Monday, 11 December 2017

Negotiating the AHRC maze: Some (more) tips on PhD applications and securing that all-important funding.

Photograph: Connor Brook 

Jennie Dziegiel did an MA in Religious Studies at Lancaster University, and is now a first year PhD student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. Her PhD looks at how working in healthcare shapes people’s spiritual and religious world views, and is funded by AHRC Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. 

In October, I’m moving back to Durham to start a PhD, funded by the AHRC Northern Bridge DTP. Frankly, I can’t believe I’ve ended up feeling capable of passing on wisdom about PhD proposals and funding applications. This time last year I was almost entirely clueless. But I ended up with three funding offers from three different AHRC consortia. If, like I was, you’re looking at the application processes with fear and trepidation, I hope this post might help. I’m spelling out the things which I think not only helped my applications stand out, but kept me sane while I was pulling them together.

1)    Give yourself as much time as you can
This is probably the most basic but most useful piece of advice. PhD proposals and funding applications should be marathons, not sprints – they take time, care and attention. The process isn’t easy, and – for me at least – rushing would have made it much, much worse, and probably made my proposals far weaker. As it was, I chewed over my ideas for almost seven months before I hit the submit button on my last AHRC application, starting almost as soon as I had finished my undergraduate finals (though that was as much happy coincidence as good planning). In that time, my ideas changed and developed. I had the chance to get a bit of a head start before my Masters got under-way. Time is a huge help, if you can get it.

2)    Create yourself some headspace
Applications take up time and energy. For me, it was definitely important that I had some mental energy spare so I could focus properly on getting everything ready to the best of my ability. I was writing my applications while doing the first term of my Masters, and thankfully I had the foresight to set up my taught modules so that I had one less that term, giving me time and space. I maintain that pulling everything together was the equivalent of at least a module’s worth of work anyway. Plus (don’t say it too loudly) you might actually want some time off. Try not to fill your life up to the brim, if you can avoid it.

3)    Ask for all the advice you can get
I just did a quick count, and I think thirteen different academics at seven different universities had sight of my proposal in some format at some point before I submitted it anywhere. In every case, it was because I bit the bullet and asked for help from the people who know what they’re talking about. I received a real mix of feedback. Some was really affirmative and gave me an important burst of energy. Some highlighted things I would absolutely never have thought of otherwise. Some was constructively critical. Some was destructive and made me cry. But all of it was useful, and my applications were far, far better for it. Ask for help; go to application sessions put on in your faculty or department; read the online advice from funding bodies and departments; check out this blog. If you’re likely to be invited to interview, maybe go to some practice sessions. You’ll learn a lot about constructive criticism, as well as developing a level of boldness you probably didn’t know you had. Lap up the advice, even if it makes you cry.

I personally found it really useful to ask people who knew absolutely nothing about religious studies to read my applications. For some subjects this won’t make sense at all, but I knew that if I was invited to an AHRC interview then the panel would include some people who weren’t experts in my field. So I made sure my applications (and, eventually, my interview presentations) were clear and easy to follow by testing them both on my parents. They loved me enough to be honest, and I loved them enough not to get cross when they pointed out my spelling errors and the sentences that had been edited so many times that they had ceased to make any sense.

4)    Impact, impact, impact
We all know that a PhD needs to be original, but nowadays it needs to have research impact too. Spell out your academic and non-academic research impact early on; sing it from the rooftops, loud and clear. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the phrase ‘of interest to the NHS’ did a lot to make my proposals competitive. I also got in touch with some relevant organisations before I submitted the application, so I could state sincerely that I had their initial go-ahead. If you’re uncertain about research impact, ask for some of that advice.

(When it comes to originality and impact, someone very helpfully reminded me early on that being original isn’t enough: there might be very good reasons it hasn’t been done already...)

5)    Tailor it (and don’t bite off more than you can chew)
I ended up with a lot of final proposal drafts, all based on the same ideas, but subtly yet significantly different. Each of them was tailored to either a specific university or a specific funding body. When it comes to different universities, take some time to research and explain exactly why that university and that department is the perfect place for you to do your PhD. It doesn’t have to be long, but that couple of sentences might make all the difference. For funding applications (and interviews, if my experience is anything to go by) spell out in the plainest terms possible how your PhD will fit with that funding body’s aims and goals. For both, give a short comment on why you think your supervisor is perfect for the job. I tried to shape each application according to the advice I had been given by that particular supervisor as well.

I was also advised early on not to apply to too many different universities or funding bodies. Partly it’s because prospective supervisors invest a lot in you, so you don’t want to waste their time if they haven’t got at least a decent chance at a return on their investment. But it’s also a case of retaining your sanity. I put in three university applications and five funding applications, and it’s a lot to juggle and research. There was a sixth funding application I abandoned because it would have tipped me over the edge. Pick the supervisors that are the best fits, and run with the most relevant funding bodies. Other than that, don’t bite off more than you can chew.

