunchy and dry.

Back in February 2014, I hated my thesis. I wanted to give up. Run away. Join a circus. Bake a lot of cake. I had decided on a Foucauldian analysis of my research findings (his work provided the best framework for understanding what I had witnessed in the field) and suddenly I had to take the intellectual leap into his work. My undergrad was in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and my MA in International Relations. Neither of these made me read Foucault and suddenly I had to read Foucault’s writings on discourse, knowledge and power. I was going to have to understand him, interpret my findings using a framework of discursive practice, discuss it intellectually and, possibly worst of all, write Foucault in my own words. It was a stressful, frustrating time – one that made me feel fantastically stupid.

wqYBUxXuUc3mzcPX0HFgX029Tz4DUt4qSo58nr4YeC8By chance, I found out about a culinary internship at cookNscribble, in upstate New York. Culinary interns got to cook for food scholars who attend a residential programme in August, work with visiting chefs, blog, hang out with interesting food people, and generally participate in food conversations. It sounded like exactly the kind of internship I’d been after, but not found, throughout my PhD. There is a lot of writing about the importance of interning whilst a student, especially in the current financial climate where walking into an academic job once you’re finished is unlikely. I’m not one of those PhDs who only wants to be an academic, although I do want to teach, do more research, lecture, write. There are other things I want to do as well – teach cooking, develop food growing programmes, bake cakes, and write about food. So the internship at cookNscribble provided an opportunity to develop all those other skills, rather than my academic ones.

IMG_0334  I arrived in early July and jumped straight into the kitchen. I spent most of the time making a lot of loaf cakes, cookies, scones and pie dough. It was the perfect antithesis to my thesis. The work was practical – I was in the kitchen all day, most days of the week – and it gave me time to think (and not think) about my work. I cooked meals for staff who were busy designing the curriculum for the scholars and sorting out details of the LongHouse Food Revival which happens in September and, once they arrived, the scholars. I got to shop in fascinating stores and farmer’s markets, meet farmers, talk with visiting food bloggers, writers and editors, and pick raspberries, blueberries and cherries.
Cooking for food people is surprisingly intimidating. But the thing about taking the leap and doing so, means that, when they comment on how good something is, it feels pretty spectacular. And they also have a plethora of knowledge and skills that they want to share.

6dVajwzS42JKtm6jUfiWpbFLscQckqQtuhV-I8SBhvAI got to meet various fascinating American food people – writers, chefs, farmers – people who wanted to talk about the state of the food system, or the secrets to successful pie dough, or the satisfaction of growing your own vegetables. Molly O’Neill taught me how to line a pie crust, and shared her recipe for blueberry pie. Ame Gilbert showed me how to sear duck breasts and how to hand-roll gnocchetti. Ian Knauer showed me how to lattice pies, and cooked a corn and tomato pie that I want to marry. A woman, also named Alexandra, taught me the art of preserving raspberries so that their perfect summer flavor is revealed when you open the jar in the dead of winter. Tim Lippert explained about the benefits of grass-fed Dexters and woodland-raised hogs. I got to turn 50 pounds of oats into Molly’s granola. (Something, I admit, I’ll be okay with never doing again.)

rM8dX7n7v9-8dCUgB2b1V7A8BxCw7k3zS3YBSTqbOdMBut aside from all of that, I learnt about myself that summer. The internship may have improved my cooking skills, given me lots of blog content and introduced me to a great variety of interesting people but it also reminded me that I can actually cook, and, more importantly, that I like being in the kitchen; that cooking is the way I express myself. To a certain extent, I found my own food voice, something I was never entirely sure of before.

Knowing this somehow made my thesis a more writable, achievable thing. I knew about food. My thesis was all about food. I just had to pull it all together.

And, dear reader, she did.

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starting the PhD – don’t panic

I was sitting in my office the other day talking with a beginning PhDer. A nearly-finished doctor popped her head around the door. I asked her what advice she would give someone just starting out on their doctorate, and her first words were “Don’t panic.” This is great advice and it seems fitting to end this set of posts about starting the PhD by focusing on them.

