Thursday, 23 February 2017

What do you do?

Joshua Hughes is an AHRC funded PhD student in Law at Lancaster University. In his guest post today, he reflects on what doing a PhD actually means and considers two contrasting perceptions from the “outside looking in”, concluding that perhaps people who are within academia should not necessarily be narrowly defined in terms of their job/pathway. If you would like to see more of what Joshua writes about, go and check out his blog: and follow him on Twitter at: @JoshGHughes 

Over Christmas I was visiting my hometown. On two separate nights out I met some friends of friends who asked me the typical question when meeting someone new: ‘What do you do?’ When I replied, ‘I’m doing a PhD’ a couple of people asked me the same question: ‘What’s a PhD?’ These separate conversations then went down very different routes after I explained what it actually involves.

The first went down the line of ‘wow, you must be so smart. I couldn’t even imagine doing that.’ I don’t really know why this is. I’m in the second year of my PhD and have never thought that I am especially intelligent. Maybe doing well at undergrad and during a masters means that you hang around with other high achievers, and so doing a PhD doesn’t seem unusual – perhaps the adage that ‘you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’ holds true.

However, I think anybody could do a PhD, in the same way that most runners will say anyone can do a marathon. I think a lot of the time people don’t even realise that they are limiting themselves. I remember being at school and only a handful of people in my year were seriously considering jobs that even required a degree. One of them wanted a job that might have required a doctorate: a marine biologist. I think most people still limit themselves because they don’t think they can do something that takes some intelligence – like I said, I don’t think I’m that intelligent, I’m just a hard worker.

But then again, we’re all hard workers, and everybody explores ideas that they are interested in. One of the hardest workers I know is my barber. Every time I have my haircut he talks at length about lots of ideas he’s been thinking about, which are often brilliant insights. So if everyone is exploring ideas they are interested in, perhaps it’s more that academics’ ideas are built upon a base of knowledge that takes a long time to collect that makes it seem like a PhD is unobtainable for most people. Plus, there is the aspect that the academy seems like somewhere people don’t belong if they’re from a disadvantaged background. But, talking to lots of PhD students, I think this is changing now.

The second response to telling someone I do a PhD was ‘that’s all we need, another student who thinks he’s an expert.’ I guess this is partly due to the Michael Gove inspired Brexit-backlash against experts. Which I get, I mean if you’re a Mail or Express reader who gets told daily that a liberal elite of graduate ‘experts’ are out on some great project and don’t care about you, you’d hate them too. But I think it also plays into an anti-intellectualism that sounds exactly the same as it did in school. Remember when mediocrity was cool?

I think this anti-intellectualism is partly due to a hangover from the idea that academics (and perhaps by extension, ‘experts’) are still enclosed in the ivory tower of the academy, and don’t understand the general public. Perhaps this is slightly true, after all there isn’t much cross-over between the minutiae an academic considers in their research and what you might talk about in the pub (unless maybe if it is a campus bar). However, everyone is an expert at their own work role; is there really any cross-over with between pub-talk and the intricacies of selling insurance, health and safety policy, or plumbing? No, there isn’t really. So, if our expertise at work aren’t helping us socialise, what to do?

When socialising, we don’t approach it with the same way we do at work, so why should we answer the sociable question of ‘What do you do?’ with the work answer of our job/study? Maybe we should consider Tim Ferris’ idea that we are actually far more than our job, so why not answer with the thing we enjoy doing the most? Whether windsurfing, car racing, painting, or reading, we make connections with people based on commonalities, so why not present that first? At the very least, it might avoid the preconception that you are a lofty and arrogant academic!

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Term time: keeping organised and staying sane

Hannah Brewster is an MA Religious Studies student at Lancaster University. In her guest post today, she explores ways to keep organised and sane at postgraduate level, and offers her own personal advice and tips to keep on top of both work and life.  

Organisation and staying sane seem pretty easy to do. But when doing postgraduate studies, it is easy to lose your way and feel bogged down under the pressure of it all, and this is where good organisational skills really comes into play.

