First day at Big School.
Most people say to me that they remember their first day at school really clearly. I don’t. Maybe I just accepted and assimilated it really well. Maybe I’m just forgetful. It was the same with the first day of my PhD. I remember little segments of the first few weeks – not in any particular order, and I’m sure that there are plenty of crucial things which I’ve entirely elided from memory.
It was a strange experience for me, you see, weird and not weird all at the same time. I’ve been in education all my life, so the bureaucracy of matriculating was par for the course for me. And I was coming back to the university I’d been at the year before – I hadn’t even technically graduated from my MA yet (we had our graduation ceremony in the January the following year). But in the meanwhile, whilst I’d been away on work experience and summer vacation, the School had changed. Firstly, it had become a School, not a department, and secondly, it had moved buildings into the old Education Library. The other thing that I hadn’t really thought about was how strange it was going to be without my colleagues from the MA. I kept thinking I recognised people around for the first few weeks. But I hadn’t – they weren’t the people I’d known. So going back to study in a place I knew well and yet didn’t know at all was really very odd indeed.
I remember that there were lots of meetings. I don’t remember precisely what any of them were about. Some were at the Graduate School on the Main Campus, some at the School of Museum Studies itself. I mainly remember sitting in the tea room in Museum Studies with the other people who were starting at the same time that I was. There were four other full timers, and they all seemed so much bolder than me, or much cleverer than me. But they were all in the same boat: doing something they’d never done before, meeting people they didn’t know, having committed themselves to a task which would take them the next three, four, five years of their lives. I remember, too, being frightened, not sure if I’d chosen the right thing, tired, and a little puzzled. But I also remember being hugely excited about entering into this process. I was fairly sure it was going to impact upon the rest of my life.
Whilst I was thinking about this article, I asked some of my friends doing that same PhD what advice they would give to a new starter. I’m sure they’ve given this out already – the new students have started their work now. But here it is, for you – for those who have just started, are about to start, or are thinking of coming in the future.
Don’t feel daunted. This is a thing you, and your comrades, have chosen to do, and it is an opportunity for you to learn new things and develop new skills.
Don’t think you have to be brilliant immediately. It takes time to settle in.
Take time to adjust. International students might find this particularly hard – so remember to take care of each other, too.
Remember that your thesis doesn’t have to say everything – this is the beginning of your career, not the end.
Start taking care of yourself now. If you do that, you’ll be in a much better position when the stress kicks in.
Know who you can rely on for support – both intellectual and emotional. It isn’t always the people you might first expect.
Take the chance to develop an international social and academic network.
Make sure you have outside interests, and whilst it’s important – vital, in fact, I think – to socialise with your PhD colleagues, it’s also critical to socialise with people who are nothing at all to do with your work. Sometimes, PhD talk can eat itself. There’s more to life than a PhD.
Following on from this, don’t isolate yourself.
PLEASE don’t compare yourself to other people. You’re different, just like everyone else, remember?
As my good friend E said – you won’t remember everything, if anything, of your first few days and weeks. You might not even remember this article. But if it gets some way into your consciousness, and if you can keep it and remember some of the advice – well, then that’s my work done.