Thanks to everyone on twitter who contributed their top tips for starting a PhD in the humanities. I hope that the advice below will be helpful; please do tweet me or leave a comment below if you have additional thoughts or suggestions. As ever, this post is by no means exhaustive!
Firstly and importantly: know that just as every person is different, every PhD is different! Just because your PhD doesn’t ‘look’ like someone else’s or you are not working in the same way or (seemingly) making the same amount of progress, it does not mean that you are ‘doing it wrong’! Try to avoid comparing yourself with others (for that way imposter syndrome lies! And on that subject, see this post).
As Daniel Sawyer tweeted, a PhD is a hoop to jump through. It’s not your magnum opus, as @InsularWorld and @abibleach put it, it just needs to pass the exam. Of course at many stages of a PhD it can feel like that ‘just’ is an impossible hurdle but try to be realistic in recognising what you need to do. Daniel also suggested looking through recent theses in your field in your department. I did this in my final year when I was looking for advice on writing the introduction to my thesis and it was really helpful. How had other people gone about it? As Daniel said, looking at completed theses shows that the task is possible and doable (but don’t freak yourself out, you have three years or more to get to that stage if you look at theses now!) It can also be useful, as @jordanmariecook commented, to look at other theses to see how they might be structured. The thesis can feel like an amorphous mass at the beginning, so looking at a range of completed examples can be very useful. (It will also reinforce that it isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ exercise as different structures will work for different projects).
It is absolutely normal to be uncertain at the start of a PhD– and indeed to be uncertain at other points too! If you knew exactly what you were doing, you’d have the PhD already! It’s a learning curve and you learn and progress by doing it, step by step. You don’t have to write the entire thesis today, you just need to keep moving forward by reading and thinking. As @theresasmets commented, it’s a marathon, not a sprint!
Cultivate a positive attitude. @Karl_Kinsella noted that it’s important to keep in mind what you enjoy most about the subject as there will always be days when it feels like a struggle and you may question why you’re doing a PhD! And don’t forget that not every single part of the work will be enjoyable, some of it just needs to be completed (-as in any job or task! But ‘find the fun’ as Mary Poppins would put it!!) It’s also important to be open minded about feedback and criticism. None of us get it right first time but by listening to the supportive feedback of our supervisor and peers, we can learn more and improve our work.
Try to set up a good routine for your working day and for the thesis itself. Experiment with working in different libraries, coffee shops, or at home. When I was a graduate, I didn’t mind working in my bedroom in college but it can be good to have a physical separation between your work space and your relaxation space, and I often used to find that my half hour walk to the library provided useful thinking time as well as good exercise.
It’s also a good idea to get to know what works best for you in terms of when you work. I work best in the mornings, so getting up and organised is important for me. When I was working on my thesis, I liked to socialise or watch tv in the evenings with friends but for some people (night owls!), taking time off in the afternoon is best before settling down to write in the evening. I also tend to write well between 5-7pm so more recently I have been working at home so that I’m not commuting during that time. For some of us, commuting is not optional so if you can work on the train, for example, get organised for that- have a folder of articles that you can dip into during this time (or use the time to read for pleasure! I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction and fiction recently and it’s sparked off all sorts of ideas that I wasn’t expecting and, as my dear friend the novelist Diane Setterfield says, the best way to improve your writing is to read more!)
You should maximise the time when you are most productive for writing or for tasks that you know will require a high degree of concentration. Inputting data, writing a bibliography, doing a database search etc- more mundane tasks that just need to ‘done’ can be accomplished when you feel like you need a bit of a rest. We can’t work at full capacity or be our most brilliant all of the time! I tend to have a post-lunch slump so that’s a good time for me to do those sorts of tasks. Jacob Fredrickson tweeted that it is worth taking time to figure out how you work and then planning around this.