When doing my undergraduate, I realised that I needed to keep my entire life organised in order to stay on top of deadlines, and this has had to carry over tenfold when doing my Masters. This post will hopefully give some useful tips for keeping organised and staying sane in the world of academia.

1.    Weekly planner

This is by far the best way to know what you’re doing and when you have to do things by. Having a weekly planner that you can always see on your desk reminds you of all the important stuff you have to do, from reading to partying. Breaking the day up into set times (think: school) is a really helpful way to categorise and prioritise your workload and social life, as there is not a lot of contact time in postgraduate studies. This means it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can just sit on your bed and watch Netflix all day. But by having a planner, Netflix gets pushed to an evening after you’ve done what you need to for the day, and therefore you don’t feel guilty for binge-watching! It’s also really motivating to see the words “relax” and “party” at the weekends, meaning you're more likely to get that work done.

2. Get to grips with reading

It’s all very easy to write down when you’re going to do your reading, but knowing how to do academic reading is a great way to stay organised. Never leave seminar reading to the last minute, because it’s almost always longer than you had first anticipated! And only do additional reading if you have the time; don’t push yourself too hard, otherwise you’ll burn out. I do additional readings if I really enjoy that particular topic or if I’m going to do that topic for an essay. Reading is vital for postgraduate studies, but you don’t want to become bored of it!

3. Have a set meal and rest time

Staying organised at uni is not all about prioritising work and knowing your timetable off by heart. It’s about keeping on track of all the other things you have to keep doing to live, such as eating. Setting a time for dinner gives you a goal to work towards during the day and you always know you can have a break at that time. It’s also really helpful to plan your meals at the beginning of each week, so you can look forward to your fish fingers all day! Setting a time to stop working is something that I find really helpful when at uni. I never work past 9pm, which works for me as I can chill for an hour or two before going to bed. This time away from my desk allows my brain to switch off from academia, and then I’m ready to go again the next day.

4. Week 5

Most uni terms are 10 weeks long, and this means Week 5 is the half-way point, and the time to get serious. Knowing this from the beginning of term is a great way to stay organised because you can mentally prepare yourself for the workload you will give yourself at this midpoint. Week 5 is the best time to start thinking about essays as you feel more comfortable with the content of your modules and you still have a while before deadlines. It may seem early, but you will thank yourself once those essays are finished.

5. Give yourself a break

It may seem like keeping organised is all about timetables and work work work. But taking time doing something completely different is great for the mind. Even when deadlines are looming and you feel the last thing you want to do is go and do the weekly food shop, do it. Staying sane when doing a postgraduate degree really is about balance. You do your readings for the week, and then you watch some TV. You write up a presentation, and then you go for a walk. Taking whole weekends off may seem like a lot, but cherish those two days. Seeing friends and family, doing reading for yourself, petting a dog… they’re all amazing at keeping you sane. And when you're feeling happy, energised, and not like you want to sleep for 200 hours, your organisational skills and uni work flourishes.

This is not an exhaustive list of how to keep organised, or of how to stay sane when doing a postgrad degree, but it works for me. Having the ability to construct your life in such a way that you can stay on top of everything is a very rewarding skill and allows you to go through your (academic or non-academic) life with a smile and no stress. (Okay, no stress until deadlines, anyway*).

*But stress will be kept to a minimum if you’re organised

Thursday, 9 February 2017

"When loneliness strikes"

I was driving home from university last week when I heard the news on the radio: MPs launch Jo Cox Commission to tackle loneliness. Subsequent to this announcement, people spoke out to share snippets of their personal stories about loneliness and, for once, these people were not in the older generation. As much as loneliness is such a huge issue for people in old age, I feel like loneliness can too often be portrayed in the media as an exclusively “older person thing” – something that only OAPs experience. I was so glad to finally hear emphasis being placed on loneliness as something that all people, from all backgrounds and ages, can experience too.