6)    Pay attention in Theory and Methods
This one probably only applies to those expecting to go from a taught masters to PhD relatively quickly. Theory and Methods was not my favourite module (at all). But it was useful. It rammed home some things I knew anyway, and taught me some things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Learning about quantitative methods was almost entirely useless for my MA, but was definitely useful for my PhD proposal. If Theory and Methods isn’t your thing, sit tight, and savour the bits that are useful. If it is your thing, I admire you.

(And work hard on your masters – I’ve heard it said more than once that funding panels would rather see someone with a 2:1 at undergrad progress to a Distinction at Masters than drop from a First to a Merit. That said, I’ve not got my MA results yet…)

7)    Stay organised
How many times have we heard this? With PhD and funding applications, it makes a huge difference. Get a diary, and put all the application deadlines in it. Make a spreadsheet, detail the document requirements for all the different applications, and stick it on your fridge. (Then check it off as you go - we all need that positive affirmation.) File and label your documents carefully, and keep some form of backup. Scan all your transcripts and certificates so they’re to-hand. Proof-read your applications one last time before you send them off, so you don’t come within seconds of sending an application to Lancaster which explains how wonderful Exeter is. Don’t scupper all your hard work with poor organisation.

8)    Persevere
I’ve just about got to the point where I can joke a bit about how stressful my PhD applications were. But the whole thing was hard work. I have never come so close to giving up on my dream of being an academic as I did last November (yet). I shed hours of tears.* I took ridiculously long train rides all over the country for interviews. I had to pick myself up when a prospective supervisor accused me of being failed by the school system because my grammar was all over the place. And once that was all done, and the applications were in, I had to stay sane long enough to find out whether all of the hard work had paid off, or had all been for nothing. I always said I would be perfectly happy to miss out on funding and go and find myself a sensible nine-to-five instead, but deep down I knew how much I wanted it, and how in love I had fallen with my proposal. That love (and occasionally re-reading a particularly edifying reference) helped me persevere through the dozens of different document drafts, the curt email replies, and the occasional bout of stress-fuelled insomnia. Be ready for it to be tough, and remind yourself regularly why you’re putting in all of the effort. Persevere. It’s a great feeling when all the different documents are ready to go.

(* I’m a big crier though, so don’t panic. If my tear-ducts can survive, so can yours.)

Thursday, 23 November 2017

My experience of a summer school

Kirsten Dutton is a 4th Year PhD student in the Geosciences group at Newcastle University. Her thesis title is: ‘From sediment to rock: the role of microbes in the early lithification of sabkha sediments’. In today's post, she shares her experience of attending a summer school and why such experiences can aid a PhD. Follow Kirsten on Twitter: @KirstenDutton 

Academia really can take you to some wonderful places, whether it be through conferences, fieldwork or summer schools/courses. I’ve been lucky enough to do fieldwork in Abu Dhabi (very hot!), go to conferences in many places like Edinburgh (lots of whisky) and the Dolomites (lots of coffee and pasta) and most recently to Singapore for a Summer School.

 I attended a summer school at SCELSE (Singapore Centre for Environment, Life Sciences, Engineering) at Nanyang Technological University, learning about many aspects of microbiology and biofilms. It was one of the most intense, but incredibly valuable and even fun parts of my academic career. I learnt so much about everything from biofilms in waste water treatment to using microbes to help coral reefs recover (and the surrounding debate). Some of what I learnt is directly relevant to my current research topic, some showed me how I could develop further multidisciplinary research, or which specialists would be good to establish collaborations with and some of the material was completely new to me (medical biofilms, pictures of which are not for the faint of heart... there is a reason this geologist like rocks).

In terms of the intensity, it was very much like the first year of my degree, full time 5-6 days a week with massive amounts of new information. My undergrad was in geology and while I’ve sidestepped into the realms of biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology, my understanding has been limited to their relevance to my topic. I applied to this specific course because it gave me an invaluable opportunity to learn some of the fundamentals of microbiology and see how biofilms are used in research. I kept up with more than I thought I would and my understanding improved every day. By the second week I was even asking questions and properly participating in discussions. It was interesting to be back in a more formal learning environment after the independence of PhD research, I really enjoyed it.

It didn’t hurt that it took me all the way to Singapore. I’ve been very lucky to travel a lot throughout my life and during my PhD but I’ve never been further East than the Middle East until this trip. It was exciting to experience new cultures, try new foods and meet people from all over the world. Singapore is a very multicultural place and I got to explore Chinatown, Little India, the brand new shiny malls of downtown, the Gardens by the Bay, Henderson Waves and even went for some drinks at the top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel which has some seriously epic views of the city.