Routines are also important on the macro scale. When I started my PhD, I had a really useful meeting with my supervisor where we decided how I would manage my time during the term and vacation. Our routine was that I would see her at the beginning of term to talk about my general ideas and what I was planning to work on next, and I would then go back in the middle of term having done some research and written up something informal like a chapter plan or an outline of ideas. We’d then discuss that work and I would write up the chapter, handing it in at the end of the following vacation, before meeting up for feedback and planning at the beginning of the next term. That set up worked for me, and for my supervisor, and importantly, for my project. I was working on a theme and I decided to discuss that theme in five texts and each text would form the basis of a chapter. Not everyone’s thesis is going to work in that way so it might be that you need to spend more time collating your primary material before you can divide it into chapters. But what I would say is that you should start writing as soon as possible anyway. Get used to articulating your ideas and engaging with the secondary reading that you’ve done, even if that writing doesn’t make it into the final thesis. Most of us do have to write something at the end of our first year to ‘transfer’ from probationary research to full researcher anyway. Writing early and often was also important for me (and still is!) because I often find that I don’t entirely know what my argument will be until I start putting it into precise words. Regular writing can also help you to avoid writer’s block and make it less scary to sit down and write. For some people, however, the bulk of the writing does happen towards the end of the project, as Laura Tisdall points out in her comment on this post below. So again, make sure that your practice works for you. And as Jacob Fredrickson tweeted, there will be days when you can’t write and that is absolutely normal. (And days when the writing feels like- in my favourite metaphors- wading through treacle / pulling teeth / getting blood out of a stone* delete as appropriate! Some days it just ain’t happening, so try again tomorrow!)
On the subject of supervisors, I was so lucky that my supervisor was not only brilliant but also a brilliant fit for me- for my work and for my way of working. Do your research before you apply for a PhD programme and if you can, meet your potential supervisor or have a discussion with them by email or skype. If a supervisory relationship isn’t working out, then do talk to someone in your department about the possibility of switching. A couple of tweeps talked to me about making the switch and that they were glad that they had made that decision.
@TrevBroughton made the great suggestion that when you have a supervision, you should never leave without setting the next deadline, that way you avoid ‘drifting’. I also used to find it really useful not only to make notes during my supervisions but to go back through those notes reflectively after the meetings so that I could make myself a checklist of things to do and also get a sense of my progress. I would also often make a list of questions that I might want to ask during a supervision, so that I could bring those with me to the meeting.
When you’re working on your project, realise that it’s okay to change your mind! When I was writing my thesis, I had one chapter left to do and it was going to be on Julian of Norwich. Just as I was about to start it I thought, this doesn’t fit as well with the rest of my project as I had originally thought. It would have been fine to write on Julian (but just fine, y’know?), but I suddenly felt that there might be something better out there. So I told my supervisor I wanted to find something different to write on, I didn’t know what yet, but I wanted to take a couple of weeks to search for it!! My supervisor trusted my judgement and off I went to read through as many volumes of the Early English Text Society as I could- and lo and behold, I found some material that would work much better for my argument (and in the end, that material became the lynchpin of my monograph!) I’m glad I had the confidence in myself to do this even though it was scary at first! But by year three of the PhD, I felt that if I had a hunch, it was worth following it.
Sometimes it’s good to follow your nose! It can be easy to feel like you have to be super-focused in your reading all of the time but if something intrigues you, allow yourself to pursue it for an hour or so, you never know where it might lead! The chances are that when you are teaching you will need to broaden your knowledge anyway and as T.S. Wingard tweeted, it’s important not to skimp on reading survey books at the beginning of your project, so that you know how your research fits into the broader field. It’s a great idea to read recent handbooks on your topic to get a sense of where the field is now, for example.
Be aware of the fact that there are different kinds of work at play when we do a thesis. There’s the leg work (which might be reading academic articles, visiting archives) and there’s the thinking work (and of course the two are deeply connected). Sometimes it can feel like you’re more ‘productive’ when you’re doing the leg work as it can be more easily quantified (‘I read six articles today’) but the thinking work is just as important (and can often happen, as Agatha Christie remarked, when you’re doing the dishes!) When I needed to do some thinking about my thesis, I used to go to a coffee shop with a notebook and just freewrite about my topic, noting down big ideas or questions that I had and how I might go about answering them. (I talk more about managing anxieties about our work in this post).
Liam Temple made the great suggestion of having a ‘book of ideas’ to carry round with you- get into the habit of writing down ideas as they occur to you, however big or small! This can be a great record of the thinking you’ve done in a week. It can also be helpful to have a research diary that you fill in on a weekly (or daily) basis- where am I at, at the end of this week? I often find that when I do that, I realise I’ve accomplished more than I thought I had or I might realise that there was something that was interrupting my work that work (-life happens! but also it could be that I was struggling with an idea and I now realise I need to spend more time working on it and I can adjust my schedule accordingly the following week). Being reflective on a regular basis in this way is very helpful for tracking the progress of your project. @thelawyercatrin tweeted that it can be very useful to keep a ‘research log’ which can also include reviews of articles too.
