What happens on the first day of your PhD?

What can you expect on the first day of your PhD?

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The first day of my PhD involved a horrible cold. Just the worst. I’d booked the day off work and travelled to Norwich for the day and was excited, but sniffly. I’d finally found a place to live and my first stop was the letting agents to sign my lease! I then headed to uni to meet my supervisors. When I received the information about my registration day it came with a suggestion that I have my first supervision session on the same day. This is where the independent study begins: you’re the one setting the meetings.

I was kind of unsure as to how prepared I should be. Should I come with a full schedule of work? Chapter ideas? Should I have started reading yet? If you’ve written your PhD proposal, chances are you’ll have already done a fair bit of preparation, thinking, and mind-changing. The initial meeting with your supervisor(s) is a great time to talk through all of your ideas with someone who’s done it all before and who has expert knowledge of your subject area. You know, the really intimidating seems to have a whole library in their head kind of knowledge. Together you can decide whether you should start with some exploratory reading, or get stuck in to data collection, or whether there’s a clear avenue you want to explore right away. And then that’s it, you’re off on your own. Time to get your library card.

At this point my terrible cold and I headed off to find some comfort food before joining the queue for registration. My advice would be to actually read the pack of material you get, mine was super useful. I found helpful information on what to expect from the different stages of the PhD, contact details, and all of the personal and professional development modules that are available to enrol on alongside your research project. I then sniffed my way through some welcome talks by faculty and students while trying not to breathe on anyone, before finally heading back to London feeling a mix of excited and extremely sorry for myself.

How do I prepare for the start of my PhD?

How I prepared for my new life as a postgraduate research student.

So you’ve accepted your place, now what? If you’re anything like me, you’re not going to be ok with just chilling over the summer. I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you’re starting a PhD you probably love to be busy. If you don’t, get ready for a shock.

I’m quite bad at relaxing. This sounds like one of those awful answers to a job interview question where you say your biggest weakness is that you’re a perfectionist, but in reality it’s probably something to do with my overwhelming awareness of my own mortality. Knowing I was starting a PhD in September seemed huge and scary to me and my coping mechanism for huge and scary things is to trick myself into thinking I am in control of them.

Sorting my accommodation took most of my summer, so that kept me occupied, but knowing that at some point I was going to have to sit down in front of two experts in my area of study and tell them my plans for this research project I had proposed was, let’s say, somewhat present in my mind. So I started preparations: jotting down notes of thoughts, chapter structure ideas, and possible case studies for my project. It made me feel so much more in control and less overwhelmed by the huge task I was about to undertake.

The summer period (if you choose to start your PhD in September/October) that separates the time of your PhD offer from your induction is a great time to get a head start on your research, but with absolutely no pressure. You can actually read the books you want to read! And I mean actually read them, like you would a novel, not that awful skimming you’re forced to do as a researcher. You can take a book to the park on a Sunday, and feel excited to embark upon a new life as a postgraduate research student. You can explore your local library, set up an Amazon wish list, or treat yourself to a new book or two to show off with a cute plant in your latest #shelfie.

Enjoy this time to get to know your subject area a little better, and read at your leisure, because you’re about to get really busy.

Where the heck do PhD students live?

I share how choosing where to live when starting my PhD was shaped by my way of working.

Once I’d made the decision to leave London and swap one river for two and move to Norwich, I had to think about where I actually wanted to live. I hadn’t lived in student accommodation for ten years, so when I was considering my options I was pretty sure I would feel too old to be surrounded by freshers. Thinking back to 19-year-old me starting uni, I can think of nothing worse.

But enough about me being a grumpy old lady. Accommodation is a pretty important consideration for PhD students, as the studying you’re about to undertake can be all-consuming and isolating. There are lots of factors to consider, and many of these depend on how you like to work. You may treat your PhD like a full-time job: working 9-5 in the library and coming home to relax. You may prefer to work from home: and will therefore need a quiet place to study in peace.

I had been feeling ready to live on my own for a few years and, moving to a city where rent is about half the price of London, it was finally affordable. However, on consideration, remembering that I only knew a handful of people in Norwich, I decided to look for shared accommodation. As I would be mostly working and studying from home, I knew I needed somewhere quiet. Sharing with a huge number of people was out of the question, as was a party house. I had spent most of my MA sharing with one lovely flatmate and had found it to be a nice balance of company and time to myself and my laptop, and so decided to look for a similar setup.

This is where I got lucky. I met a flatmate who had just finished her PhD! And who was also going to be working full-time while completing further studies! The absolute dream. Having someone there to chat to, but who also understands that you have to excuse yourself after dinner to go read about qualitative research methods, has been so beneficial to me and my studies.