Let’s be real, the issue of loneliness at postgraduate level – particularly at the PhD stage –  needs to be talked about. It just does. Unlike many other professional pathways, the academic route is far from conventional in terms of the amount of human interaction one can have on a daily basis. Those that are doing a PhD or an MA with very limited contact time (like me), can simply have incredibly rare day-to-day human interaction because there’s no such thing as “colleagues”, or “peers”.  It’s independent research, which means that it’s independently led by just the person that is doing the PhD or research MA. For many people, although it is a path that they deliberately chose to take, it can therefore be a very isolating and lonely period. Even for those that are actually very sociable and have a lot of friends within the PhD/ research MA realm (or even outside the academic setting!), there is still something inherently isolating about the process of doing independent research – despite it, of course, also being really rewarding. At the end of the day, you only have your supervisor(s) to consistently talk to about your project in depth, as they are the only person/ people that truly understand your work. Even if you get on amazingly well with your supervisor(s), it still isn’t a lot of people to discuss your project in depth with! It’s not like you can have a unifying group chat on Facebook or whatsapp about the issues, positives, and details of the project at hand, with lots of people that know exactly what the hell you’re chirping on about (oh how I miss those undergrad, group chat days!) Also, being a postgraduate means that you often work from home, which can make the isolation/loneliness so much worse. I’m in a tricky situation because I work from home every day and, I’m not going to fib, some days I find it so painfully isolating – but at the same time, I can’t fully concentrate in busy places so it’s not like I can even make a daily trip to the library or a coffee shop if I want to realistically have a solid, productive work day. Often, therefore, it can be easy as a postgrad to unintentionally isolate yourself even more.

One of the main reasons why I created this blog was because I was actually going through a period of loneliness myself – and very much still feel isolated even now from time to time. I just felt like I needed some kind of outlet, and one which I hoped could also bring other postgrads together. As social as I am, the whole situation of basically having pretty much zero contact time in my MA means that I am often on my own throughout the day, because the structure of the course simply hasn’t given me the proper opportunity to make solid friendships. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a couple of friends in the MA environment but it is nowhere near as many as I made in undergrad! After all, how can you make solid friendships with people on your course when you don’t see them hardly ever and don’t have the opportunity to get to know people?! I really don’t want to come across like I’m complaining about my situation, as I love what I do and I honestly find independent research so fulfilling and I wouldn’t want to pursue anything else, but I just want to shed light today on the darker side of postgraduate studies in light of the recent news stories regarding this problem. Loneliness is a real issue that can have a serious negative impact on people’s wellbeing, and it is noted that this specific issue is ever-growing in the postgrad setting because of the nature of academic work. Of course, you can arrange to have coffee meet-ups in the day with a couple of people or get involved with other social stuff, but that still doesn’t change the fact that some days it is just inevitable for a postgrad to have an isolating work day whereby, for example, work will just consist of being at home on your own all day. Likewise, you can be messaging many of your postgrad friends from different places online or via text, but that doesn’t always have the same effect as actually being in the actual company of people day-to-day. Sometimes I actually find that type of communication with other postgrads quite irritating, as people can often get caught up in their busy lives and forget to message you back, or simply not reply – by all means, this is totally understandable, everyone is guilty of forgetting to reply to odd messages (including me), but, note to self and to others: if this continually happens then maybe funnel out the people that aren’t interested in having you as a postgrad friend, and perhaps assess if it’s worth even having flaky people in your life, as these are the people that can often make you feel even more lonely and isolated! I think it’s so important in the academic setting to really evaluate what type of people you want to be surrounded by. In this particular environment, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people that are 100% supportive, and that you know you can count on when you’re having isolating days. Surround yourself with people that you know will lift you up, in the same way that you will also lift them up when they need it as well. There has to be equal, mutual and common ground - no one-sided situation.  