Learning to read is just as important as learning to write when you’re doing research! There are lots of different kinds of reading that you might need to do- in-depth critical reading of monographs that are fundamental to your field, for example (and I’ve written about that kind of reading here) but also scanning through articles or chapters in edited volumes to see if they will be relevant for your research. Not everything is going to be equally useful or need equal time for reading! But if you look at something that turns out not to be useful at the moment, still make a brief note of it anyway and what it focused on- you never know when you might need to go back to something! There was some discussion on twitter this week about reading materials that you can’t understand and how that might generate imposter syndrome (‘I must be stupid if I can’t understand this!’) It might be that you’re not ready to read that article yet but it also might be that that approach or kind of content is not relevant for you. Don’t beat yourself up, move on. If you think it’s a crucial piece of research, ask for advice from your supervisor or peers. I work with theory in my research but there’s definitely a kind of theory that is not for me, so I don’t spend a lot of time with it.
Something that I often find people tweeting about is reading an article or coming across another student who appears to be their PhDouble or doppelganger! You know, that feeling when you read the title of an article and your heart sinks and you think, oh god, someone else has written my thesis! Now naturally, there are articles on similar topics and themes- lots of people have written on Chaucer or Shakespeare for many years!- but this doesn’t mean that you haven’t got something to contribute. My undergraduate students often worry about ‘originality’ but I always say to them that their originality is firstly located in themselves, in how they think and how they write. Even if someone else has written about, say, authority in Chaucer before, they won’t have written about it in your way. If you do come across something that fits into your area, think of it as a challenge- how does my work differ from this article, how does my argument extend or problematise the conclusions of this article? I had this experience when I was trying to turn a chapter on my thesis into an article because in the meantime, an article had been published that drew a similar conclusion from my primary materials. So I thought, can I make a different argument instead? And in the end, that’s what I did and the research was much more interesting as a result. The field had moved on so I had to move with it!
Keep good bibliographic records and take good notes! By the time you’re a grad student you should be in the habit of this already but as well as keeping notes of things that aren’t useful now but could be later, one of the most helpful changes I made in my note-taking was to have a specific way of differentiating my ideas from the ideas in the book or article I was reading. You might think this is obvious but when you come back to your notes six months or a year down the line, you don’t want to have to read an article again and you don’t want to accidentally confuse your ideas with the ideas in the article. I (mainly) still take notes by hand so when I want to make a comment on something or ask a question or identify something as related to my work, I move onto the next line of my pad and do a wiggly arrow. This is my signal to myself that this is ‘me’ thinking. If you’re using a laptop you could do a marginal comment or switch the colour to red, etc. There’s lots of ways of doing this.
Get organised!! Organise your paperwork and your computer. I have a system for keeping PDFs of articles- I save them in a folder by name and topic (so, ‘Smith on Kempe, emotions’) as that is how I often remember an article (‘it’s the one by x on that general topic’). I also double-save sometimes so that if an article is really important, I also put it in the folder I am using for my current chapter / article. The same kind of thing goes for saving documents- we all know the meme about the document entitled ‘final, final, FINAL, with additional, FINAL revisions.doc’!! What I find helps is to save documents with the date, so ‘Kempe essay 28.9.19’ so that I can always identify the most recent one. (Laura Sangha recommended a tool called Zotero to help organise research materials; I haven’t used it myself but I will be investigating!) And hopefully it goes without saying here to make sure you have systems in place for saving your work- not just on the laptop but also on a USB stick / external hard drive / cloud- to save yourself from lots of stress if you have a computer problem. (I often email documents to myself as well, as an extra safeguard. And when I was finishing my monograph I sent it to my husband and parents as well!)
Find your people! Among your peers, among more senior grad students and postdocs, and be supportive of each other. To build a better academia we need more kindness and less competition, so cultivate those networks and connections that build you up. And of course they can be networks on twitter as well as in ‘real life’. (And in fact getting to know people on twitter has often helped to reduce my anxiety about attending conferences because I already ‘know’ a lot of other people who will be attending). Laura Sangha recommended getting involved in the life of your department: attend research seminars and events; organise reading groups or social events with your peers; get together to compare notes on how the PhD is going. Don’t isolate yourself!
