Wednesday 8 October 2014

PhD Life: First Impressions

A new academic year, a new blog post.  I would like to welcome all new-comers to the lab and I hope those of you who are new to Leicester have now settled in.  It was great to see such a large turn-out at our first event of the term.  Like many of you, I have just begun a new phase in my academic career, as I officially commenced my PhD last Monday.  I am one of the very fortunate few to have secured funding, researching nineteenth-century science and print culture as part of the ConSciCom Project.  My first week was something I had anticipated for around five months, after my application for the studentship proved successful.  I have heard so much about the euphoric highs and abysmal lows of doctoral research from my friends in academia, but this was the point at which I began my own three year odyssey.  I would like to share with you my first impressions of life as a PhD student.

I completed both my BA and MA at Leicester, and spent seven months of my year out working in the university library, so my first week in many respects did not feel like a hugely different experience.  Although I'm incredibly happy to be here, I do sometimes wonder if I will ever leave.  In 500 years time, archaeologists will probably unearth my skeleton in a local car park, my spine crooked from far too many hours spent hunched in front of a computer.

As I sat down at my desk on Monday morning, there was the overwhelming sense of 'Where to start?'  I cannot emphasise the weirdness of beginning what is essentially a full-time job, yet the time being almost entirely your own, to do with as you please.  In the absence of any better ideas, I read a book (one relevant to my research, I should add).  In fact, I spent a large amount of my time during the week just sitting and reading.  I admit it doesn't make for the most exciting narrative, but I happen to enjoy it.  Occasionally, I went to the library to borrow some more books, then immediately regretted this decision when I came face to face with the Fresher hordes.  I would then retreat, feeling old and untrendy.

Wednesday was a big day, as it involved induction events for the School of English (for reasons I won't bore you with, and despite being a historian, I'm based in the English Department).  I attended the events relevant to new PhDs, including the inevitable round-table session in which each student introduces themselves and their research, much in the manner of an addiction support group: 'Hi, I'm Matthew Wale and I study nineteenth-century science periodicals'.  This was followed by a welcome reception, complete with free wine and food, which are obligatory wherever academics gather en masse.  As a new PhD student attending social events of this kind, you very quickly learn to condense the explanation of your research into as short a summary as possible.  Everybody you meet will at some point ask the question: 'So, what are you working on'.  No matter how passionate you are about your chosen subject, repeatedly explaining it over the course of a few days encourages you to be succinct, as you begin to tire of your own voice.  It is, however, always genuinely fascinating to hear about everyone else's research and a joy to meet so many people who are unapologetically enthusiastic about their particular fields of study.

I have been repeatedly informed by both fellow students and academics that a PhD is lonely endeavour.  My first week, by contrast, has been very sociable.  Long may this continue!  Despite this, I have come to the conclusion that regularly working from home is a dangerous thing.  I am currently living entirely alone for the first time in my life, which has both benefits and potential problems.  Whilst I am never disturbed by parents or housemates, there is always the risk that I could go an unhealthy length of time without any form of human interaction.  After some consideration, I came up with two possible solutions to this.  I could, like Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away, draw a face on a football and speak to it whenever I felt the need for conversation ('Wilson!').  Alternatively, I could try and get out the house more.  I have decided the latter option is probably the best and consequently I have resolved to spend more time working on campus (unfortunately, English research students don't get designated offices).  I hope this will give at least the illusion of a 9-5ish job and go some way to maintaining my grip on sanity (a tenuous thing amongst postgraduates).

Although I got a fair amount of reading done, I admit that very little actual primary research occurred in my first week.  I like to imagine this is fairly typical, but I have been seeking to remedy this in my second week.  I did, however, find time to join Twitter.  You can follow the continued adventures of a doctoral research student at, though I have yet to master the art of the Twitterati.

Good luck everyone, whatever it is you're working on.  I look forward to seeing you all at future labs.