things to do during your #phd – attend a summer school

Many learned societies offer summer schools. Some universities and research networks do too. I’ve just been to one. I was one of eight lecturers at a sociology of education summer school organised through the European Educational Research Association ‘s @socedu28. The summer school was in Naples and held in the conference centre of the University of Naples ‘Federico II’.

A couple of dozen doctoral and postdoctoral researchers were there. They had applied to attend. They had been selected, from a much larger group, on the basis of the ‘fit’ of their research interests with the summer school theme, and the case they made for their attendance. Some support was offered – accommodation, morning and midday meals – and  the summer school made a contribution towards travel. However, most participants had to find the bulk of their travel funding plus incidentals.

On each of the four days there was at least one formal lecture,  time for questions and for whole group and small group discussion. Each person presented their research and connected it to the summer school theme. 

Participants came from a range of European countries with a couple coming a very long way, from Chile. The lecturing staff were from Italy, France, the UK and Australia.  We presented an aspect of our current work linking it to a broader issue – thinking with theory, preparing a research bid, conceptualising a project, developing a research agenda, writing and publishing.


The summer school brought people together who might otherwise only have sat adjacent in the same conference presentations or perhaps have had the odd chat over a drink at a conference social occasion. Participants in summer school were together for extended periods of conversational and social time. Their discussions were focused on common themes but there was ample time for people to find out about the current political, economic and social situation in other countries besides their own, various traditions of intellectual work, different ways in which doctorates are organised, funded, supervised and examined, a broader range of literatures and theoretical resources, and work which had some potential connection with their own.

Summer schools are tiring, and this one was no exception. People had to work at listening. Listening not only for content, but also for nuance. The proceedings were conducted in English, but there were multiple Englishes in use so everyone had to pay close attention. A great deal of concentration is required to work continually in another language, and for most of the participants this task was combined with getting to grips with unfamiliar ways of thinking, arguing and analysing.

Adam Wood, one of the curators of the Architecture and Education blog, wrote after the summer school … it’s a different space to the one you’re normally in so you have no choice but to think about what you do and how to relate that to others who don’t know you/your work. And you come into contact with ways of thinking that might not be available at ‘home’ and new people too obvs – you can learn from them directly and indirectly too by seeing things through their eyes. Doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable and full of joy, all of the above makes it (potentially) full of existential shock but that’s good too in the end maybe!


Each person was an expert in their context, but also a learner. It is confronting when peers ask questions about practices that are taken for granted at home. It is challenging when people ask questions of your research that haven’t been asked of you up till now. It is hard work processing the diversity of views, projects and national policy nuances in a short space of time. There is an intensity, confusion, pleasure and excitement about these kinds of hot-housed, intercultural scholarly conversations that is hard to duplicate.

An encounter at a summer school might be the foundation of more permanent collaboration, although that is not their immediate aim. The summer school certainly means that at the forthcoming conference those who were together in Naples will be able to meet up again, and to continue some of the conversations they began. With a bit of luck, over time, summer schools will help to strengthen the sociology of education special interest group through discussions based in deeper understandings of differing national situations, and different approaches to researching in the same field.

Writ large, thus summer school and others like it embodies what it can mean to be a contemporary scholar, engaged in transnational, critical dialogues which enhance understanding and knowledge. Of course, we do all have to go back to our institutions and the everyday life of emails, audit and deadlines. However, these kinds of ‘out’ times, when the usual demands are temporarily ‘suspended’, are important, and need to be maintained. Taking the time to sink into a protracted scholarly conversation is very worthwhile. 

So why not look around to see if there is a summer school that you might attend – or a winter school, because they exist too.


And for the next few days I am suspending normal patter transmission, and blogging from another summer school – my annual participation in the Tate schools and teachers week-long summer school. This year I’m probably thinking about the pedagogies of the summer school – but this might change – so if you are interested in this kind of thing, do read along.


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in PhD, postdoc, Summer School and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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