Knowing what kind of student you are, and considering how and when you work, is important when choosing where to live. Having a healthy work/life balance is vital, and your home is a crucial component of this.

What do I do if I didn’t get funding for my PhD?

Can you still do a PhD without funding? I’m giving it my best shot.

Finding out I had multiple offers of PhD places was wonderful. Getting rejections for the funding I had applied for alongside those places? Not so great. I knew applying for arts and humanities funding was a long shot. In a country that barely values higher education in even the most ~serious of subjects, my chances of a funded PhD in my subject area were always going to be slim to none. But I was still disappointed. My original plan had been to just continue working and try again next year but something inside me just wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to wait any more.

And so, I did a scary thing and asked my employer if it would be possible for me to work remotely…and they actually said yes. I am lucky enough to work for a forward-thinking company, and do a job that doesn’t really require me to work in an office. We have other remote workers who come into the office every month or so, and now I am one of them. Many people won’t have the option to do what I did, and I am so grateful to be in the position I am.

After my positive experience at my UEA interview, my decision was made: I applied to change my PhD offer to a part-time course. This was another scary choice for me. Without funding, I am working full-time to fund my studies and fitting in research during my free time in the evening and at weekends. It is A Lot.

In my coming posts, I will discuss the work-life balance of a part-time PhD. Spoiler alert: it’s intense.

What is a PhD interview like?

Not as scary as you might expect a PhD interview to be, as it turns out.

The PhD application process differs depending on the institution you’re applying to and, I assume, your field of study. In my case, I was required to attend an interview for only one of the institutions I applied to. I would be meeting the two supervisors I had chosen to potentially work with at UEA to talk through my research proposal. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect but I booked the day off work, dressed smartly, and jumped on a train to Norwich with an iPad full of notes about my research.

To prepare, I read through all of the feedback I had received from the various academics I had sent my research to, in order to ensure I had a good understanding of the topic and any areas of potential concern. Looking back at baby 2016 me, I really didn’t have a clue about how I was going to do this research project; but I did have a lot of ideas and enthusiasm about the topic and why I felt it was important.

Arriving a couple of hours before my interview was due to start, I walked into Norwich city centre to get a feel for the city. Unfortunately it was snowing, so I spent most of it sheltering inside shops. When it became clear the snow was not going anywhere, I caught a bus to the campus and decided to check out the student union and their carrot cake (pretty good fyi) while I read through my notes one last time. The snow meant I missed out on how beautiful the UEA campus is, but I found that out later.

My interview was such a positive experience. Both of my potential supervisors asked questions about parts of my proposal that needed clarification and raised questions about areas that could be improved upon or altered but there were no trick questions, they weren’t trying to catch me out. Discussing my research with two people who were both incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about a subject that I felt strongly about made me feel hopeful that maybe this project was important, and that there were people who were interested in helping to guide it.

Leaving UEA in the continuing snow, already feeling at home in the department and pretty much sold on the idea that I wanted to do this research project there, with these supervisors, I headed back into the city centre to get some lunch and debrief. And so, the nervous anticipation of the official-looking email began.

What is the PhD and funding application process?

A brief overview of what you might expect to encounter when applying for a PhD place, and funding.

My previous post was about applying for a PhD, but in this post I wanted to go into a little more detail about the actual application process. Obviously it differs a little from university to university, but one thing you will definitely need is a research proposal. Honestly, attempting to write one of these seemed wild to me. You mean, you’d like me to write exactly how I’m going to do this PhD, having never done one? Sure, sure, seems reasonable. But I managed it, and you will too, if you want to do a PhD.

Different universities require different proposal lengths, and this can also vary by school so it’s worth scouring the application guidelines when writing your proposal to make sure you’re not writing 2000 words when you only need 500, or vice versa. Within your proposal you need to outline your topic, show your awareness of existing work that has been done in this field, and make clear where your research project can fill a gap in the current scholarship. Some questions you should be answering are: what will you be studying? how? why? and, most importantly, what makes your work original? It is worth noting that nobody is going to hold you to this proposal. You are allowed to change your mind as your PhD progresses. In fact, if you didn’t it might be a bit weird.

Once you are happy with your proposal it’s time to send it to the potential supervisors you identified. Be prepared for feedback. This is good! It means they think your project is worth spending time on. If you are applying to multiple institutions you will end up with multiple drafts of multiple proposals, each adapted and aligned with the institution you are applying to and the research interests, skills, and experience of your supervisor(s).