Ask for help! And don’t be afraid to do so. This is so crucial. We all need help and support, of different kinds at different stages and in different areas of our lives, so seek it out and make the most of it. If you have a disability or a mental health issue, find out what support is available from your department and university and use it. Lucy Allan has written a great post about having dyslexia as a graduate student. As @vjc_torianist tweeted, allow for flexibility, your personal life can have an impact on your work and things can not go to plan due to illness or other kinds of upset. If you can, talk to your supervisor honestly about where you are at.
There will be other kinds of help and learning opportunities available to you too, as Eleanor Baker tweeted. For example, sessions in the library on how to gain practical research skills; careers seminars in your department might focus on how to teach, how to prepare for your viva; and of course informal opportunities to talk to graduate students who are a few years ahead of you. (Ditto making the most of twitter as a hivemind of brilliant support and information!) It can be easy to feel that you are meant to know what you’re doing when you start a PhD- or even when you have the doctorate!- but we’re all learning and we all need guidance. So much of academic work is realising that there’s more we need to know and the more we do, the more questions we need to ask. See this as a positive!
@alkenney recommended sitting in on classes in order to pick up skills and this is a great idea. When I arrived in Oxford I sat in on an MA class on palaeography as this wasn’t covered in my own MA course. I’ve also been to undergraduate lectures by faculty whom I admire to pick up tips for lecturing and I was lucky enough to participate in a teaching and learning mentoring scheme where I shadowed an established tutor when I was learning to teach.
It’s important to do other things to build your CV during your PhD, particularly given the state of the job market (which couldn’t be more different than when I got my PhD 12 years ago). That might include teaching, giving a conference paper (see my posts on writing abstracts and giving papers), organising a conference (advice here), and even trying to publish an article. My advice on all of this would be that moderation is the key and be strategic about what you do. For example, you only need to teach a course once for you to have experience for your CV (although I recognise that you may need to do more teaching for financial support for your studies if you do not have access to funding). Going to conferences is important- to get your research out there, to meet people in your field and network- but it’s easy to get addicted to giving papers and then find you have no time left for the thesis!! I always reckon it takes me a minimum of a month of full time work to go to a conference- a week to write the abstract, two weeks to write the paper, a week to go to the conference and recover from it- but often longer! Have I got that time? And if I have, is it a priority to spend it on this conference? Daniel Sawyer recommended having a conversation with your supervisor fairly early on in the PhD if you are thinking about pursuing an academic career so that you can get their advice on how to juggle these additional activities. Your supervisor will have a sense, for example, of which conferences might be useful for you to attend- the yearly Medieval Congress in Leeds in my field, or the biannual New Chaucer Society- but there will also be smaller, graduate conferences in your department which will be a good place to test out your ideas first. And many of these things have a cost implication (and sadly most conferences still require registration/accommodation fees up front, even if there are graduate bursaries available).
Related to this is that if you are considering pursuing an academic career and plan to produce a monograph based on your PhD, it might be worth keeping that in mind when you are making decisions about how to structure the thesis. PhD theses are not monographs of course, there are different requirements for each task, and often it is only when we have completed the PhD and had some distance from it that we can begin to reimagine it as a monograph. When I did my PhD, I didn’t think about the idea of the monograph at all and in hindsight I wouldn’t change the way I did my thesis (despite The Journey I then went on to turn it onto a monograph!) but I think I would have had a conversation with my PhD examiners in the viva, for example, about what they would recommend. When you’re reading academic monographs (and more on this in my post here), it’s worth attending to structure and style as well as content. If you read a fantastic monograph in your field, what was it that worked so well in your opinion?
I would also pause here to say, learn to say NO! You need to prioritise getting the thesis done (and believe me when I say that in the post-PhD world, you will never have that extended thinking time again!!). Learn to assess how useful certain opportunities will be to you and try not to allow yourself to be exploited. You can’t do everything, think about what will work for you, in your circumstances It has taken me an awful long time to learn to say no. The entire world won’t collapse if you say you can’t do something. Talk over the pros and cons of an opportunity with your supervisor, peers, friends. (Anyone else remember the ‘Big Bad I said No’ from the cartoon Stoppit and Tidyup?! Just me?!)
It is so important to take breaks and have other interests. You must not and cannot work all of the time! Having hobbies, doing exercise, socialising (with family and also with people not on your course), are all crucial for our mental health. (This topic should probably be a blogpost in its own right!)
Finally, try not to compare yourself to others! (And this is the hardest thing and something I still struggle with!!) You must do your thesis your way. Find what works for you and have the confidence to follow your own path. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your peers, and know that you’ve got this!