 There are summer schools for many areas of research, not just sciences and they aren’t limited to PhD students, they are often open to Post-docs and Masters students too. They are often run by professional societies, universities and other institutions and are opportunities that should definitely be seized given the chance. I was lucky enough to be on a fully funded one. Some would need to be half or fully funded by your research grant.

I would highly encourage you to go on a summer school if you can find one which fits within or around the purview of your work. Talk to your fellow students and staff in your department to see what they’ve attended and the experiences they’ve had. They’ll also have some tips on how to write a good application for them. They are invaluable, you learn lots and meet people who could possibly be future collaborators, and get to see new places.


Friday, 17 November 2017

Post-PhD life: dealing with the transition

Dr Jessica M. Keady, FHEA, is a Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. In today's post, she reflect upon dealing with the transition of finishing a PhD and entering the academic job market, offering some great tips along the wayFollow her on Twitter @JessicaMKeady 

After graduating with my PhD in Religions and Theology from The University of Manchester in 2015, I was offered the chance to teach the undergraduate module on ‘Biblical Hebrew’ at the University of Chester’s, Department of Theology and Religious Studies as a Visiting Lecturer. That was an opportunity that changed many things for me – I could teach a language for the first time, I had my own students from the beginning of an academic year to the end, I was able to really see first-hand the administrative responsibilities relating to an undergraduate module, and it was a chance for me to really get an understanding of what teaching at Higher Education level meant. That opportunity transpired into a wonderful 17 months at the Department, where I could take on a variety of opportunities: I was able to work as Researcher in Biblical Studies and Gender, to teach on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate modules, to work on a recently funded project on Sexuality and Anglican Identities, and to be a part of a wonderful team of lecturers and researchers. Alongside my work at the Department, I was also editing my first monograph for publication, completing my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (which I could do through the University of Chester), and I was also completing a Level 3 Counselling Skills course at a local college.

Postdoctoral Life: From Wales to Helsinki (and Back Again!)
In February 2017, following a successful postdoctoral proposal/application, I was offered a Postdoctoral Researcher position at the University of Helsinki’s Centre of Excellence in Sacred Texts and Traditions (CSTT), to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls and gender. The post is until the end of 2019 and it was an opportunity that I could not turn down. I turned up to Helsinki on February 28th with a suitcase of clothes to last me a month, my laptop, and the support of my family and partner in North Wales to go and enjoy the experiences.

Helsinki is a wonderful place and the support at the University was instant. Since I started at the CSTT, I have been given some wonderful opportunities: I have presented my postdoctoral work to colleagues; I have taken part in a variety of workshops, including ‘Social-Scientific Theorizing and Biblical Studies’; I have attended and presented at my first CSTT Annual Meeting on Tradition at the beautiful Zoological Station of Tvärminne in Hanko; I have been accepted to present papers in London, Berlin and Boston; I have met some wonderful colleagues from around the world; and I have felt like part of a team.

In the summer (2017), I was offered a full-time, permanent lectureship in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. I started my new role in September and will get the opportunity to teach on Judaism at Undergraduate and Postgraduate Level, which I am really looking forward to. I am very much looking forward to continue my postdoctoral research and write up my second monograph.

 Publications and Certificates
Alongside the transition to being a Postdoctoral Researcher, my first monograph has been published with Bloomsbury Press and that really was a wonderful feeling to have the book in hand that I had worked so hard for.
After successfully completing my Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, I am now also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I am particularly proud of that accomplishment as it was a challenging task to manage all other duties, alongside the work needed to pass the course.

What I have learnt about myself since finishing my PhD is that:
1.    I have a very supportive family
2.    I still want to be an academic
3.    I value being a part of a team
4.    I like a challenge

Post-PhD Preparation
Going back to the spring of 2014, the funding for my PhD was rapidly coming to an end and the ever-looming fear of ‘What am I going to do next?’ was seriously becoming a reality, so I started planning for my post-PhD life about 6 months before my thesis deadline. Although every persons’ journey is different, I took the following steps to begin to think of a life post-PhD.

·        Networking: For me, networking involved such activities as being present in research seminars in and outside of my own university, presenting papers, attending conferences, building up a social media profile, making links via email or in person with potential colleagues, and talking about my research project. To this day, there are academics that I met during my PhD who I am very much still in touch with and can work, collaborate and draw guidance from. 

·     Teaching Observation: I organised teaching observation at another University so that I could observe the teaching style, content and methods of lecturers working across different modules in the discipline of Theology and Religious Studies.

·       Post-PhD Project: Although it seems like a very difficult task to think of another project separate to the one that you are currently working on, having a postdoctoral research idea in mind is a powerful tool. It allows you to think of your life away from your doctorate and to begin to imagine what it is that you would like your wider research profile to look like.