Why? Why Are the words “don’t panic” so helpful? Well, it’s because there are lots of places and times in the PhD when it is quite possible to panic. But some of these places and times are also predictable. So if you know that there are some likely sticking points coming up, points where your first response might be – well – panic, then maybe you won’t. Panic, that is.

Mary just couldn't help feeling panicked by the sheer volume of literature she now had to work with...

Mary wanted to run away from yet another discussion about her research question.

Here’s a list of four potential, predictable panic points.

1. The research question. You can’t get the words of your research question right. They slip away from you, never quite encapsulating what it is that you really want to find out. You think you have it and you take the wording to your supervisor(s) and they point out problems with your terminology and unhelpful inferences. They might say the question is actually un-researchable or that it’s just too big, or conversely, too narrow, or that you have an answer already implied in the way the question is formulated.Back to the drawing board.
Don’t panic. Research questions are hard to get right. Many people, and very experienced researchers too, struggle to put their research question together.
Don’t give up. Keep at it. You have to keep playing with the sense and syntax, taking the advice on offer, and trying different combinations out. It – and you – will get there.

2. The literatures. There’s just so much. No sooner do you think that you have a handle on what there is, when more turns up. How to discriminate what’s what? How to wrestle it all together into something that makes sense? How can you possibly turn this unruly mess into something readable, and something that will pass muster?
Don’t panic. The purpose of reading is to open out the possible resources you might use in your study, to challenge your taken-for-granted assumptions and to fill the gaps in your knowledge about your chosen area. Reading is meant to be eye–opening. It’s intended to produce insights and ideas you hadn’t thought of before. Most people find getting the review of literatures into shape a daunting task – but they do actually do it. It’s not impossible, just hard.
Don’t give up. You just need to find the strategy that will allow you to sort, map and categorise the field(s) of literature you are drawing on, and then to isolate those texts that are most germane to your study – these are studies like yours, texts that offer useful concepts and approaches to draw on, and literatures which help to explain why your study is important, what is already known and thus what you will contribute. There is now lots of advice about how to manoeuvre the literature into shape, and your supervisor(s) should be able to point you to some starting strategies.

3. The data. There are two kind of difficulties with data – (a) There’s so much of it  and/or (b) what you have seems inconsequential.

(a) A mountain of data is very off-putting. You’ve spent quite some time getting it together and now here it is. You need to make sense of it all. But this is so much easier said than done. Where to start?
Don’t panic. You just need to find a way in. Usually this is either by scoping and auditing what you have – mapping the pieces so that you can then order them – or it is taking a piece of the data and trying out some ways to do the detailed analysis. There is often not as much help in the methods literatures as there might be about analysis. The books tend to give technical advice about how to analyse, but don’t often show you examples. Don’t give up. Talking to your supervisor(s) and to completed doctoral researchers about their analysis can really help at this point.

Rosa didn't know what to make of her data...

Rosa didn’t know what to make of her data…

(b) You have data which seems to say the blindingly obvious. All this time spent generating material in order to confirm what the literatures already say. What kind of original contribution is that?
Don’t panic. There may be something in the data that you haven’t found yet. Alternatively, perhaps your contribution is going to be theoretical, or methodological – maybe you can use the material to say something different about the topic. Either way, you can’t give up now. You just have to get on with the analysis, and start talking with your supervisor(s) and thinking about various possibilities for making your contribution.

4. The text. Well the analysis is done but now…. putting it together? You must be joking. There is no way that you can organise your analysis into chapters. It doesn’t fit together nicely and neatly. It feels and looks like a list of miscellaneous chunks and there seems to be no sensible way to make it into a readable thesis.
Don’t panic. The Ph in PhD is about the kind of thinking that you have to do in order to analyse and make sense of your material. It isn’t meant to be easy. You don’t make a contribution to knowledge by following a mechanical set of processes. You can’t get the PhD just through exemplary use of someone else’s technique. Getting the doctorate is ultimately about the thinking. And this thinking is, by definition, at the edges of what you can do. You are going/thinking somewhere you haven’t been before. It’s going to be foggy for a while and so yes, you just can’t easily bring it – whatever it is – into focus.
Don’t give up. This thinking process is likely to be baffling, frustrating, and scary. But keep hanging on to the fact that, at the other side, is the exhilaration that comes with having arrived at somewhere new. No, you won’t necessarily have made a great Nobel prize winning breakthrough, but you will have something to say. You just have to know that this happens, the fog lifts for the vast majority of PhDs.