People within academia can experience loneliness for many different reasons, and in many different ways. It can be so easy to get caught up in the isolating aspect of academic study, but if you can try and break up your days by getting involved in social events and meeting friends for a catch up, then definitely do! Also, try and get involved in academic events too, such as conferences, as these are useful platforms to network and meet other like-minded people. I think it’s also good to have people to talk to and hang around with outside of the academic setting, too. Also, the aim of Let’s Talk Academia is to be an online space for postgrads to share their experiences and stories, in order for people to come together and be able to relate to each other and feel like they are part of a broader community. Blogging can be such a good way to get to know other postgrads, and to also just talk about anything you feel should be talked about. I hope I’ve created a positive but, more importantly, an honest, collaborative space for people to feel comfortable enough to use it as a platform to network and talk about anything they want (don’t hesitate to contact me via the FB page or email if you want to guest contribute and get involved in this online community!) As I’ve said in a previous post, there are always ways to overcome or relieve the feelings of loneliness and isolation, but let’s not underestimate the very detrimental impact it can have on people within academia. Only last week it was described in the news as the new "silent epidemic" amongst the younger generations. Quite simply, more needs to be done to raise awareness and help those in this situation.  


Here is the recent news story on this topic:

Also, here is the link to a similar blog post if you want to check that out too:

Thursday, 2 February 2017

In conversation with...Elaine Sanderson

Elaine Sanderson did her undergrad and masters at the University of Exeter, where she was also President of the Exeter Classics Society in her 3rd year. She moved to Liverpool after graduating from her Masters' course with distinction to commence her doctorate research, and having received a full PhD funding award from the AHRC NWCDTP. Some of her research interests include: Latin Literature, Latin Imperial Epic (particularly Lucan and Valerius Flaccus), Ancient Rhetoric and Greek Tragedy. Follow Elaine on Twitter at: @ElainaM42, or send her an email: If you would also like to see Elaine’s personal blog (it’s fab – go check it out), here is the link:

Firstly, it would be great to hear a little bit about your PhD research. What is your subject and what are you researching?

My current PhD title is ‘Lucanian Transformations: Civil War, Necromancy, and the Resurrection of Rome’.  Lucan is a Latin poet who lived under the Emperor Nero and wrote an epic poem on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, a conflict which many people credit for hastening the end of the Roman Republic.  My thesis looks at Lucan’s portrayal of necromancy and civil war as processes of transformation, rather than evidence for decline, as they are frequently interpreted.  I’m really lucky in that my chosen topic allows me to explore a variety of literary, political, and even magical texts as part of my research!

Why did you decide that you wanted to embark on doing a PhD?

I’ve been fascinated by the Ancient World for as long as I can remember, really enjoyed studying Latin at school, and have always enjoyed doing independent research.  I first discovered Lucan when I was doing my Extended Project at school, and haven’t really said goodbye to him since.  I came up with the core idea for my thesis while auditing a Latin course run by Dr Sharon Marshall at the University of Exeter during the second year of my undergrad degree, and knew that it was something I wanted to pursue properly.  I also hope to follow an academic career, so after my BA and MA degrees, a PhD was the next logical step.

In your first year so far, what experiences, if any, have you had that you perhaps didn’t anticipate prior to starting your PhD?

The PhD has, for the most part, lived up to my expectations.  I love being free to pursue my own research questions and ideas, and even spend some time going off on tangents in my reading.  The only thing which I perhaps did not fully anticipate was how doing a PhD would make me feel.  People often tell you that PhD life can be lonely, and that it is important not to get so wrapped up in your work that you forget that there’s a real world going by outside your office!  I always assumed that this sort of pressure would mostly come from outside, from things like writing deadlines for supervisions, planning for seminars, etc.  I didn’t expect that all of this pressure would actually come from me, that I would be the one pushing myself to become utterly consumed by my project.  This is, of course, by no means a bad thing.  I love my research, and I love waking up and being excited about what I’m going to look at each day, and how my thesis is going to progress.  Sometimes it is nice to be totally engrossed in a project- I personally find that it gives me something of a sense of purpose.  Even so, you can have too much of a good thing, and I’ve found that it’s so important to not let the PhD eclipse everything else!       

What would you say you’ve enjoyed the most about doing a PhD so far? Has anything really rewarding happened yet?

One of my favourite things about the PhD so far has been meeting other students, both within my own discipline, and across the Arts & Humanities.  It’s always great to hear about what other people are working on, and get a sense of where my field might be heading in the future.  I feel very lucky, as quite a few rewarding things have already happened during my PhD journey.  I’m really looking forward to picking up the Graduate Teaching Assistant mantle and teaching some seminars in my department this term.  Although planning how I’m going to deliver these sessions is a little nerve-wracking at times, I’m also excited to come up with engaging activities for my students to (hopefully!) enjoy.  Also, this morning I received the wonderful news that I will be organising the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient Literature at Liverpool this year.  This conference brings together postgrads from all over the world who are united by their interest in the literature of the ancient world, so I’m feeling very honoured and excited to be hosting such a valuable and prestigious event.  We’ll see if I’m still saying this a week before the conference kicks off…

Your PhD is funded by AHRC (NWCDTP), what advice would you give to prospective PhD students that are seeking funding?

My main advice for prospective students seeking funding is to cast your net wide.  I applied to 5 institutions for my PhD, and filled out multiple funding applications for each.  With so little funding to go around, it’s important to remember that there must always be an element of luck in the selection process.  Even though filling out endless applications is time-consuming, it’s worth it to try and improve your odds in this game.  Secondly, it’s important to read the application guidelines for whichever funding pot you’re applying to.  These guidelines will help you tailor each application, and also act as a handy check list to make sure you’ve included everything important before you submit.  You don’t want to be turned down simply because your application does not meet their criteria.  Thirdly, don’t be impatient! I am definitely guilty of this one! Funding bodies receive thousands of applications for a very limited number of places/studentships.  Naturally, it takes a while to go through them all.  I’d pretty much given up hope on the funding front when I received my letter from the NWCDTP.  So don’t abandon the hope of doing a PhD and rush off to make other plans if you don’t hear back for a while!

In independent-led work, it can at times be easy to feel unmotivated because there is less structure due to the fact that we are responsible, as individuals, to organise our own deadlines and productivity. What is your advice when you have slow-moving days, and feel slightly unmotivated in terms of your work and progress?

I’m quite lucky in that I haven’t yet had a day when I haven’t felt motivated! I really hope this streak continues for the next three years…

Even though I seem to be doing pretty well on the motivation front, there are, of course, days when things seem to be going a little slower than I would like.  The independence of PhD life allows me to organise and tweak my schedule on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis (people who know me know that I love to make elaborate schedules!).  This means that I can reshuffle my to-do lists and turn my attention to another task, before turning back to my original work with some fresh eyes.  In addition to my PhD work, I’m auditing a Greek language course in my department, which gives me plenty of additional bits and pieces to be getting along with in my spare time.  Despite having a somewhat irrational fear of Greek during my undergrad degree, I actually now find it quite therapeutic to go over passages of text in preparation for my next class.  It definitely helps to break up a slow research day.

Have you experienced any challenges yet in your PhD that others could maybe relate to? Do you have any fears or worries about your PhD journey?

I think my main worry (probably the main worry of any PhD students) is that I won’t finish on time! I drew up a timetable for my 3 years just before I started my PhD back in October, and it seems to be going to plan so far…

If you could say something about your general PhD experience so far, what would it be in a nutshell?

My general PhD experience so far has been very positive.  It’s incredibly liberating to be in (almost) complete control of your own research, goals, and schedule, and to be able to challenge and push yourself every day.  It has also been very exciting to settle into a new university and department, and also meet my extended Arts & Humanities family through the NWCDTP. 

And finally, what is your end goal? Do you have any aspirations yet as to what you want to do after your PhD?

Right now, I’d love to go into academia after completing my PhD!  
© Let's Talk Academia | All rights reserved.
Blog Layout Created by pipdig