·       Working outside academia: While waiting for my Viva and subsequent graduation, I worked in a behavioural unit in a local secondary school. I learnt a great deal about myself and about student behaviours and the range of specific learning difficulties that students’ experience. I also took an Introduction to Counselling Skills Course at a local college. Whilst working in the unit, I could take some time out of the PhD bubble and reflect on what I really wanted and the post reaffirmed to me my drive to teach and research in Higher Education.
What advice would I give to those beginning to think of a post-PhD life:

1.       Celebrate your achievements
2.       Embrace challenging opportunities
3.       Draw on the networks that you have built during your research

4.       Take time out when you need it 

Friday, 10 November 2017

The journey to PhD submission

Sarah is a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at the University of Birmingham. She is a historian of youth in post-war Britain, focusing on culture, identity, sexuality, and regulation, and oral history. She recently submitted her PhD thesis titled ‘Unspectacular Youth? Evening Leisure Space and Youth Culture in Sheffield, c.1960- c.1989’ at the University of Sheffield, where she also studied her MA and BA. 

It’s September, which marks the start of a new academic year. Many people will be at the exciting, although admittedly daunting, stage of starting their PhDs. Others will be in the final stages, often frantically trying to submit before funding runs out. Others will be somewhere in the middle, (hopefully) feeling like they’ve got a grasp on their research but (probably) feeling like they’ve still got a mountain to climb.

I submitted my PhD two months ago. I have yet to have my viva, so the process is by no means over, but I am now in a position to reflect on the process of writing it. This post will focus on the final months and weeks of writing my PhD because the feelings are still fresh, but I hope what follows will be helpful to those at any stage of their academic journey. 

A lot of the time I didn’t like it. And that’s ok.

I didn’t always enjoy writing my PhD. In fact, I would say it made me miserable a lot of the time. It was often a never-ending source of uncertainty and anxiety, and my relationship with it was quite often volatile. In the course of a few hours I could go from feeling like I had just had a real breakthrough, to not knowing how I was ever going to get it finished, to feeling like it was too late for me to salvage anything worthwhile. Going from extreme to extreme is exhausting. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that it was ok not to enjoy the PhD, and that not enjoying writing it did not make me a lesser candidate than my peers. In the final months, as the pressure (mostly from myself) mounted, I learned to take the good with the bad, and to relish every small victory. Paragraph re-edited? Success! Bibliography updated? Success! I turned the thesis into a series of small and achievable tasks, and this certainly helped me feel less overwhelmed. However, on the days when I did feel completely overwhelmed and didn’t achieve what I wanted- and there were often days when I achieved nothing- I had to remind myself that it was ok. The PhD is really bloody hard. 


I was not prepared for struggling with my motivation in the final months. When I started my PhD I saw my colleagues preparing for submission and they were often working, or so it seemed, with a relentless drive and energy. I am sure this is the experience for a lot of people; after all, we all get our motivation in different ways. But it was not my experience. After working for so long, but still feeling like I had a long way to go, I was often bored. I would drag myself to the office and intermittently stare at my thesis, while refreshing Twitter. I knew it had to get done, but some days I had very little desire to be proactive about this. I can’t really offer any gems of advice about this other than it will get done, eventually. Perhaps I found the expectation and the reality of finishing my PhD jarring; I was often bored, when I expected to be excited.


I was incredibly fortunate to have supervisors who read a final draft of my PhD from cover to cover. Their comments and suggestions in the final weeks were incredibly helpful, and went some way to easing my terror before I submitted. However, after the rush of ‘final’ submission- finalising footnotes and the bibliography, ordering the contents page, writing the abstract, reading and re-reading every chapter- I had to wait. Again, my reality was jarring with my expectation. I had expected the final weeks to be a flurry of activity. In reality, I submitted what I hoped would be the final draft to my supervisors, and I waited. I found this very difficult. I was often frustrated, and feeling like I should be doing something productive while I waited for feedback and final changes. I’m not a patient person at the best of times, so this period was a real challenge for me. However, I was also exhausted. I could have started the draft of an article I’d been meaning to write. I could have submitted more job applications. I could have done plenty of ‘productive’ things, but I had no energy left. In all honesty, I slept a lot. I watched some bad TV. I re-read what I had submitted in search of elusive typos. While I found this period difficult, I would recommend submitting a finalised draft where possible. It may sound like an obvious piece of advice, but when the finish line is so close the temptation to rush to submission can be tempting. In hindsight, I am glad I took the extra few weeks to get the final comments on my thesis.