With the support of a supervisor, you can begin your application. Here I am going to go ahead and assume that in order to do your PhD you’re probably going to need some money to live on. Funding is sometimes available from the institution you are applying to but is more often offered by funding bodies such as (for the PhDs I was applying for) the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This involves a whole separate application, but with a lot of similar components. You need to sell yourself, your project, its timeliness, and how it fits within the research interests of your institution.

Your funding application is probably more important than your actual PhD application, given that there isn’t really too much money lying around for research. You really need to take the time to study the values of the funding body you’re applying to. I can only speak from my arts and humanities background but key themes I have come across are interdisciplinary projects, and those that address global challenges. No big deal, huh.

These applications will involve balancing help from other people. Not only are you working on your proposal(s) with different supervisors, but you may also need to ask them to write you a supporting statement as part of your application. You will also need references, normally two. These are likely to be tutors from your master’s degree, or at least they were in my case. So you’re juggling several academics, who are all busy people with their own responsibilities. Give them as much time as possible, and make sure you are responsive when it comes to both communication and feedback.

Once all of the elements are co-ordinated, make sure each part is submitted before the deadline and then sit back and wait for the offers to roll in. Good luck!

How to apply for a PhD in the arts and humanities

A small insight into the very beginning of your journey to a PhD.

When I was applying for PhDs (picture me googling ‘how to do a phd’. No, more clueless) I looked at what projects were out there already. If you’re not an academic (look at me pretending I have an audience), you may not know about how PhDs work. Basically institutions either offer a set project — something they want to research — or more general PhDs in a subject covered by one of their departments. Applications for both types of PhD require you to sell yourself and why you are the right person to do this research to the university, but applying for a research project that has already been outlined is a little more like a job application. The university has a job they want doing (the research project) and they are looking for the best researcher for the job (it could be you!), and they will pay them to do it (woohoo!).

Anyway, when I was looking at PhDs, there wasn’t really anything that grabbed me or related very strongly to my research interests so I went for the other option: I wrote my own research proposal. The imposter syndrome started about here and hasn’t left since. You’re basically like, hello! I literally have no clue what I’m doing but I’m very interested in this vague thing. That’s where your supervisor comes in. Once you know what you want to research, in my case that was ‘films with female-led narratives that didn’t seem to fit the category of chick flick’, you need to find someone to advise and support you. It might be the case that you already know that person. You may have met them during your master’s degree, they may have even supervised your work before, or you might be yet to meet them.

In my case, I had to do a little hunting. I looked at universities with good film departments and an interest in feminist media studies, in places I thought I probably wouldn’t mind living, and then scoured their faculty pages for members of staff who had similar interests to mine and, crucially, were available to supervise new students. Once you’ve found your people, get in touch with them. You need to secure the support of a supervisor before a university will consider your application. I sent out emails, briefly outlining my education background, my research project, and why I thought they might be a good fit for my work. Most asked for my proposal, and one requested to chat things through over the phone. After receiving initial feedback on my proposal, I narrowed my selections down to three universities where I felt my research could find a good home.

Next came the stressful bit: applying for a place and funding. But we’ll save that for another post.

Starting my PhD

How I made the brave decision to move hundreds of miles across the country in order to pursue something that I just couldn’t not do.

Starting a PhD is scary. Dedicating several years of your life (in my case seven) to one subject is more commitment than I have ever given to anything. But the moment I submitted my MA dissertation was the moment I knew I had to do it.

I had spent a few years working in fashion marketing after finishing a BA in Fashion Design. I was terrible at designing but loved writing my dissertation and thought I would continue enjoying writing about clothes. And I did. That is, until I became completely disillusioned with the fashion industry and its continual churn of newness and realised it wasn’t the clothes themselves I really wanted to write about. So I quit my job.

I enrolled on LCF’s MA Fashion Cultures and fell in love with the exploration of why we wear clothes. I immersed myself in cultural and social theory, and through the Fashion & Film pathway learnt about film concepts and global cinema as well as stardom and celebrity culture. After completing my dissertation, which explored teenage self-actualisation through film, I wrote a proposal for a research project that investigated the emergence of a New Women’s Media. After some careful consideration, and some snowy trips to visit universities in Norwich and St Andrews, I chose to study at the University of East Anglia. And here I am.

This blog is all sorts of things. It’s a record of what I imagine will be a long and eventful journey. It’s a chance for me to reflect on my research. Hopefully it might one day be a useful insight for someone thinking of starting a PhD. Heck, it might even be entertaining. But mostly it’s a personal reminder of the brave decision I made to move hundreds of miles across the country away from most of my friends and family in order to pursue something that I just couldn’t not do.