Starting a PhD

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This article was written by Maria Tomlinson, published on 17th November 2014 and has been read 1445 times.

Maria Tomlinson did both an undergraduate degree in French and Modern Greek and an MA in French Literature and Culture, followed by work as a lectrice at Nanterre University on exchange from King's College London. She has just started her PhD in French studies at the Universities of Reading and Bristol, funded by the AHRC, in which she is specialising in the representation of taboo and trauma in Algeria and Mauritian women's writing. In this piece, she talks us through what to expect when you start a PhD and how to make the most of those initial few weeks.

It has been two months since I started my PhD and it has been a bit of a whirlwind. I applied for my PhD when I was still teaching at university in Paris and did my interview over skype. When I found out I had the AHRC funding I was in my office at the university. I was so overwhelmed with excitement when I read the congratulatory email that I ran and hugged my confused colleague who had no idea what was going on. After this initial jubilation, and an explanation of my bizarre actions, life continued as normal until the summer when I decided (as I was not working and still being paid) that I would make use of being in Paris by starting my reading at the BNF (the National Library of France). This, along with the preparatory reading I had done during my year as a lectrice were invaluable to me at the start of my PhD as I already had a clear idea of what primary texts I was going to use in my thesis. If you do have the chance to work as a lecteur/lectrice I recommend you take advantage of this fantastic opportunity between your MA and PhD (as opposed to during your PhD). Not only does this mean that you will be able to have a well earned break, but you will also have an extra year to help you perfect your application and, furthermore, you will have a clear idea about which primary sources you will be using. Plus, it will save you time during your actual PhD which you can use to write papers and teach.


So, with my first two months experience I’d like to offer some advice to those of you who are just starting/ about to start a PhD or those of you who are considering applying. The following are my tips to help you survive the first few weeks of your PhD!

Your supervisor

I am fortunate enough to be funded by the AHRC, who for the first time have organised studentships via consortia. Instead of money being given to specific departments, funding is awarded to groups of universities. Then, it is up to the consortium to decide which students receive the money. All students must apply to be supervised at two universities. I therefore have the privilege of having two supervisors: one at Reading University for the Mauritian part of my thesis and the other at Bristol for the Algerian part of my thesis. I am really pleased with how it is going, my supervisors are both very supportive and we seem to agree on the direction of my thesis so far. It is early days of course, but I believe that the positive relationship I have established with them until now is a strong basis upon which I can build my PhD.


A strong relationship with your supervisor(s) is the key to a successful PhD. I think it is really important from early on to let your supervisors know about your working style and your ambitions, not only for the PhD itself but also for your career. Moreover, it is important for you to establish their availabilities so you can determine when it is the most appropriate to contact them/ submit work. It is a good idea to read some of your supervisor’s research as to get an idea of the way your supervisor views/ writes about your field. Before each session make sure you are prepared: make a note of what you have done since your last supervision, write down any questions you have for your supervisor, and what you aim to achieve before the next supervision.


Here are a couple of websites that offer excellent advice about the role of your supervisor in your PhD:

PORT Modern Languages Palgrave Student Study Skills

Networking and Conferences

The importance of networking during your PhD cannot be emphasised enough. It is a great way to meet academics in your field who can offer you interesting ideas that may inspire your thesis as well as point you to relevant sources you may not have found yourself. Make sure that you subscribe to all the relevant mailing lists so that you hear about all the upcoming conferences, networking events and publications in your field. Networking events are also a great opportunity to meet fellow PhD students with whom you could either collaboratively publish an article or organise a conference. Having experience of both of these is vital for a career in academia. Furthermore, attending conferences and networking events may lead to other opportunities.


I recently attended a conference about the works of a contemporary women’s writer. I am not writing about this author in my thesis, but I noticed that some of the speakers on the list were the authors of books and articles that I am using as part of my PhD, so I decided to attend. I am really glad I made an appearance, as I was able to inform people in my field about my research and receive positive feedback from them, thereby giving me further confidence in my research. What is more, after a paper on ageing, I posed a question as to why menopause was not analysed in a text about ageing (the menopause is a taboo about which I am writing) and afterwards the speaker said that I made an interesting point about the lack of literary representation/ academic criticism on the subject and asked me if I would consider presenting a paper on the subject. I have never presented a paper before and I am really enthusiastic about the prospect. I am currently writing my very first abstract which is really exciting! At a postcolonial networking event organised by the Open University, I managed to meet a student working on very similar themes to myself (but in English literature as opposed to French). She may be someone with whom I could organise an interdisciplinary conference in the future.

The University of Manchester website offers some useful advice to help you improve your networking skills.

Training

Make sure that you take advantage of the training opportunities at your university and beyond. If you are part of a consortium then this means you will also be able to take advantage of training events at the other institutions. Make sure that you choose training sessions according to your needs as your PhD progresses. For example, if you know you will be teaching in your second year you could attend sessions on how to lead seminars and give lectures (your university may also have special teaching programmes from which you can gain a qualification).

Other available training may include sessions on how to give a paper, problem solving and time management. Some institutions (such as Reading University) even have a requirement that you undertake a certain amount of training, so make sure you find out what your institution requires you to undertake.

If you are considering a career in academia, it is vital that you consult the vitae website and in particular the Researcher Development framework. This framework will help you identify what training you will need to undertake during your PhD in order to improve your prospects of an academic job. The vitae website also has a lot of other information that will stand you in good stead throughout your PhD such as advice on how to have a successful start to your PhD and an informative section on what current researchers wish they had known during their PhD.


I hope this advice has been useful to you! One last piece I’d like to share is: make the most of the beginning of your PhD – it is a wonderful time where you can enjoy reading around your subject, let people in your field know about your project and meet interesting people. And of course, you have all of those student discounts back!

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