Submitting the PhD was a strange anti-climax. I submitted it online, and it was done. I had hoped for something more ceremonious. A fanfare by a group of trumpeteers as I pressed ‘submit’, perhaps? Picking up the the hard copy did feel more exciting. After almost four years I held my manuscript in my hand and my hard work was represented in physical form. I submitted the hard copy, received a sticker (not quite a fanfare, but I took it nonetheless) and that was that. I was incredibly proud of myself that day. Doing a PhD often means that you are surrounded by other people doing PhDs, or who have done PhDs. It often means that many of the people you know have already done, or will soon be doing, what you have done. Do not let this take away from the sense of pride you should feel when you do finally submit. Writing a PhD is an extraordinary achievement. As I await my viva, this is what I remind myself of. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

PhD self-care tips

A bit about Lisa:

“I’m a final year PhD student at The University of Southampton, UK investigating how diets during pregnancy impact the baby’s muscle function in later life. Currently enduring the thesis life! I’m an aspiring science communicator and love to write for my science blog “In a Science World”. I talk all things science and share my life as a scientist/PhD student, but what I really love is sharing tips and advice through my PhD SOS feature”

Working in the world of academia as a PhD student can be very demanding. We don’t get awarded the title of Dr for simply generating some good data or coming up with an awesome idea, we work hard to earn that PhD. Hard work comes with stresses and sometimes a few road bumps along the way.

One thing a lot of us can forget is that all important self-care. A PhD is like an endurance event, it’s a long and rewarding journey, but we need to take care of ourselves to get to the finish line.

So how can we look after ourselves? Here are my top 10 PhD self-care tips:

Stop comparing yourself to others
You may start your PhD the same time as other students but everyone’s PhD is different. Comparing yourself to others on occasion can be a healthy kick up the backside if you’re slacking. But trust me, for the most part it’s unhealthy and causes unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Focus on you and your PhD.

Need help? Ask!
Whether you need help with a protocol or you’re having a few struggles with mental wellbeing, seek help. We all need help at times no matter how big or small the problem is, and there is a wealth of support out there for you. Know the right people to ask for help in the lab, find out what support services your university provides, and read blogs to help with issues related to the PhD life.

Don’t just live for the weekend
Looking after yourself is not just for the weekends. Working 12-hour days during the week with those fun things left to the weekend is going to lead to burnout. Be honest with yourself, how productive are you after the normal 8/9 hour working day? Probably not very. So take time for you in the evenings, whether that’s just relaxing, going to the gym or seeing friends. Living for the weekend can lead to you associating the week with negative thoughts, that’s not exactly a great way to live.

Emails. You don’t have to be attached 24/7.
Does your phone notify you as soon as you get a work email? If yes, I really suggest turning them off. Having them on means you never have a true break from work and in some situations this can lead to anxiety. Also, try not to check emails fist thing. Checking emails as soon as you get to work can lead you off track from your original plan for that day. Try opening them up a couple hours into work so you start your day off well. Are they really so important that they can’t wait a few hours?

Sleep well, exercise regularly and eat right.
Being mindful of the foundations to leading a healthy life (mentally and physically) is so important. Getting those 7-9 hours sleep improves brain function. Regular exercise keeps you fit, allows you to focus on something non-work related and is a great stress reliever. Eating a balanced diet and not relying on sugar to keep you awake whilst working gives your brain and body the right fuel to function well. Being and feeling healthy helps to keep a positive mindset.

Be organised
The deeper into the PhD journey you get, the more studies you’re juggling and the more items you have on that to-do list. Being organised is key to keeping yourself on track, focussed and motivated. These all lead to reductions in stress levels. Set short terms goals. I advise making daily goals at the start of the week or the day before and tick them off as you go along. Small steps make big progress.

Play to your strengths
PhDs come with a degree of flexibility in how you work. If you are most productive in the morning, then start and end your working day earlier. Maximise that time you work well. If you aren’t a good multitasker then set aside blocks of time in your week to do your research, reading and the other odd jobs. There’s no point trying to tackle everything in one day if you know your brain doesn’t function like that!

It’s ok to say no
You can’t take on everything your supervisor and others want you to. Saying yes to everything will lead to burnout. Be aware of the work you can take on without compromising your work/life balance. Developing this awareness does take time but it allows you to then manage the expectations you have of yourself, and enables you to manage your supervisor’s expectations of you.  

Celebrate successes
We work hard so reward yourself when you’ve reached a goal. Allowing yourself treats will help you to stay motivated. For the smaller goals treat yourself to something little like your favourite dinner, and for the bigger milestones reward yourself something super fun like a trip to the pub/cocktail bar or a day trip to the beach.

