Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Honest PhD Update

Just a quick note to update readers (and more specifically survey respondents) on the progress of the Honest PhD Guide.
I can honestly say that I have never had this much fun and enjoyment writing something before. And I can also say that writing has never come so easily to me before!
I have a suspicion this is because I was never really honest with my PhD experiences that publically before I started blogging. Certainly, many of the feelings I had were unknown to my supervisor and even family (such as imposter syndrome). But now I feel more confident in sharing my experiences and the honesty of the survey responses has spurred me on even further.
The book is half autobiographical in the sense that I share my experiences and thoughts, and half a response to and compilation of the survey responses.
Here is where I have got to:
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Choosing to pursue a PhD
  • Chapter 2: Choosing an institution
  • Chapter 3: Funding
  • Chapter 4: Relationships
  • Chapter 5: Managing the thesis
  • Chapter 6: Viva
  • Chapter 7: The aftermath
  • Conclusion
Many thanks again to everybody! I'll keep ploughing away at this, and then have some colleagues review it for me. From there I will turn it to an e-book!
Hoping to have it ready early in the New Year!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The 12 Days of PhD-Xmas

Just a bit of fun really, but as we are fast coming up on Christmas, here are 12 things which my PhD has given to me. Send your lists to me at whelanfi@gmail.com and I will put them in a post or simply add them to the comments yourself! 

Happy December!

On the first day of Christmas my PhD gave to me:
  • 12 medieval manuscripts to study in seven different libraries
  • 11 moments of self-doubt and imposter syndrome
  • 10 different classroom lessons delivered
  • 9 unachievable terms as a deadline (aka completion in 3 years)
  • 8 various presentations (conferences, seminars, etc.)
  • 7 gruelling thesis chapters
  • 6 college balls attended
  • 5 days in Paris for research (and fun!)
  • 4 long hard but mostly enjoyable years
  • 3 different vivas (between upgrades and the final viva)
  • 2 publications
  • 1 hard-earned title of 'Dr' which I couldn't have achieved without the support of family and friends!

What about you?! And if you haven't finished, what has the PhD given you?
Send me yours, and maybe we can compile a lovely list to release on December 25th!


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Alternative Academia 5.0 - Costs

So, here’s my second problem encountered in my Alternative Academia world where I try to keep one foot in academia through teaching and conferencing. The first I talked about here, about academic affiliations.
As part of the session bids from the Oxford Medieval Diet Group to present sessions at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds (the second only to Kalamazoo, Michigan as the biggest gathering of medievalists!), I proposed a paper on the “Medieval Table as a Noble Space” and it got accepted, yay! Leeds July 2016 here I come!
The downside is that since I didn’t put the proposal in myself, but rather it was put in as a session by the organisers, I forgot to apply for a bursary. IMC Leeds website provides bursaries for “delegates from Central and Eastern Europe, students, independent scholars, pensioners, and unwaged scholars”. I think it is wonderful that independent scholars are included in this, because the financial cost to attend these events with department support, research funding, or travel grants, becomes overwhelming for those of us who pay out of our own pocket.
My paper is in the late morning on a Tuesday, so I can either use my annual leave to take 1 day off work and only attend on Tuesday. I could go up on Monday, but then I would need to find and pay for accommodation. Or I could go for the whole shindig and take 4 days off work. These are things that many others don’t have to think about – using your annual leave for academic work rather than leisure which they are intended for. I do wish that more conferences were willing to span at least one day in the weekend to help people trying to keep “one foot in”.
And I cannot be the only one. Only around 20% of humanities students with a PhD will end up with an academic job, so what about the remaining 80%? Surely many of them, like me, have found alternative jobs or careers, but have been told that we must keep publishing and conferencing if we have a shot at coming back to academia! But, the costs and timings of conferences often prohibit the people who need it from attending.
Whatever about using my annual leave, the cost is what really affects me. Take IMC for example. This is their guidelines for costs:
-- Full Registration c. £225.50
-- One-Day Pass c. £135.00
So, my choice is between 1 day and 4 days, and I will likely be attending for 1 day. So £135. Add travel at another £80 for the train, and if I have to go up the night before then accommodation at £45, so then I am looking at £260 all in. In addition, I was invited to present at the Harlaxton Symposium which was an offer I could not turn down, and full registration and accommodation will come to £200. So for July my conference bill will come to just under £500.
I don’t mean this to be a moan. I want to attend this conference and it was my choice. Both have amazing opportunities to meet new people and both have potential publications associated with them. But the pressure put on early career researchers to continue these activities means that we will pay this money out of pocket and take time off work. We don’t have a department, college, university, or research grant to support us.
I am sorely tempted to set up a GoFundMe campaign or something of the sort. Not for me, but as a means to pool resources for independent researchers and those working outside of academia who want/need to keep up their academic activities to keep their dreams alive. Funds could be allocated to conference registration costs, costs associated with publishing (such as image copyright costs), etc.
Is this a crazy idea?
Would people even donate?
If there is a positive reaction, I may go ahead and try it! I mean, ‘tis the season and all.

I have set up a trial GoFundMe campaign, which you can find here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Funded Students

I have written about the issues of self-funding and responded strongly to criticism of self-funders, such as the Times Higher Education Supplement which you can read here.