Once you understand these one, two, three, four sticking points, you can recognise them as common problems when they happen. They are not just your issues. You are not the only person to have ever found it hard to get your research question or your thesis text organised. You aren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data you’ve generated. And you are in good company if you find that you are muddling around finding a generative place to start data analysis.

The fact that these sticking points are predictable won’t necessarily make them any less difficult to work through. But knowing them as predictable possibilities might also help you accept that the PhD is intellectually challenging, not because you are deficient, but because it is just hard. It’s hard for everyone at some point or other.

And the fact that so many people do get through their PhD ought to give you encouragement to persevere at the times when a resolution doesn’t seem obvious. Just don’t panic.

Posted in data, literature review, thesis, questions, doctoral research, research question, panic | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

starting the PhD – anticipate tasks and timings

It’s little tricky to write generic advice about the PhD. That’s because every PhD is unique, as is every doctoral researcher. Not only are there clear disciplinary differences in the ways in which PhDs are accomplished, but the methodological choices that are made frame the various ways in which a PhD proceeds. Nevertheless, there are some potential patterns in the way the PhD goes – and it helps to get a sense of what these are at the start.

I’m a big fan of anticipating the shape of the three years, understanding what’s to come. Anticipating the PhD means knowing about the text you have to produce at the end. Cultivating your sense of anticipation means that you can plan and know, roughly, the kinds of tasks that you will need to undertake, and in what order.  Understanding the PhD in its entirety means that you can get a sense of timing – when you have to have particular things finished – meaning that you’re not completely surprised by the activities as they arise.

So, anticipating the PhD text, tasks and their nature, their order and their timing… This all sounds a little abstract and I want to make it a bit more concrete. You can get a handle on the PhD by checking out:

(1) the rules about theses and examinations
Suss out the regulations from your university. This means not only reading what is required – how many words, how they are formatted and the like – but also the criteria that will be used to judge whether the text ‘passes’.

It’s not unhelpful to have a conversation with your supervisors at the start about what ‘a contribution to knowledge’ means, and how the notion of ‘original’ is usually interpreted in your field. This discussion can alleviate some of the fears you may have about the magnitude of the task ahead.

And if you already have a sense that you may want to vary your text from the dominant pattern, then it’s good to know what leeway there is in the regulations. Some universities stick rigorously to formatting rules, and require all PhDs to follow a thesis template. Other universities and/or faculties/departments are much more relaxed about the rules and allow, for example, the inclusion of digital content or the use of a different kind of writing genre or strong practice elements.

(2) the set of activities that you need to accomplish
A discussion about the final text allows you to focus on the things that always go into a thesis – a rationale, some kind of literatures work, something about the ways in which you approach the research and the methods you used, your actual results, some kind of discussion about what these results mean, and how they constitute a contribution. Thinking about the customary elements of the final text, at the start, positions you to think about how you will get them done over the next three full-time years/six years part time.

You can then consider the order in which the tasks associated with each piece of writing are done, and how they might be staged over the time period. Is there an initial internal hurdle with a viva – when is this and what needs to be done for it? This is often writing the first version of the rationale, literatures work and research design, but it might also include a piloting or proto-typing stage. If you are doing action research, this early work will cover initial reconnaissance activities; if participatory research, there will be joint planning; if archival work the first stage may include scoping the texts to be used – and so on.

It’s possible to consider at the outset how long you are going to have for field/library/lab work, how much time you need for analysis and how much time you will need for writing and crafting your text. Many doctoral researchers are surprised by the amount of time it takes to analyse data and to produce a good text at the end, one reason it is helpful to have this discussion with your supervisors now! If you are doing a PhD by publication, then beginning to map out the stages of paper production is crucial in order to complete in the time allowed.