Time off

Remember we are entitled to time off, everyone needs a break. Taking time off helps us to relax, unwind and gives that overworked brain some nice relax time. It helps us to come back to work energised and proactive. If a certain phase of laboratory work means it’s hard to take a whole week off, make sure you’re planning in some long weekends.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Publishing as a PhD Student

Photograph: Connor Brook 

Heidi Gardner is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Aberdeen’s Health Services Research Unit. Her research is part of a wider initiative called Trial Forge, which is an evidence-based approach to designing, running, analysing and reporting clinical trials. Currently her work focusses on improving strategies to recruit participants into clinical trials. As well as participant recruitment, Heidi is interested in research waste, reporting of science and health-related topics in the media, and public engagement.
To find out more about Heidi’s research and her thoughts on doing a PhD, head over to her blog:, and follow her on Twitter: @heidirgardner.

Publishing is something that’s drummed into PhD students right from the beginning; you need to publish, you need to prove your work is publishable, and you need to learn how to manage the peer review process. Moving from reading journal articles, to being expected to write at that level can be incredibly intimidating. I’m about to enter my third and final year as a PhD student (eek!), and I’ve published one paper as first author, and one as a co-author. Honestly, I think I’ve been very lucky with my supervisory team; they’ve encouraged me to publish, and to get involved with other projects that will lead to further publications. Now that I’ve gone through the publication process as both first author and co-author, I thought I would share a few tips on how to get your work published. 

Publish when you have something to say
The pressure to publish is real, and even at the very start of my PhD I was thinking about how I could build my reputation. Thinking ahead isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but don’t let yourself panic about not publishing. Take time to get to grips with your project, and then work on a first publication that you can really get your teeth into. My first author publication was the protocol for my systematic review (you can read it here), and it took almost a year from first thought to final publication. A year on and the review itself is not published yet – I’m still writing it. These things take time, but rushing to publish early and not having a cohesive piece of work won’t help things. 

Choose the right journal
This is a crucial step, and requires a good deal of research when you’re new to publishing. The ‘right’ journal should have a track record of publishing the types of article you plan to submit; so don’t submit a clinical trial protocol to Nature. I chose the Journal of Systematic Reviews for my first publication – for pretty self-explanatory reasons. This journal is also open access which was important to me, and it has a good track record within my research field. Ask your supervisors, other PhD students in your department, and then have a look at which journals you tend to read similar papers from. The most important thing for a first submission it’s important to set your sights on a realistic journal; the last thing you want is to get your first rejection at this stage. 

 Expect revisions
Anything other than an outright rejection means that you have some room for negotiation with the journal editor, so take revisions – whether major or minor – as a positive. Before publishing I thought that it was normal to get a few minor revisions and then the paper would go ahead to publication. That was not the case for me. I went through 2 major revisions, and then 2 minor revisions before the paper was published. At first I found this quite upsetting, but my supervisor encouraged me to continue working on the article, and ensured I didn’t feel like I’d failed either. One thing that really important to remember when you get peer review comments back, is that you are much closer to your researcher than your reviewers are. Don’t be afraid to defend the decisions you’ve made and explain why you shouldn’t make all of the changes they have suggested. Ultimately, the journal editor has the final say and if you can demonstrate why you’ve conducted your study the way you have, then you should be fine.

Work as a team
Working as part of a team is an integral part of being involved in research; you cannot publish alone. Firstly, you don’t have the expertise to critique your own search strategy, statistical analysis and research methods to a high level. You are not an information specialist, a statistician, and a methodologist. Get other people involved and work together to make your paper the best it can be. Teams are also really helpful when you get comments back from peer reviewers; don’t just respond yourself, ask for input from other people and ensure each comment is addressed by the experts you’re working with.

Get involved with other projects
Offering to lend a hand with other projects is a brilliant way to network and build your reputation, and to get an extra publication or two as well. Just as you require a team to strengthen your work, at times others will ask you to be part of their teams. If you have time for additional projects, they are linked to your PhD work, and you like the people you’ll be working with; say yes. It might mean doing a few extra late nights in the office every now and again, but you need to demonstrate that you can be a reliable and effective collaborator – that’s what research and publishing is all about.

Publishing is a long process, and one that can require a thick-skin at times. Take your time, ask for help, and try your hardest not to feel disheartened when you get asked to change something for a third time. Once you’ve gone from initial submission to final publication, the feelings of frustration soon fade away to be replaced with pride and a real sense of satisfaction. If you publish PhD-related work, then you can always use bits of text in your thesis too – just make sure to reference the publication so that you’re not self-plagiarising. I’m really glad that I’ve had the opportunity to publish so early on in my research career, and even though peer review comments can sometimes be really (REALLY) annoying, in the end this level of professional critique means you come out with a paper you can be proud of.  

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Take Yourself Out of the Impostor Box

Photograph: Connor Brook 

Kirsten Stoddart is an Australian-born writer, production manager and PhD candidate at the University of Salford. She completed an MA in Scriptwriting at Bath Spa University in 2013, and has worked in film and television production since 2004. Kirsten's PhD research focus is the effect of the rising industry of Subscription Video on Demand original series on the employment of women writers for television. Her broader research interests include women's employment in creative media, gender, scriptwriting and media production. 

