Getting the Most out of Your PhD

Last week we welcomed new students, but particularly new undergraduates, to St Andrews with advice from a current undergraduate about getting the most out of your first year at St Andrews. This week, John Condren, a fourth-year PhD student at the School of History, shares his ten top tips about getting the most out of your PhD. 

By Andrew Fogg, CC BY 2.0.

By Andrew Fogg, CC BY 2.0.

1. Eat well and regularly, don’t drink too much, and try not to get hooked on coffee.

This is quite possibly the most important advice I can offer, and (sadly, perhaps?) leftover takeaway pizza for breakfast is no longer really a sensible option. Never skip breakfast, have a good (preferably healthy) lunch at a reasonable hour, and likewise for dinner (You should learn to cook properly if you don’t already know how). Skipping lunch and eating two chocolate bars at 3pm because your stomach is growling will inevitably see hypoglycaemia kick in with a vengeance, destroying your productivity for the rest of the day. Eat plenty of fruit and drink lots of water. Your brain and body will be exhausted at the end of a long day, so try to minimise the damage by keeping hydrated and maintaining vitamin levels. (Yes I know, you are not training for a marathon, but your body will thank you for reducing junk food and eating properly, and the healthier you are the more productive you will be). Coffee is useful for a short-term kick, but five or six cups a day (the typical cliché associated with postgraduate study) is probably too much for a normal person. Without meaning to sound like the average God-fearing Ulster Presbyterian minister, alcohol consumption is best reduced significantly when you are a PhD student – at least when you are “on the job”. Christmas is a different story, though. The same goes for chocolate in this context.

2. Read widely and expect your thesis subject to change.

Gather every possible piece of secondary literature on your subject, chase footnotes with a passion, and use the Library’s Inter-library Loans facility as much as possible in first year (it saves precious time later). Try to ensure that your research topic is sensible, viable and capable of contributing to scholarship. Equally, do not panic if you feel that you may be re-treading old ground. Very often, work which looks similar to yours is certainly not the same when read closely and carefully, and the author may have missed sources which you have planned to examine. Discuss any concerns you may have with your supervisor. If you have to change subject, it is best to do it as early as possible. However, many PhDs evolve and change as they progress, and you should not be surprised if you look back at your PhD proposal and find that your priorities and research aims are completely different now than they were at the start. Mine has contracted significantly in its scope, much to its improvement (I think). What you discover in your primary source research will (hopefully) surprise and delight you.

3. Don’t be afraid to write to academics in your field, and establish contacts with archives and libraries.

Every academic was a student once, and will remember the awe they felt for experts in their field. Many will be happy to help you with queries about your subject or the archives you may wish to visit, and may suggest possible avenues of research with which your supervisor is unfamiliar, although you should not deviate from your supervisor’s advice without good reason. As a matter of principle, always write to academics higher up the food chain with courtesy and respect. You will receive it in return. If necessary, write directly to libraries and archives you are planning to visit, and ideally in the language of their own country (it is worth taking time and effort to get this right).

4. Plan conferences carefully, don’t go to too many, and ideally don’t present too much on subjects you may want to keep to yourself.

Postgraduate conferences are very useful for improving your public speaking and for meeting postgraduates from other universities, many of whom will be your peers (possibly rivals for jobs) once you graduate. They will also be friends and points of contact at other universities while you share the burdens of postgraduate toil, and perhaps even partners in research ventures. However, if you receive an email looking for speakers for a postgraduate conference at, say, the University of Plymouth, it is probably best to ignore it. The costs of travel from Scotland will not justify the possible benefits. Join the society or societies pertinent to your research interests (among the ones I have joined are the Society for the Study of French History and the Society of Court Studies) and keep an eye on their website for notices of upcoming conferences, seminar series, etc., which it would be worthwhile to attend. But equally, exercise restraint. My supervisor (Dr Guy Rowlands) has jokingly referred to me as a “conference junkie”, and this description was perhaps justified by my presenting completely different papers at three conferences in a week (one in Paris, the other two in the south of England) when I was a second-year. In hindsight, it wasn’t advisable.