There is no denying that I am biased in wanting to advocate for self-funders and partial-funders because of my own PhD story, but going through the Honest PhD survey responses it was pointed out that one question was biased towards self-funders:
"As a self-funded student, did you ever receive negative comments based on your lack of funding?"
I guess that I posed that question because I felt that I certainly had, but in a way subliminally from a range of different sources: other students who were funded; academics; non-academics; etc. (although none of it was overt!).

One survey response noted that "funded students get negative comments based on funding". I will hold my hands up and be the first to admit that this notion had not crossed my mind. Is it to do with the funding source, and some perceived to be "better" than others? Or "jealousy" from non-funded students? Or something else?

I am genuinely intrigued and want to ensure that I don't miss any nuance when I come to write the section on funding for the Honest PhD Guide!

Please leave comments below, tweet me @FionaEWhelan or email me directly at whelanfi@gmail.com.
I appreciate any and all insight into this question!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I have decided to close the Honest PhD survey now that responses have exceeded 200, with a range of respondents across disciplines and continents. However, if you are desperate to have your say, please email me at the address below and I will send you a custom link to the survey.

After your efforts, it is now down to me to do justice to your frank, honest, and humbling comments about your experiences either as a former PhD student or one still on the journey.

I can only say thank you for the immense response to the survey, and the enthusiasm with which you all took to it. I know the survey design wasn't perfect in places, but I truly appreciate those who participated and those who shared the survey with others.

I want to take a brief moment to reassure participants that your anonymity is paramount. While names were purposefully not included, I appreciate that some of the scenarios described could identify you to friends and colleagues in the future. Some of you have highlighted these to me already; others I will judiciously edit to ensure that they are as general as possible. As always, discretion and sensitivity is at the forefront of my approach to this book.

Should you have any concerns, feel free to email me at whelanfi@gmail.com.

Thanks a million,

Tuesday, November 10, 2015



It's an awful word which conjures up feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, inadequacy, and depression to name but a few. But here's the funny thing, failure can be a good thing.

Yes, failure can be positive.

I am not revolutionary in this idea. However, ask me whether failure is positive a few years ago (even a few months ago) and I would never have agreed. But being a little bit older, and possibly wiser after my PhD experiences, I now truly believe this.

I am not somebody who has failed at many things, which is not intended as a boast. I succeeded at school with As and Bs, got into a university and came out of the process with a PhD. Success, not failure, right?

Well, I have had failures throughout the PhD process, and I have been inspired to right about them here following on from an article in the Guardian about learning how to fail better in academia: 

The first point made is to BE HONEST
Well, this is the entire point of this blog - honesty in sharing my experience to help prepare others for their PhD journey. And every one of us will fail at something. I failed to get one of my articles published. I failed to "pass" my viva first time around (I did pass, it was major corrections but at the time it felt like a failure). I failed to get a research position after reaching the interview phase. I failed to land an academic job immediately after the doctorate. If more people were honest about the failures they experience along the PhD way, the less stigma would be attached to certain issues such as the viva, job hunting, etc. Not only will this help fellow and future PhD students, but it also can open dialogues with supervisors and other academics who may not be as aware of the problems facing students today.
"To remove the stigma of failure, we need to first acknowledge its existence rather than spinning or denying it. We must discuss it more openly in seminars, conferences and supervisory meetings".
The second point is to BE THANKFUL 
The article writes that "failure can be a gift. It can come before major advances and is usually not as bad as it seems". I wholeheartedly subscribe to this belief, even if I haven't reached the "major advances" stage! I am thankful that I did manage to get a job immediately after the PhD in the environment I want to be in - universities. It may not be an academic position, but I am enjoying every moment and learning an immense amount about universities which will serve me well no matter what I do next. I am thankful that I got major corrections. You may think I am crazy for saying that, but it forced me to revise my thesis which I likely would have had to do anyway if I wanted to get it published. Much better to get it sorted immediately than embarrassingly sending something which wasn't ready to a major publisher. Failure at an early stage in the process can save time, energy, tears, or embarrassment further down the road.
"When failure happens, be grateful that it occurred but was not bigger, more damaging or more complex. Then list the actual and potential benefits of what did happen".
The third point is to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
We love to blame others. When I walked out of my viva, I wanted to blame my examiners for "not getting it" or for "being out to get me". I was reactionary to the experience rather than reflective. Now, that is not to say that I wholesale agreed with all the criticisms I received, but time, reflection, and consultation with my supervisor allowed me to have a clearer view of what areas of responsibility I needed to accept and change. 
"It’s easy – and tempting – to blame failure on others. Yes, a manuscript may have been rejected because of a cranky reviewer, but refusal is much more likely to be the result of weaknesses in the article, lack of fit with the journal or poor writing".
And sometimes there are times when maybe you are not responsible, but again blaming others is never the best solution in the long run (although a short-term rant can make you feel really good!). I had a particularly unpleasant and difficult interview experience for a research position (you can read about it here), and while I was angry and frustrated, I ultimately has to (a) be honest and realistic about my chances, (b) be thankful for the useful experience, and (c) take responsibility for not standing up for myself more in the process.

