PhD Induction Day 2018

Blog written by PhD student Daniel Leaver

How do you actually do a PhD?

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Photo attrib. Joanna Paterson, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

This was one of the main questions facing myself and my fellow new PhD students in the School of History who gathered in the grand surroundings of Cambo House, a few miles outside St Andrews in the village of Kingsbarns. For all of us, the end goal is clear; three to four years of study to produce an 80,000 word thesis based on original research, making a contribution to historical scholarship. But how do you actually get the ball rolling along that (at times) bumpy road? And how do you stay sane throughout the process, while living in this charming but often isolated wee town which, as legend has it, St Rule thought looked like the ends of the earth?

Fortunately, the school had prepared a number of engaging sessions throughout the day to help us demystify these questions and many more. We began with an ice-breaker over a cup of coffee, hearing about what we all hoped to do with our time in St Andrews, and the talents and non-academic interests we all have. (Even if the number of musicians I spoke to made my lack of musical talent somewhat embarrassing!) We then turned our attention to the morning session led by Dr Jaqueline Rose, the Director of Research Postgraduates, with Elsie Johnstone, the School’s Postgraduate Secretary. Dr Rose and Elsie introduced us to the School’s key administrative processes and the various sources of support available to us, what we could expect from our supervisors, and gave us an idea of how the School conducts our first-year reviews, our first major progress check.

It was then time for Dr Rose’s enthusiastic troupe of assistants – recent graduates and current PhD students – to help guide us through some group discussion sessions. We considered questions we might want to think about over the course of our studies, and how we are going to approach them. It was interesting to see how the varied fields we are all working in influenced our responses. For example, I am working on post-war Scottish history with mostly printed sources, so translation skills or palaeography training are unlikely to be major aspects of my research. For those who are working on early modern Germany or on medieval Italy, these issues were vital. Other topics ranged from the exact meaning of ‘original research’, or when to publish in an academic journal. The key message from this session was that, although there is no single right way to do a PhD, there are plenty of good habits to cultivate as researchers, and traps we can avoid.

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Photo attrib. Maria Keays, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following this session, we heard from the recent and current PhD students about some of the challenges they had encountered during their own studies. We heard about about different work habits, and how to keep yourself busy when away from your desk. These experiences were used to help us answer some of the questions we had raised during the morning, and to provide some very welcome advice on how to cope with all aspects of life as a PhD student.

After thanking the current students we headed for lunch in Cambo’s grand dining room for more conversation, as well as (in my humble opinion) an excellent pasta bake to fuel the rest of the day! The day concluded with a session on equality and diversity led by Sukhi Bains, the head of Equality and Diversity at St Andrews. His light-hearted presentation made the serious point that there are processes in place, should we need them, to prevent discrimination against any of us regardless of our backgrounds and beliefs.

What did we take away from this day? Ultimately, I think the main lessons Dr Rose and her team imparted were that while doing a PhD is challenging at times, there are people and processes in place to help us throughout our time here. Moreover, while there is not one ‘magic road’ to a completed PhD thesis, there are a number of issues we can think about and plan for that will make the road a lot smoother. As we boarded the coach to return to St Andrews, we all felt that we had enjoyed a helpful and engaging day as the first small step towards that all-important completed thesis!

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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