All of these – first hurdle, field work, analysis, writing –  can tentatively be mapped onto a calendar of activities. You can also include on the calendar other known deadlines – annual reports for example.

(3) the ways, times and places where you might start to put your work out
It’s a good idea to plan at the start to attend some relevant conferences. There may be postgrad conferences in your university or region. There may be events run by relevant learned societies. There will be one or two general conferences in your field that are good for networking and which are the right placers for you to talk about your emerging results. Its helpful if one of these is national and another international – you get to have that conversation about financial and other support right at the start. You can also think about what and where to publish.

Having done these three things, you can now see how the time and your energies have to be organised.

The photo below shows an example of anticipating the PhD in its entirety – it’s not a model to copy, it’s just an example of how this kind of planning can take shape. The white board in the (poor iPad) photo is the record of a conversation between supervisor Chris and doctoral researcher Helen (University of Nottingham) – and a big thank you to them both for letting me use it.

anticipating the PhD

anticipating the PhD

So what’s here on this board?

  • At the very bottom of the whiteboard are some refinements to the research question – fiddling with this might go on for some time yet, or this may now be ‘right’.
  • On the left hand side of the whiteboard is a sequence of tasks with calendar months attached to them. These go from the very start to the hand-in stage of the PhD.
  • On the right hand side of the board is a working list of chunks of material for the thesis with some connections between these and tasks to be undertaken. This ‘chapter’ list has approximate word counts attached to each chunk, which also helps thinking about how much time must be allowed for writing.
  • In the middle of the whiteboard are some of the things that the researcher will need to think about and do in order to get the field work completed.

These details might change somewhat over time, and they probably will, particularly in relation to the results chapters in the actual thesis. But the white board exercise isn’t meant to be exact, it’s not an ordinance map. It is a guide to thinking and acting. It’s knowing what’s to come and what must be done.

An anticipatory schema allows the doctoral researcher to have a clear sense of the frame for the next three years.  Understanding  the shape of the PhD to come means that the doctoral researcher has, at the very start, a good idea of the overall as well as the tasks ahead,  a rough order of how they are staged across the three/six years, and the various types of activities that they must be engaged in.

This kind of anticipation removes some unnecessary PhD fear – of not knowing what comes next, of a huge unmanageable unknown thing, of running out of time. The shape of things to come… it’s good to know.

Posted in PhD, PhD by publication, planning, research project, thesis | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

starting the PhD – getting to grips with “the university”

The PhD is a big undertaking. Your association with the university is going to last for some time. So it’s as well to know some basics at the start.

The first thing to understand is that a university is a complex organisation. It has grown like Topsy. It isn’t rational; some bits of it will work better than others. It is, like all bureaucracies, indifferent to you in significant ways – the university deals with all doctoral students in much the same way. That bureaucratic indifference is both a strength and a weakness, because procedural rules are designed to prevent people demanding and getting special treatment. Adherence to standardised rules and forms and process is the way in which bureaucracies do their work. Of course, some people do require something different from their university, and there are separate processes, sometimes pretty idiosyncratic, that are put into place so that something other than the standard process can occur.

As in all organisations, university procedures can be a bit klutzy and often not very friendly. Sometimes, finding out how to get something which ought, on the face of it, to be relatively simple can leave you feeling like Alice wandering around in a daze, variously trying out “Drink me” and “Eat me” strategies, bumping into people who seem to be about to be helpful but then, like the Cheshire Cat, just disappear. This is not a a conspiracy. It isn’t a plot to get you in particular. This is all quite normal. It’s not that your university is malicious or singularly odd or particularly Kafka-esque. It’s just an imperfect organisation. (This is not to suggest that the organisation can’t and ought not improve, see 9. It’s simply to say that you have to know the nature of the thing that you’re dealing with.)