Twitter: @KirstenStoddart 

Winning the coffee mug prize for best paper of my session at my university’s recent postgraduate conference was not only nice, it also marked a big transition in my transformation from industry to academia.

There is a lot these days written about industry-academy interchange. It leads government policy and dominates the thoughts of university administrators as a result.

But sometimes it seems there is not as much thought given to what that really means, especially at postgraduate level.

My field, for example, is broadly film studies and specifically screenwriting in which I have an MA. In addition though, I have over a dozen years experience in film and television, mostly in production.

The PhD came about because as an aspiring scriptwriter, I would look at the workplaces I was in and notice that not only were there always more men than women, there was also a significantly gendered assumption that the men were better and more valuable than the women. So here I am, one and a half years into my PhD, researching women writers for scripted television and the effects of S.V.o.D. (Subscription Video on Demand) on their employment.

Coming from an industry background can be an incredible boost for your research, because it means you really, really care about the outcomes. I care about what happens to women writers because I identify with them.

But coming from an industry background also provides a huge challenge, in my specific case, when it comes to writing “the academic paper”.

My first submissions to supervisors took achingly long, and nearly drove me to the edge. I didn’t know how to structure these factual sentences. My innate desire and training was to entertain my reader- “show, don’t tell”. That is what every scriptwriter is told. But in this new world the APA was foreign, and, sometimes, I did not understand what journal articles were saying to me because of their formulaic structures and, often, their use of jargon and specialist language. Sometimes, they seemed to obscure as much as they revealed. This was the reverse of “show, don’t tell”.

I printed off piles of articles, borrowed twenty-three books from the library. I read books about feminism, post-feminism, third-wave feminism, intersectional feminism. I discovered entire new areas of study I’d had no idea even existed (hello, Organization Studies). I became increasingly overwhelmed and wondered what I had got myself into. I spent nights reading, highlighting, writing, panicking, crying, caffeinating. When I submitted my work, I felt it was all artificial.

There were times when I thought I would not make it through my first year. I had to resubmit my assessment paper because it wasn’t academically structured. And I knew that. But somehow, I kept pushing. I kept going.

In March, I re-submitted my paper and it passed. That deserved a holiday so I took a break – and promptly forgot how to write again. Cue a repeat of the whole experience.

But this time, it lasted a shorter time. I took a couple of weeks off, and then I came back. I set my alarm every morning. I got a Nespresso machine (yes, it was an important part of this story). I wrote down my writing goals for the day, week, month. It was a work plan for the year. And then something happened: the words began to come. Slowly at first, and then, suddenly, I realised I could meet these writing goals if I just told myself I could. Instead of panicking, I celebrated small victories. Five hundred words – go for lunch. A thousand words – take the evening off. I sit down at my desk at about 8.30am, and, if I don’t meet my daily or weekly goal, I don’t beat myself up, because I know I can get caught up if I just keep going.

Something wonderful happens when you allow yourself to be flexible. Sometimes two hundred good words is better than a thousand manic ones. You can get it done. You can share your work.

Even so, I couldn’t believe it when I won that prize. Simply, that was because I was still putting myself into the Imposter Box. I’m not an imposter, though. I’m just a different kind of PhD student, coming from a different background and environment. And I represent the challenge of integrating industry and academy, but I also represent that it can be done. I had to re-train my brain, and my brain and I are getting on just fine now. Yes, I still get anxious when I feel like I’m behind. But I also know that I can pull this off because I care. And you can, too. 

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Lessons learnt from the first year of my PhD

Mike Ryder is a PhD student at Lancaster University. His research interests include biopolitics, sovereignty, science fiction and war. He is particularly interested in the intersection between literature and philosophy, and the works of Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. In today's blog post, Mike reflects on the first year of his PhD. Go and have a look at his (fab) personal website: and check out his Facebook page:

So it’s been a year already and I’m now looking forward to the next phase in my PhD journey. It’s been an interesting year to say the least, and I’ve done a lot of different things. But it’s not always been easy...

Settling in

My first six months at Lancaster certainly involved a lot of ‘settling in’. One of the big issues for me was that I came into my PhD as a slightly older student. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but I did feel a  bit of an outsider at first compared to many of the other first years who already knew each other from Lancaster during their undergrad and/or Masters.
The other thing that really took a lot of getting used to was the routine of not having much human contact. Sure, most of us have Facebook, and there are online forums such as this, but there really can be no substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face chat.
Thankfully, after a few months I met the (#legend) Josh Hughes at a conference, and we have since set up a reading group together, and regularly meet to chat about war and robots, alongside our PhD woes.
Another big source of encouragement has been semi-frequent coffee breaks with my new ‘besties’ Claire and Danielle, who between them manage to keep me sane with stories of disastrous train journeys, plumbing mishaps, and the odd trip to the cinema.
I should also mention the sci-fi reading group here at Lancaster, which has also been great, and another source of much-needed human contact. Special mention to Kerry, Dec (when he can be bothered to read the book), Charlotte, Stuart and Chuckie. Our group returns with the new academic year and I’m already looking forward to getting started on the new book!