5. Learn to relax.

By Carlo Mariano, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Carlo Mariano, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You cannot be at your desk seven days a week. Take the weekends off and kick a football around with some friends, play a round of golf, go to the gym, relax with a novel or go to the cinema, hire a car and explore some of Fife, Perthshire or further afield, go to Edinburgh a few times for shopping or the theatre, watch the rain trickle down the glass of a coffee-shop window with some companions. Anything that keeps your mind fresh and happy is to be welcomed. Make sure you take a summer holiday each year, where you are not thinking about work. Sacrificing a holiday to attend a conference in July is definitely not worth it. You will also feel the benefits of a holiday when you return to your desk – your brain has rested and is ready to kick into gear again.

6. Make new friends, but also keep in contact with friends from home.

They will be the ones you long to see at Christmas, Easter or during the summer, after a long semester in St Andrews. Try not to be demoralised by the fact that they may have jobs, marriages, children, mortgages, etc, while you are still a “student”. Many of my closest non-academic friends have expressed envy for my own research career, and I wouldn’t swap it. Do, however, try to keep your temper when such non-academic friends and family ask you to explain your subject for the umpteenth time. After three years, I still have to take a deep breath before I start. An excellent tongue-in-cheek comment from one of my friends after one such explanation: “John, stop living in the past” will probably make it into my Acknowledgements.

7. Go to seminars regularly, especially the series most pertinent to your own research interests.

Even if the paper title is completely irrelevant to your research interests, you should go. Firstly, you will undoubtedly learn something new and (hopefully) interesting; and secondly, it is an opportunity to socialise with your postgraduate friends. Feel free to pop into other seminar series during the semester if you see papers on the calendar that are of interest to you. Also, it is a very good idea to attend and give a paper at the Postgraduate Forum relevant to your work.

8. Don’t get demoralised.

Early in my PhD career, I read some very depressing online blogs, warning me of the futility of undertaking PhD research in the humanities. I very nearly quit after reading the gloomy stories I encountered. However, I came to realise that everyone’s experience is different, and you shouldn’t think that the same rules apply to everyone. If you have chosen to do a PhD, you may well suffer from slumps in morale at various stages. This is when your friends really come into their own, as we all suffer the same doubts about our subjects and our careers. Dialogue with your supervisor is also critical. The job market is difficult (unquestionably so), but most of us have chosen to start a PhD out of the passion we feel for our subjects, and we have to believe that that same passion will carry us onwards. If you are experiencing problems, there is also support available through CAPOD, Student Services, and Nightline.

9. Establish a routine that suits you.

Over the past few years I’ve tried to get into the habit of working 9-5. I avoid working in the evening, unless it is light administrative work – a few SaulCat or Copac searches, glancing at a document which I might be using the next day, or reading something loosely connected to my work, etc. I have also found that any pieces of writing begun after midnight are invariably rubbish when reviewed in the cold light of day. You might work to a different schedule, but whatever it is, keep it regular, and protect your hours off just as firmly as you stick to your hours of work. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take a day or two off for illness. Spreading swine flu or glandular fever around the School will not be appreciated! The PhD takes a long time – it’s much better to work at a regular, sustainable pace, than to try to sprint it. If you establish a steady routine, you will feel more productive and settled, and better able to enjoy yourself when you allocate your free time and you are relaxing. I would also recommend placing some limitations on your use of Facebook, YouTube, and other such distractions while working.

Photo by mike138, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Photo by mike138, CC BY-ND 2.0.

10. Finally, enjoy yourself!

Build a good relationship with your supervisor, other academics and students, and the administrative staff. Don’t stress unduly, work hard but savour your time in what is a wonderful town to live in. You will meet a couple of people whom you don’t like, but very, very many whom you do. Most people desperately miss St Andrews, and the friends they make here, when they leave for good. I know I’ll be one of them.

About standrewshistory
With over forty full time members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from S cotland to Byzantium and the Americas to the Middle East and South Asia.Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching and tutorials allowing for in depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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