Alice wondered if this was the right way to find out who could instal Nvivo on her computer

Alice wondered if this was the right way to find an Endnote course that wasn’t already fully booked up…

So,  given this, it really is essential that at the start you find out how to get along in the particular organisation that is your university. You have probably had an induction at the start of the PhD and it may have covered all of the things that you need to know. There is probably a handbook of some description. But just in case it didn’t cover everything, here are a few things that it’s good to sort out early:

(1) Is there is one person who can answer a lot of your institutional questions? This is probably not your supervisor  – they are likely to be just as confused as you are about aspects of the university organisation :) – but someone in your postgraduate office. Find out who they are, introduce yourself, have a brief social conversation before you need their help.
(2) What are your entitlements? Can you get conference funding? How much? How often? Do you have to give a paper? How much can you spend on interlibrary loans?  And how are these actioned – are there vouchers that you have to present to the library or is it an online system of some kind? How much printing and photocopying are you allowed and who do you go to if you need more? Where can you park and how much is it? Can you get cheap transport tickets?
(3) Where and who is the IT support, and what are the procedures to get access to it/them? There are often gatekeepers who you need to go through to get someone to look at your computer. They are very good people to know, as are the IT people themselves. How do you get printing done and what happens when there is a problem with the printer? How do you get the bibliographic and analytic software installed on your computer? Is there someone on your floor or in your office who knows how to unjam the printer and get extra paper?
(4) Who is your subject librarian and when and how they can be asked for help? Most university libraries do have someone who covers your specialist area but you may need to book a time to see them.
(5) What are the rules about leave and who do you have to go to if you feel you need some time away or if you have external demands that you need a break to deal with? Some forms of leave may be seen not as an entitlement but as “special treatment” and the process may even feel demeaning. You may need to find someone that you can share those feelings with, and in some cases you might want to try to get the processes changed (see 9 below).
(6) What forms are you likely to need? Modern universities run on forms as cars run on fuel. It’s important to know where all of the forms are stored online, who has to sign them off and where they have to go.
(7) How does your university communicate with you? Many universities only put information on an intranet while others use email lists and university email addresses. Some use facebook and social media as well. If you have another email that you want to keep, make sure you set up some kind of interface with whatever system your university uses so you don’t miss out on key dates and information

Alice saw the IT technician in the distance and ran as fast as she could to catch up with him...

Alice saw the IT technician in the distance and ran as fast as she could to catch up with him…

(8) What specialist support is on offer?Many universities offer English language classes. Additional language classes are also often available for students who need to work beyond translated texts and translators.  You need to know how to access these and what your entitlements actually are. You may be entitled to other kinds of specialist support too, in which case get to know the relevant people in your school/department and university right at the start. Universities generally do have counseling and medical services and it’s good to find out about these just in case.

Then there are other less immediately important, but nevertheless helpful and interesting things to get onto:

(9) Are there regular events where postgrads can meet each other and plan activities together? Is there a postgrad representative or two in your department/school/faculty who can carry concerns to decision-makers? Is there a way in which postgrads are regularly consulted about the organisation, what is it, and how could you participate if you wanted to? Is there an annual conference and who is on the committee, how does it get selected and by whom?
(10) Have you been allocated to a research centre, what does it do, what and how how does it provide for postgrads?
(11) What opportunities are there to participate in seminars and lectures across the university? One of the benefits of being in a university is that you have access to a range of interesting and sometimes stellar people and events. Find out now how these are publicised, particularly those outside of your immediate school/department.
(12) Is there a grad school and what does it do? Many universities have grad schools with programmes of worthwhile events. Get a look at the offerings now and make your choice early, because its often first come, first served – but talk first to those in the years above you to find out which courses are worth doing. Does anyone do shut up and write or bot camp events? What is offered online?
(13) What informal postgrad  activities are there? Are there social events for postgrads – who knows about these in your school/department and will give you some entrée to them? Is there a PhDPub event or something similar? Find out about sports, clubs etc. – these aren’t just for undergraduates.
(14) Are there likely to be offers of internships and bits of teaching? How do you get them? What are the rules – these are often seen as competitive rewards, rather than entitlements. Who are the postgrads in years above you who seem to know about these things?

I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten – if you can see some glaring omissions, please add in the comments.

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starting the PhD – setting up your routine

At the start of the PhD you need to sort out how you will accomplish the necessary reading, and the writing that relates to the reading.

You may have to write a much larger PhD proposal than the one that gained you entry – this proposal is called different things in different places – but basically it’s the rationale for your project, a review of the literature and the project design. There may be a quite formal process around this expanded proposal, a kind of local mini viva. If you pass the viva, you get to continue on the PhD programme. You will be told about this requirement at the introductory sessions your university organises.

However, whether you have to write this text to do or not, you will want to set up some reading and writing routines that work for you now. The thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong routine. It’s just important to have one, a routine that is, and not leave things to chance. You have to set aside a good amount of time to read, and write. At the beginning of the PhD you can experiment with different kinds of time-task organisation, and work out what suits you best.

The key thing to understand is that the PhD routine is always a mix of different things. I like to think of this as an interleaving of activities – some reading, some writing, some getting things organised for writing or reading, some filing, some going to talk with people, some seminars… You might think of this as multi-tasking – but I prefer the rather more bookish metaphor of inter-leaving as it draws attention to the juxtaposition of activities – to what comes between things, and what order should they be in. However, you don’t need a metaphor at all to sort out your routine, just make sure that the one you sort out includes several kinds of activities.

Some questions that are helpful to think about are:

Time – When do you write best? I’m a morning writer and I can’t write anything but administrivia after about 2 in the afternoon. But I know plenty of people who are night writers. Experiment with writing at different times if you don’t already have a favorite. And ditto for reading. When do you read best? You are going to read some pretty weighty tomes during the PhD so you might want to set aside times for different kinds of reading – the hard stuff, and then scoping and skimming. There is also note taking and filing your reading too, so don’t forget to factor those in. You might also want to allow a regular time for thinking – time when you let your mind wander or when you focus hard on a particular issue. This might be associated with an activity such as walking, gardening, doing the housework and so on.

Writing helped by a list of things to remember, with dictionaries and style guides to hand.

My book writing is supported by a list of things to remember, with dictionaries and style guides to hand.

Place – where do you best write, read, and think? These may always be in the same place or you might be one of those people who like variety in your scholarly sites. You might choose a different place for writing than for reading. And there might be accompaniments that make the activity time-space go well – music, headphones to shut out the noise, being with others or being by yourself…

Structure – different people like different kinds of work structure. To complicate things further, these structures may not be the same for each activity – so some people like to impose word limits and deadlines on themselves for writing, others for reading. Some people like to write for as long as they can, others prefer set times. Sometimes the time and approach differs within one activity, according to the nature of the task. It’s not what structure works for everyone else, but to important to understand is that structures can help or hinder you and it’s therefore helpful to find out what works for you.

Amid book writing squalor, my bicycle, music and chair for reading - with natural light

Amid the current book writing squalor, my bicycle, music and chair for reading – with natural light over my shoulder

Support – What will make your work easier? Structures can be domestic and/or academic. @MsFloraPoste swears by online shopping, and I’d probably do this too if I didn’t have a semi-retired partner who does the weekly run to the supermarket. I religiously do my laundry on the same day each week when I do intensive writing, because it makes me get out of my office. I also swear by ten minutes bicycling for every hour or so of writing. Some advice suggests shutting off social media for a set number of hours, and there are apps that help you to do this. Other people use everyday tasks like travel and housework to make time – they take their reading to the Laundromat, read on the train, or regularly attend a shut up and write session. There are now lots of apps to help you keep track of tasks – or you might just like to make lists. And of course it’s important to eat properly – so cooking can equate to think time – and you have to make sure you don’t become entirely sedentary – gyms, walking dogs etc. all require some kind of regular scheduling and provide another leaf in the interleaved scholarly day/week. There are lots of structures that can help you keep your focus.

So – to sum up – use the start of the PhD to find the routines that work best for you. It’s not easy balancing structure and flexibility, honouring commitments and the need to be open to serendipitous invitations and ideas. However it’s crucial to establish some kind of pattern for yourself because it will underpin the next three years of hard work.

Thanks to Sarah Burton for help with this post. 

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