The fourth point is to LEARN FROM IT
There is no point acknowledging the three points above if we don't do anything to change the situation. We must learn from our failures. As the article states: 
"in adulthood, failure can make us doubt if we are good enough and wonder why others seem to better". 
This is something which surely resonates with so many PhD students. For me, I may ask why I had such a tough viva when others had "easy" ones? Others questions PhDs may ask include: why did their article get published so quickly and mine is still in review?; Why do they get teaching experience and I don't?; Why did they get funding and not me? There are undoubtedly other factors at play in these questions far beyond any question of the quality of the individual. But by placing the emphasis on other, "better" people, we can stifle ourselves from seeking other opportunities or other avenues for success. The article puts it better than I could:
"Academics should be rewarded for learning from failure. We need safe spaces and places to talk, write and share what was has been learned. This culture allows everyone to benefit from failure and make these discussions more common, conventional, and constructive".
Finally, the fifth point is to MOVE ON
Now, you may think that I keep harking on about my viva and that I can't move on from it. And earlier this year you probably would have been right! 
"Don’t hold on to negative or damaging emotions towards yourself or other people. Remember, it takes courage to face failure and learn from it; doing so is testament to the skills, openness and relationships of all those involved. Failure is inevitable in academic life but wasting it is not".
But now I have put that "failure" behind me. I see my doctorate as the same as someone who sailed through their viva. I bear no ill will towards my examiners, and my thesis is better and stronger for that experience (as am I to be honest!). I talk about that experience to fulfil that first tenet:


I hope this post, and the Guardian article, can inspire others to be open and honest about failures during the PhD process.


A while ago I wrote a response to the Times Higher Education Supplement about 10 Steps to PhD Failure, which I know many of you will have read (and if you haven't, follow the link here).

The writers of that piece have responded in a fair, measured, and positive way to my comments, and the comments of many others on Twitter, especially regarding the attitude around self-funding:


However, they disagreed with what they perceived to me being a bit dismissive of the financial implications of self-funded, quoting me saying: “The most important thing you need is the passion for your subject to get you through the tough times.”

I certainly don't think that passion for a subject should trump the financial difficulties that would lie ahead, and I don't feel that I tried to make that point. Rather, I was trying to argue that if you are going to pursue the self-funded route, it WILL be hard, there is no denying that, but in those hard times loving your subject and being passionate about your work will help to make all the sacrifices worth it.

Yes, we ought to be realistic about what a self-funded PhD will be like, and yes there are those who look back and feel it wasn't worth it. But to highlight those cases again serves as a further deterrent to those seeking to do a PhD in an age when funding in the UK is getting cut at alarming rates.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Alternative Academia 4.0 - Presentation Skills

Much of my work in university administration currently revolves around committee work. For the past few weeks I have enjoyed the experience of observing some pretty high level committee meetings, and I have immensely enjoyed developing a deeper understanding of university governance and decision-making. 

However, today I got the opportunity to give a brief presentation to a committee with very senior academics and managers. In the past, the mere thought of having to speak (on an unfamiliar subject) to such senior and well-respected people would have filled me with dread and led to sleepless nights!

Now, I am a very shy person. Before my PhD presentations were very difficult for me, and I tended to shun activities which put too much attention on me. I am an introvert to my core (and as an aside, I am currently reading Susan Cain's Quiet on the value of introverts in today's extrovert-ideal-driven focus - I do plan a blog post on being an introvert in the workplace). 

The pressures put on PhD students to teach and present and network forced me into those uncomfortable situations. If I wanted to succeed and get that academic job, these were things I had to do in addition to my thesis. Now, the fact of the matter is that I didn't pursue an academic career immediately. But I have put those presentation and teaching skills to use. Over the course of my PhD I taught university tutorials, international summer schools, and language students. I presented at international and graduate conferences, and informal seminars and groups. 

The result: confidence in my belief that I can stand up and deliver information to anybody! The only thing that can scupper my success is me. So, last night I slept like a baby even though I knew I was waking up knowing that I wouold be talking to a rather daunting group of people. My PhD has instilled that belief in myself that I didn't have 4 years ago! Rather than obsessing over my perceived inadequacies, I now trust that, so long as I have prepared, my doctoral experience will get me through the task!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Guest Post from the Corporate World

*Today is the first of what I hope will be a series of guest posts on life beyond the doctorate (it can't all be about me!!). Today's post is written by Jed, a consultant in London who received his doctorate in History from the University of Oxford. 

I'm a historian who has gone corporate. 

No, it's not as bad as it seems. I don't plunder the coffers of the peasantry. I don't raze Amazonian rainforests. I do not work for the Evil Empire and I have not now, nor ever, designed a Death Star. I work for a corporation. Simple as that. 

A corporation is not as dissimilar as we conceive it to be from the academic world. Instead of faculties, we have sectors, instead of Department Chairs we have Partners, and instead of going to academic conferences we go corporate conferences (the only difference is the number of canapes). 

I finished my doctorate over a year ago. Like most newly-minted historians, I did very little academic research after earning the PhD. Instead, I spent the next months trying to figure out how to repay my extraordinary loan debt. The quickest solution was to throw myself into the search for a post-doc. I wanted it all: I wanted to teach, I wanted to research, I wanted visa sponsorship and I wanted a nice funding package to pay those loan officers. After 30 or 40 applications, I started wondering if my standards were a little too high. 

So I became a consultant and moved to the financial district, which meant no more dreaming spires of academia and instead a lot more suits and overpriced frappe-latte-cappuccinos while discussing Moody's latest credit rating of Kyrgyzstan, or so I thought. 

In reality, the corporate world is so vast that you cannot pidgeonhole it's roles. As a consultant, I have far more freedom and flexibility (and funding) to alter my career path than I had when I started out as a grad student. However, what truly astonished me was that I could teach and research. That's right, consultants are primarily researchers. These days, I spend most of my time teaching new trainees how to do corporate and financial research. Just like a professor, I get to hold training sessions and provide private tutorials. The firm has even sent me abroad to train up its affiliates. The corporate world has a shortage of people who actually know how to research and mine data. That's what attracted me to my firm: it wanted researchers, especially ones who could conduct research in foreign languages. 

So I had a good experience going corporate. I found a role that actually used historical skills: data-mining, report writing, and foreign-language research. Not only that, I am rewarded for using these skills. No, I do not to use words like epistemology any more or worry what Foucault would think about my assessment of investment opportunities, but the work is still research-based. 

If there is only one thing I would caution about moving from being a historian into a corporate role: historians don't learn much about is these little things called "Excel spreadsheets" which run THE ENTIRE WORLD. If you're unfamiliar with them, don't break them. 

*If you would like to write a guest post about your experiences of life beyond the doctorate (or experiences you are having during your PhD), whether positive or negative, or whether you stayed in or left academia, etc., I would love to hear from you. You can contact me at whelanfi@gmail.com or tweet me @FionaEWhelan.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alternative Academia 3.0 - One Foot In

Well before I actually started my current role in university administration/management (whatever you want to call it - although there is a debate over the two terms - stay tuned for a post on that!), I blogged about how I was going to try to keep one foot in the door of academia in case I wanted to try to return to a more academic role in the future. You can read my (eager but naive) post here.

So, back in March this year I set three key areas to target:
  1. Writing, researching, and publishing
  2. Conferencing 
  3. Maintain academic relationships
So, how have I got on? I am lucky in that my current role is a relatively fixed working day with some flexibility so I can do things in the evening to keep that foot in the academic door. The following is a list of academic activities which I have done/am doing/will be doing over the course of my full-time job:
  • I have submitted my thesis as a monograph to a publisher who has sent it out for review. All things going well, I will have edits/revisions to work on to get it out a published piece. Also, I am working on a collaborative translation with two other scholars which we also hope to have published within the next year or so. Articles I have been less proactive about I must admit, but I'm going to wait to hear from the book publishers before working on articles. I want to ensure that I don't bite off more than I chew and have too much pile up at the same time.
  • I have conferences lined up for next summer. I will (hopefully) be presenting as part of a panel group on food and famine in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress 2016. In addition, I will be presenting at the Harlaxton Symposium (2016) which is a smaller, more intimate medieval conference set in the impressive surroundings of Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire (I cannot wait!)
(seriously, look at it!)
  • One thing I didn't factor on was an offer to continue tutoring. I have taken on one tutorial student this term and am teaching a series of tutorials on Anglo-Saxon England which I do mid-week after work.

One thing I haven't been so proactive with is maintaining academic relationships through attending events and seminars around Oxford. That is something I am very conscious of, and I am going to try to attend more events/seminars which take place after 5pm. 

I might be insane trying to do all of this on top of my job. And believe me, this post is not written to garner pats on the back from readers. Rather it is to show how tough it is, and to try to find fellow people trying to keep one foot in! How do you do it and keep your sanity?!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Alternative Academia 2.0

Just a short post, but I've meaning to write about this for a while now!

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for administrators/support staff at the University of Oxford and was treated to a fascinating Plenary Lecture by Sir Jonathan Phillips, Warden of Keble College. 

What resonated with me was his perspective on the value of being a historian while working outside of academia. He talked about his time as a civil servant, and the transient nature of government. Governments seek only to look towards the next election, and so invariably think in a short term.

But that is anathema to the historian. We think in the long term, and while we mostly look backwards, we also have the foresight to think further into the future. We think about the long-term in both directions.

Thinking about my own role in university administration, I have realised that this idea of short-term and long-term thinkers is equally applicable. Vice-Chancellors and Pro-Vice-Chancellors are frequently elected to their positions for fixed terms. As support staff, we effectively act as the civil servants to the university governance. Yet, with the Higher Education landscape looking more and more uncertain with government funding cuts and student visa issues etc., the value of the historian is to think of the university in the long-term. Not only should we appreciate the long history of the institution (although I do have almost 900 years of history to contend with!!), we also need to think beyond the next 5-10 years. 

What will universities look like in 100 years? What will be the courses taught? What will the student demographic look like? What will the future of libraries be in the digitised age? When a new building gets built I walk by and think how will that hold up to the architecture of 200, 300, even 500 years ago?

Divinity School, Oxford, 1488

Radcliffe Camera, 1749

Investcorp Building, St Anthony's College, Oxford 2015

Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford, 2016

For the historian, the word sustainability means more than environmental sustainability. It is thinking about the long-term impact of short-term decisions, and ensuring that those around you see the future in a picture that is bigger than increments of 5 years.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Possessive Academic

At a recent celebration of two friend's viva success, the conversation inevitably turned to things we wish we had done differently in the lead up the viva itself. We often think of these in terms of short-term preparations, completed post-submission. See my previous blog post on Preparing for the Viva.

However, should you be preparing further in advance than that?

The viva is a daunting challenge specifically because you and your thesis are being scrutinised by the best minds in your field. You have to be able to calmly answer their questions, proof your worth, and defend your thesis. Yet, academic possessiveness may well be inhibiting PhD students from gaining enough exposure of presenting research to and responding to feedback from senior academics.

Let me explain...

For a long time during my PhD I was terrified that if I presented too much on my topic, especially to those more senior and with more expertise than I, then my research would get scuppered or stolen by someone else. That thinking was ludicrous on my part, and sharing my research later in my degree brought me into contact with a network of academics which has helped with further conferences and publications. I really wish that was something I had done earlier in my PhD in order to fully prepare myself for the intense viva experience. It is also useful as exposing your work to those more senior (as opposed to presenting only at graduate conferences/seminars) can highlight or flag potential issues that may well come out in the viva anyway. Better to know beforehand, I say!!

And guess what, no one else was doing my topic, nobody else stole it! However, I did find people working on similar topics yet distinct from my research, which fostered interesting new perspectives. 

So, go forth and share, the benefits shall be great!

  1. Exposure to senior academics
  2. Feedback on your material
  3. Preparation for the level of scrutiny you can expect in the viva
  4. Developing a network
...and much much more!!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Alternative Academia 1.0

Apologies for the slow-down in the number of posts in recent weeks, but I recently started a new job and things have been (positively - in the best sense!) hectic. 

The beginnings of this blog was rooted in my shift away from traditional academia towards a more generalist management role within the Higher Education sector. You can read the early aims of the blog here. However, due to happy diversions, I began to blog about all aspects of the PhD process, both during and after. This was because I received my job offer in March, and my programme only started 2 weeks ago (thus leaving me time to blog about the highs and lows of a PhD).

My new job is a fixed-term graduate programme aimed at training the next generation of leaders in university management. It involves three placements, two in my home institution (University of Oxford in my case) and one in a different institution. The concept is designed to expose the trainees to a wide range of university activities. I will be based in the following area:
  1. Planning and resource allocation
  2. Library services
  3. Estates
I will not be going into details about the specifics of what I will be doing in each placement. Rather, the aim of the Alternative Academia blogpost series is to highlight various issues, for example:
  • Skills from my PhD which contribute to my (hopeful!) success in this role
  • Skills which I have gained from each placement
  • Problems I may encounter
  • Attempts to maintain an academic profile through conferencing, publications, and teaching (see Maintaining an Academic Profile)
I have not ruled out trying to return to academia, hence the continued endeavour to maintain my academic profile. But, one week into the job and I can definitively say that I as a student and tutor have taken for granted the work that goes on behind the scenes at universities. The term 'administrator' can cause derision and exasperation in academics, which is a gross disservice. The few bad experiences academics like to promote distorts the reality of a dedicated, highly competent, team of administrators/managers who keep an incredibly complex organisation afloat, enabling high quality teaching and research to occur.

I for one am passionate about Higher Education, and there are a myriad of ways to have a positive impact in the life of universities beyond just teaching and research. For the next while, that is exactly what I will be exploring.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

10 Steps to PhD Success

Recently the Times Higher Education website published an article entitled '10 Steps to PhD Failure' which was aimed at helping students to avoid 'pitfalls' dictated by the authors, but rather seems to have, at worst, instilled anxiety in current PhDs and, at best, resulted in derision.

You can read the full text of the article here. However, with the ethos of positivity which forms the backbone of this blog, I have decided to address each of their points in turn.

Here are the 10 pitfalls to avoid:

1. Stay at the same university 
THE claims that it is detrimental to complete your undergraduate, masters and PhD at the same university. I certainly was told this advice multiple times. However, I think this fails to account for a number of issues. Firstly, family commitments may mean that you cannot uproot your life 2-3 times for study. Secondly, completing your undergraduate/masters at the same institution helps you to cement relationships with academics so that when you apply for the PhD you already have a support network and may be more likely to gain funding. 

My advice: Do what feels right for you and the circumstances you find yourself in!

2. Do an unfunded PhD 
This one really makes me angry. Should PhDs only be reserved for those lucky enough to land funding?! When the level of funding in the humanities is steadily decreasing, it seems shocking to advise somebody NOT to do a PhD because they didn't get funding. I know so many people who successfully completed their PhD without full funding and have never been judged by senior academics for it. In fact, in my experience, judgement for lack of funding frequently comes from other students!! I wholeheartedly disagree with the advice not to do something you love because of a lack of funding. Obviously, it becomes more difficult and sacrifices must be made, but at the end of the day, a PhD is about the work, not the money!

My advice: If you are going to do an unfunded PhD you will need support, but part-time jobs, family, loans, and dedication can get you through. The most important thing you need is the passion for your subject to get you through the tough times.

3. Choose the coolest supervisor 
THE argues that your choice of supervisor should be a considered one, and not one based on the charisma or prominent profile of your supervisor. This is true, of course, and you should be careful as it is a relationship that you will have for 3-4 years (or more in the US). 

My advice: Research your supervisor well, but remember that for a large proportion of the PhD you will be working on your own (as least, if you are doing a humanities degree) so developing independence is key. Also, conferencing and networking will allow you to have a safety net of other academics you can ask for help should your supervisor relationship break down or have a wobble.

4. Expect people to hold your hand 
This relates to the previous point about independence. A PhD is not the same as a taught masters and you will need to develop an independent way of working. However, this advice is not black and white. I have known supervisors to meet their students every 2 weeks, while for others it is 1-2 times per term. In addition, support can come from other places, such as graduate skills workshops which can guide the student in the kind of detail which supervisors may not have the time for.

My advice: Use all the resources at your disposal - your supervisor, networking, fellow students, other academics, and training sessions can all help.

5. Concentrate only on your thesis 
Diversify!! That is what we are told all the time. It is no longer enough to produce an excellent thesis, but PhDs must conference, teach, network, publish, etc. However, it is way too easy for PhDs to stretch themselves too thin and it is likely this increased pressure which leads to prolonged PhDs or burnouts. 

My advice: Identify what you want after the PhD. If that is teaching, then focus on developing those skills. If you want to research, focus on conferences and publications. Don't feel the pressure to be all things to all people, and don't feel you have to say yes to every opportunity.

6. Expect friends and family to understand 
I don't have much to add to this. We all know that it can be difficult to convey what we do to those outside of academia. We have all encountered the difficult questions and the dreaded things all PhDs hate hearing. I have a list here.

My advice: Cultivate friendships with other PhDs who you can talk to about the intricacies of the problems you are facing. But don't assume that just because friends and family may not understand that they don't want to hear about it and help! Make sure not to alienate those closest to you.

7. Cover everything 
I cannot really dispute this point, which argues that we should reflect on the scale of our thesis and whether is is overly ambitious or realistically feasible.

My advice: Be realistic about what you can achieve in your 3-4 years and word limit. I would also add that perfection is never finished, and at some point you will have to let go of the thesis and submit it!

8. Abuse your audience 
I will quote the advice here as I don't have much more to add: "So vow that you will not write like a traditional academic: eliminate jargon, strive for clear and concise assertions, compose in the active voice, and be kind to your readers. Above all, continually strive to improve your writing. Writing is like playing guitar; it can improve only through consistent, concerted effort".

My advice: If you are struggling with your writing style, ask your supervisor how you can improve it, or attend writing workshops. Personally, I sent my thesis to a non-academic to read through for clarity and to ensure that there wasn't too much academic jargon in it.

9. Have a thin skin 
Which basically means, have a thick skin! This is true because of the competitive nature of academia. You have to accept your rejections and setbacks as part and parcel of the academic process. However, while we PhDs need thick skins in the face of examiners, peer-reviewers, conference attendees, etc., why is there never an onus on these people to be more compassionate in the way they communicate criticisms/advice to junior academics?!? Constructive criticism is what's needed, not arbitrary and hurtful criticism which can cripple the confidence of PhDs.

My advice: Remember that you are never alone in received harsh criticisms or comments. However, while we may not be able to change the current cut-throat climate, if you succeed to a position of power remember how you were treated as a PhD and vow never to do that to someone else.

10. Get romantically involved with faculty 
Having zero experience of that issue, I will choose not to comment. 

When it comes to these types of lists, I find that they completely ignore the range of circumstances people come from when completing a PhD. There is no simple list to follow which will guarantee success. And some of the advice given (especially 1 and 2) shows a shocking lack of understanding and empathy with a wide range of students from a wide range of disciplines. What may hold true for science, may not be applicable to a humanities students, and vice-versa.

Let's not paint all PhD students with the same brush, and acknowledge that no matter how or where a person completed their PhD, it is a monumental achievement which deserves respect. It does not deserve this careless list from the THE which alienates and offends a large proportion of PhD students.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


This post may be niche to the experience of historians, but I am sure that it has further applicability to those engaged with fieldwork abroad, etc.

*Caveat: This post is not meant as an indictment on the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BnF), but rather a story of my experience of attempting to engage in research in a foreign archive.

My PhD required extensive library and archival work across the UK, Ireland and France. This involved working with 12th-14th century manuscripts, transcribing the various versions of the text which was at the core of my thesis.

I had extensive experience working in manuscript/special collection departments, including the Bodleian Library, British Library, Worcester Cathedral Library, and Oxbridge college collections among others. Two manuscripts I needed to complete my research are located in the BnF and I left these until the end.

Having heard that the BnF could be picky/inconsistent/reluctant in granting access to manuscripts, I took a proactive approach to ensure that my trip to Paris would be as productive as it could be. I emailed the library department (in French!) requesting access to both manuscripts, detailing why I needed to look at the manuscripts in their physical form, with mention that my supervisor would provide a letter of support if needed. In the end, I was granted access to the physical copy of one manuscript, but the microfilm of the other due to the extent of its damage.

I arrived at the manuscript department of the BnF which was undergoing some renovations, and after being sent round and round in circles, I finally got a readers card after 1.5hrs. At approximately 11.30 I placed the request for the physical manuscript (which I had been granted permission for), only to be told that I should consult the microfilm version of it. 30 mins of polite arguing and showing them the printed permission, they finally conceded the point. So I put the request in, and then was told to come back in 2.5hrs because they were going to lunch!!

I returned after lunch, and collected my manuscript. However, the manuscript is divided into three parts, and a further debacle ensued as I was told that I could only consult one part at a time. So, by 6pm when I had to leave I had only completed my work on part 1 of the manuscript so I made what I thought was a simple request:

Could I reserve the manuscript for tomorrow?

This led to a further 30 minutes of meaningless argument since no one else had reserved the manuscript! (I should point out that keeping the manuscript for the next day is a benign and common request in every other archive I have used). After battling with the archivist, she finally conceded and reserved the manuscript, but not without finishing with the punchline:

We don't run things here like the British Library!!

Ooooh, burn!!

So, you could imagine my trepidation on entering the archive on the second day, but it was a supremely better experience. Completely different staff led to a wildly different experience. I was given all three parts of the manuscript in one go! I went down the the Salle Ovale to check out the microfilm of the other manuscript and the staff could not have been more helpful!

So, what did I learn from my archival experience:
1. Be prepared
2. Have agreements in writing
3. Always be pleasant, even when the experience becomes frustrating
4. Try to communicate in the language of the archive (they'll appreciate the effort)
5. Persevere
6. Plan for contingencies when things go badly (I would factor in an extra day than you think you need!)

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Recovery Time

Short post which is a follow-up to the last post on the effects a PhD can have on our physical health, which is often neglected or ignored in the face of the mental health issues associated with such an arduous and stressful process. I was particularly struck by this tweet:
This reminded me of a workshop I attended about applying for PostDocs. One person asked the panel whether taking 3-6 months off after completion of the PhD would be detrimental to the job search. I think many of us in the room anticipated a response which sympathised with the student and acknowledged the need for rest and recuperation. However, the answer was both surprising and disheartening. One panel member responded that such a gap between PhD and job applications would appear negatively to future employers. If you did take time off after the PhD you should at least be able to demonstrate that you were actively engaged in academia through continued publications. This was presented as the bare minimum a recent PhD should be doing.

So much for rest and relaxation, eh?! Why is it considered better to be unemployed and job hunting after the PhD than actively choosing to take some time to relax and reflect on the past 3-4 years (and longer in the US) of your life?! I felt that the comment showed a shocking lack of understanding and empathy towards other students.

I would call for those in the capacity to provide advice to current PhDs to show empathy, recalling what the doctoral experience was for them, and trying to put themselves in the mindset of someone who may have faced more obstacles, challenges, and stress than them.

Physical Health

There is no denying that a PhD can take a toll on mental health. Anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome are things which many of us (if not all of us) have battled with during the course of a PhD. Yet, I think that the physical toll a PhD can take on the body is less frequently discussed.

Personally, the sedentary nature of a humanities PhD which involved long periods of time sitting at my desk at home and desk at the library was not conducive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. As the PhD progressed and I entered the home stretch of writing up, I found I was taking the easy, time-saving options with respect to exercise and diet. Instead of walking or cycling to the library, I took the bus. Instead of going to the supermarket for groceries, I would order take-away. And don't even get me started on the amount of sugary, caffeinated drinks I was consuming on a daily basis.

It was only after I had come out the other side of the process that I could see the effect all this had on me. I had unknowingly gained just under 20 pounds and become horribly addicted to sugar. A lifestyle reset button needed to be hit, and I am happy to say that I am (almost) back to my pre-PhD weight through walking and pilates, and cut those sugary, caffeine-laden drinks out of my diet (and no doubt, there is the correlation between reducing sugar and reducing weight).

But this isn't a post to garner pats on the back, it's simply a warning about how easy it can be damage your body when the stress of a PhD masks it so effectively. My advice would be to be aware and listen to your body. And undoubtedly, good exercise and a healthy diet would likely boost PhD performance, so added bonuses!!

Monday, July 27, 2015

PhD Pride 2.0

Below are some of the responses I have got from Twitter on the question: What makes you proud of your PhD?

Many thanks to all the contributions thus far! Please keep sharing under the hashtag #PhDproud and I will keep updating this page!

And lest we forget the potential for humour and fun in a PhD:

But ultimately, it comes down to this:
Other points were mentioned to me, such as how the PhD eroded the impostor syndrome and provided a greater sense of belonging to the academic community. In addition, there is immense pride from those who managed to juggle (sometimes multiple) jobs with the PhD which deserves immense pride. I imagine it would be the same feeling for those juggling a PhD with family commitments. 

All I can add is WELL DONE! We all deserve an immense pat on the back, and I'm sure that through sharing our points of pride, current and future PhDs will derive comfort from them!

PhD Pride

Another short post:

Following on from the previous post, I have started to think about what it is that I am proud of now that I have completed my doctorate. If you want to join in the discussion, please tweet me (@FionaEWhelan) or use the hashtag #phdproud.

