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!!