Your PhD - Before You Begin

     
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The decisions we make always change our lives - some in little ways that we will never imagine, others in ways that are visible and vast. Doing a PhD will affect your life in ways that you intended and expected, and in many more that you did not. So the summer before you start - if you are one of those who begin in October, that is - is one in which to both plan for the practicalities of student life and to reflect more abstractly upon the decision you made, its causes, and its effects.

Hopefully, there is no need to discuss financial or housing plans with you - these need to be top priority on your list of things to sort out, and you will get better advice on them from your University's Welfare Service that you will get from me. The practicalities that I want to talk about are social, and perhaps smaller - they are about adjusting to a life which, in many of the little ways, will be totally new.

Home Life

People from all walks of life come to do a PhD, so there is no single standard model of home or family. PhD Comics has a strip that jokes about being married to your thesis - some people do indeed begin and end their doctoral careers being single, but many do not. The nature of your family grouping and the impact a thesis will have on it need to be seriously considered and planned for. The PhD student can be a very selfish creature. Theses are hungry, and constantly cry for attention. Doing one will significantly affect any relationships you have, romantic, familial or otherwise. I am not going to tell you how, or even that you should, solve this issue, because I do not think it is an issue that can or inherently  needs to be solved. But I will tell you that it is a fact worth remembering: because if the situation does get difficult, you need to be able to clearly assess where your priorities lie, and to consider in a detached fashion, what you will do to stop any emergent issue.

Work 

The fortunate few who have scholarships with stipends have no financial need at all to work, and are able if they wish to devote their entire attention to their research project. Others have to grab funding where they can to maintain that ability, and are hence less stable in their material situation. There are many who have to work their way through, doing either the PhD or the job, or even both, part time, and those who manage this with success are people to truly admire, for to do both a PhD and a job well is to express in a very material sense devotion, rather than privilege.

It might be worth thinking about getting a part time job just to get your head out of the bubble for some time - because academia remains an ivory tower for those inside, and it is very easy to lose touch with day to day reality. The workplace is social - you talk to different people about things other than your theses. A PhD office can be something of a hothouse, and at times it is certainly worth trying to escape.

Study

I am not going to go into the precise hows of study. Everyone has their own favoured methods and you will have many opportunities to try new strategies offered to you by your University. Instead, I want to talk a little about where you might work: home, library, or research office.

When I began my PhD, I had just finished my MA, and imagined that I would continue to work in the same way - in my room, at home. It was quiet, there were no distractions, and I didn't waste time walking to campus unless I really had to. However, working at home all the time didn't work out. The most fundamental reason for this, I think, was loneliness. Unlike during my MA, I wasn't going out to lectures, so I didn't really see anyone. Aged twenty-six, alone in a flat in the middle of a January blizzard, I realised that I was, in fact, quite a gregarious person, and that I didn't want to feel cut off from the rest of my department.

Libraries are quiet, mostly, you are close to books, and you can usually go and find food and a coffee. But again, they aren’t always ideal - sometimes other students are noisy, sometimes the books aren't there, you can't make tea when you want and drink it at your desk, and you can't control the ambient environment like you can at home.

I was fortunate to have the luxury of a dedicated and well facilitated PhD office. It had sociability, but also a good work ethic, and I learned to time my visits there so that I still managed to spend a large part of the day alone in the quiet. But of course you can't control who comes in and cut and when, and the unexpected arrival of a friend can set a whole day's plans out of whack.

I generally worked in the office. The balance worked for me, and when it did stop working I went home or to the library. But I know that not all PhD students find this to be the case, and that many are not privileged enough to have the facilities we did. All I would say is expect your working habits to change, and be prepared to test out new locations and ideas.

Being a Student

I went straight from undergraduate to Masters to PhD, so have never really had a period of adjustment to student existence. But if you have been out of HE for some time, you will find yourself in a very different socio-political circumstance. You will have very different kinds of colleagues, who are your colleagues not by virtue of the same job or working for the same company, but by virtue of facing similarly abstract tasks. You will also be working with individuals of all ages and personalities, and often from all over the world. I suspect that my PhD Office will rank among the most culturally diverse workplaces in which I ever sit. This is one of the genuine privileges of doctoral life.

You are now a student, a learner, and you will not have an entirely equal relationship with your supervisor, even if you are the same age or older - they are the mentor, you the apprentice. You'll also find that age and previous experience has very little to do with your standing amongst your colleagues. I found it very strange in my final two years that, because I was 'older' in PhD terms, that I held a strange kind of authority for people at least a decade older. I felt like an old hand, despite the fact that I was one of, if not the, youngest person in my entire school, even at the point of graduation.

So, there are my first few thoughts on life as a PhD student. Some of these I will probably revisit over the course of this year: the intention is to write about life from matriculation to graduation over the next twelve months, and I hope that you'll all come along with me.

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