My sense of pride ranges from big achievements to small accomplishments. The biggest source of pride is the simple sense of satisfaction that I actually completed it, despite some of the setbacks I had (which you can read about in previous blogposts). I know that I have contributed to new scholarship with a real value because my thesis shed light on an unknown piece of medieval literature which had largely been ignored in scholarship. However, the smaller accomplishments were also points of pride:

  1. My confidence has improved immensely. I used to be a shy person with fear and trepidation of public speaking. But through conferencing and teaching I have confidence and belief in myself as a public speaker which was sorely lacking prior to my PhD.
  2. I am proud that I can write! This sounds really silly, but to sit down and actually write 100,000 original words is something which fills me with pride and confidence for the future. I know that I could do it again (although maybe not for a little while - we all need a break!)
  3. My 'imposter syndrome' feeling has also massively reduced, now that I know that my research has been institutionally accepted as worthy of a doctorate.
  4. I am proud that I know that I can set a challenge and achieve it, while overcoming setbacks. I am proud of the way that I handled the setback of major corrections, and used it to positive ends.  
  5. I am proud that I supported myself throughout the doctorate, juggling research, teaching, and  part-time jobs.
  6. I conquered the fortress which is the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (and any scholar who has recourse to this archive, knows exactly what I mean!)
  7. I am proud of the unexpected things that I have done concurrent to my PhD, such as organising my college ball, acting as a Junior Dean who provides pastoral care to study abroad students; to teaching on summer school programs - all of which I could not have done had I not been completing my doctorate.
For all these reasons and more, I proudly use the title 'Dr' and will not let anyone try and lesson the importance, value and pride which I feel!

Please add your points of pride below in the comments or on Twitter, and I will happily compile them into the next blogpost!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Academic Credibility

Short post on the title of 'Dr'.

I am a bit of a BuzzFeed obsessive and was reading the following article about Labour activist Eoin Clarke's Twitter feed. I did not expect that an article on politics would lead to a blogpost on academia but you never know where BuzzFeed will take you!!

The offending part of the article referred to the fact that Eoin Clarke has been subject to criticism over his use of the title 'Dr' since he does not have any medical qualifications. Here is a screenshot of the relevant section: 

Personally, I feel this criticism deeply. Of course, I understand that my PhD does equate to the immensely beneficial work which medical doctors do. They are essential and it is certainly a job which I could never do. So, I have immense admiration for medical doctors. But, for me, the insinuation that Eoin Clarke is being deceptive in his use of 'Dr' is deeply unsettling. PhDs work for 3 years or more, and devote a large proportion of their lives to intense and rigourous academic research, regardless of which field you receive your PhD in - from the humanities to education to science and beyond.

I know of no PhD who pretends that their 'Dr' title is the same as a medical doctor. Yet, we deserve to have our work recognised through the title 'Dr'. The moment you receive your first letter or first email which refers to you as 'Dr' is one of incredible pride. To have that denigrated or lessened is not only a shame, it is wrong!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ethics and Interviews

We all know that the academic job market is over-subscribed and massively competitive. Being on the side of academic job-hunter can be a tough and demoralising road. Which is why I find it so frustrating when potential employers sometimes appear insensitive to the difficulties post-Phd students encounter.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I believe in honesty and sharing both the good and bad experiences we face beyond the doctorate.

So, I want to share a recent experience I had interviewing for a non-stipendiary research position (i.e. nonsalaried but with a research stipend and academic affiliation provided). I have written about the issue of academic affiliation here. I am in the fortunate position of having a job lined up already, so this academic role would have been the icing on the cake.

The application details for the job were barely advertised and the application details thin. The skeptic in me felt that it was likely that there was someone already in mind for the position, but the role still had to be advertised and procedure had to be followed (this skepticism was echoed by others I should add). However, I held out hope that perhaps the application details had simply been hastily put together. I found the advertisement rather close to the deadline but managed to pull a proposal together and my referees diligently worked to get my references in on time. It was not just myself who put time and effort into the application, but my referees did too.

You can imagine my delight when I was called to an interview!! I dedicated time to preparing for the interview, talking to others to anticipate the questions and prepare answers. You can then imagine my disappointment when the interview lasted 15 minutes with only 4 questions! There was a undefined but definite feeling of indifference towards me, for example I was never asked about future publication plans, future contribution to the institution, nothing that would indicate that they in any way realistically contemplated hiring me. In addition, I felt I was unceremoniously kicked out of the interview room, and given no indication of where I was or how to find my way out. 

So, I knew I wasn't going to get the position - that was fine. But never had I felt less wanted or welcome in the interview process. Which led me to think: why did they invite me in the first place? Was I just making up the numbers?

Ultimately, I got my answer when the rejection came through, describing my application as uncompetitive in comparison with the other candidates. Fair enough. But if it was deemed so uncompetitive, why interview me at all? I knew I had just made up the numbers.

This is unfair. It gives false hope to a candidate, and wastes their time and effort (and those of the referees!). In those circumstances, the least you can do is give the candidate the best interview possible to gain valuable experience for future endeavors. 15 mins and 4 questions is a kick in the teeth.