Finding work

In previous blogs I’ve written about taking on work as a PhD student, and how paid employment has helped me stay human. Though I thought I was fully prepared for the transition from full-time work to full-time PhD, I don’t think I quite understood exactly what that would mean.
So on the one hand I had a professional job where I knew people and would chat to them on a daily basis, to then suddenly moving to the other side of the country where I knew no one, and my ‘work’ was of a very different nature.
To help me get over this I decided to apply for some part-time work, which I have to admit has been really enjoyable. Not only am I responsible for the University’s weekly student newsletter, but it’s also allowed me to get involved with a host of other projects such as writing a guide for the AUA, and upgrading the Graduate College’s website. I even won an award for all my hard work!
Of course work as a PhD student isn’t for everyone, but it certainly is an option, and something I’d encourage you to look at, even if it’s just a few hours a week in the local bar. All of these things are good life experience, and can potentially make a difference to your employability once you’ve completed your PhD.

The turning point

For me, the turning point in my PhD really came in January of this year, when I started writing up my notes and putting together my first draft chapters. I was starting to settle in academically, and had found a good work-life balance and I was starting to get comfortable in my new role.
I also found that the time afforded me by my PhD* has allowed me to get back into blogging, both on, as well as here on this very site. I originally set up my blog many years ago as a diary for my freelance writing activities, but it then turned into an English / Digital Marketing blog as my career shifted and I moved into different circles. Well, now it’s back, and I’m pleased to say it has given me a whole load of inspiration. It’s also been a great place for me to think through some of my ideas and engage with people on subjects that are quite important to me.
If you’ve not thought about blogging before, I do recommend it, though it is not for the faint hearted. As Emily will attest, blogging is not an easy task, and a blog requires a great deal of time and dedication to keep it going over time. If you have any questions about blogging / digital media for academics, do post them below as I’ll be happy to answer (it used to be my job you know!)

Lessons learnt

So by now you will have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things I’ve been up to this year – and this is only just the start. I’ve provided a more comprehensive list over on my website if you are interested in finding out more.
So anyway, what lessons (if any) have I learnt?
1.    Don’t stress. Seriously: don’t do it. Some people seem to dedicate more of their time to stressing out, and telling other people just how stressed they are than actually sitting down and doing some work. Not only is it counter-productive, but it’s also a complete waste of time. Stressing won’t make you complete your thesis any quicker; nor will it help any of those around you.
2.    Take time off. Again, this is a really important point, and one far too few people seem to understand. I currently have multiple jobs on top of my PhD work, but I still insist on not doing any work at all on a Sunday. Why? Because it’s important to switch off. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll also be more productive when you do return to work.
3.    Find a routine that works for you. I get up at 6am most days and work until about lunchtime. I get all my ‘thinking’ work done in the morning when I am fresh as this is what works best for me. I strongly advise you don’t let others dictate your work habits but rather find what works best for you. And don’t let yourself get distracted!
4.    Don’t work hard: work smart. Remember, it’s not about how hard you work, but what you do when you are working. Look at your work habits and consider ways that might make the process more efficient. For example, do you write your notes by hand, or straight onto a computer? How do you organise your notes once you’ve typed them up? Do you do all your notes from one book first, or do you keep flitting back to it?  Addressing simple issues such as these can make your academic life x10 easier and far more productive.
5.    Don’t stress. Really: don’t do it. 
And finally the most important piece of advice is this: your PhD is what you make of it. Seize the moment; make the most of the many opportunities University life has to offer. After all, you only get one chance at this, and it would be a shame to waste it all hiding away at home or sitting in your room.
Until next time,

* I know, I know, some of you will be saying ‘what time?’ but really there are far more stressful, far worse ‘jobs’ out there.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve been through a lot these past few years, but to me at least, the PhD experience shouldn’t be something to stress about, but rather enjoy. How many people can say they’ve been given three years (seven years total for some of you!) or more to sit and do something they enjoy without any worries greater than reading a few books and writing some essays?!

I don’t mean to sound flippant or dismissive – that’s really not my intention – but sometimes it can be good to take a step back and consider just what else you could be doing with your life. Trust me: there are a lot worse things you could be doing right now!
© Let's Talk Academia | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig