5 (x 4) things I wish I'd done in my first year of PhD

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A couple of days ago, I attended Cambridge DOCking Station's "‘5 things I wish I’d known last year’: A Networking & Mentoring Event" at the Criminology building. They put together a panel of second- and third-year PhD students, who shared their regrets/insights about what they could've/should've done during their first year. A few of the points were repeated by most or all of them -- which means I should watch out for these things--, and overall I thought they gave really helpful advice.

Here are the things first-year PhD should heed:

1. Plan supervisions ahead, draw up a list of question you want to raise with your supervisor. Simply put, have clear goals for each meeting.
2. Start writing as soon as possible.
Talk to people in your department, not just PhDs, but the postdoc fellows, the lecturers, everyone. They know things you don't.
3. Plan for your final year and for your post-PhD life...this helps you to stay focused on finishing your research successfully, but
4. Avoid planning for the future too rigidly, enjoy the research process.

5. Remember the very privilege of being able to do research -- you'll appreciate your position (all of its highs and lows!) better.
6. The process of reaching your final PhD goal is like a downward (or upward, whatever) spiral, with you starting from one end and aiming for the other. Let's put in some visual aid:

Explanation: because your research goals are on side A, you'll feel discouraged every time you realise that you're at a point on side B (have you ever, after weeks or months of sifting through the literature and materials, found yourself back at the same place you were before? That's side B.)
The thing to remember is, no matter which side you're currently on, you are moving down the spiral, which means that you are getting closer to your research answers. 
It will feel slow or stationary sometimes, but just. keep. going.

7. Read broadly, attend a variety of talks and events to keep your mind active and open and curious.
8. Establish from the start your key expectations with your supervisor.
9. Peer supervision. Get PhD colleagues and postdocs to comment on your work. Yes they're busy with their own work, but be persistent and keep asking. 

10. Manage your supervisor. They are extremely busy people, do not take their time for granted, but chase them down for feedback if you need to. If they forget, remind them. Right now, in the midst of your cluelessness about your PhD, it seems like your supervisor will be the one to manage your project, BUT NO. It is your project. You manage it, and manage your supervisor's commitment to it as well.
11. Plan your learning time. Set aside time to actually read and understand and learn new skills.
12. Collaborate up. This means that, whenever possible, ask for comments on your work, seek research collaboration opportunities, and establish relationships with academics who are higher up the seniority ladder.
13. Ask for help.

14. Keep writing. One way to do is is to always write on a fresh file/document/sheet instead of writing and editing over a new one. This helps you to keep track of your progress because you can compare your older work with your more recent ones.
15. Have specialists and non-specialists look at your work.
16. On writing and note-taking: keep your literature review/broad perspective notes separate from your close analysis.
17. Consistently re-examine your voice and perspective. It needs to be critical and authentic, beware the trap of cultural imperialism, which tricks you into adapting a point of view just because it's prevalent and seems correct.
18. Take advantage of travel opportunities. Apply to all the funding available, and even if it seems remotely applicable to your research/recreational situation, ask. 

There should've been 20 points, but the other two probably were repetitions of the other points so I didn't write them down. Additional advice:

19. Don't think of your PhD research as a title. Your research scope will expand and change and twist, so lower your barriers and keep an open mind.
20. Don't reference things that aren't directly relevant to your argument just so you can bulk up your footnotes.

On managing your reading (your to-read list will grow forever more):
21. You can't read everything.
22. Read book review articles. This is a lovely cheat tip, but doing this really does direct you towards the central debates of the topic and area.


I also attended the History faculty's introductory session on "Good Research Practice" for PhDs/historians, but I'll lay out the loot from that one in another post inshaAllah.

Tips for first-year PhDs

0 comments
Now that I am almost three weeks into this adventure, I've met my supervisor, made friends in college and in the department and elsewhere, I have received some advice from others who have more experience doing a Humanities PhD. All of them have helped me look at my open schedule and the PhD process differently, and I suspect that these tips will be very valuable to me as I trudge ahead.

I have always wondered what it's like to be a PhD researcher -- what is expected of me, what can I do to get the most out of it, what challenges should I be prepared for, what perks should I not miss out on, and basically how will it change my life? Maybe you've been thinking about these things, too, so here's what I've heard so far:

From my supervisor:

1. Spend the first two months or so of the PhD exploring your topic. Be open to all the possible ways of examining your topic, and map out what sources are available.
2. Enjoy your experience.


Sometimes I get lost.

From a 2nd year Middle Eastern Studies PhD student:

3. Try to do a bit of everything everyday. In any research area/phase that requires intensive and extensive reading, it's easy to lose yourself in one book or subtopic, and emerge from the rabbit hole 2 or three weeks after that. And then you'll realise how out of touch you've become with the other aspects of your research, that you're now 3 weeks closer to the first year assessment deadline but have not examined the other subtopics/authors yet, and it'll be more difficult to shift your focus quickly.

This is the work routine that worked for him (he didn't realise this until he was several months into his PhD): Chunk down your morning into sessions where you do, say, some language work, and then some essential reading of Egyptian history, and after that a reading of your primary sources. So by lunch time, you'll see that you've covered quite a lot, which is very satisfying and encouraging. After lunch break, you can then concentrate on one thing that you've chosen for the day. Repeat. After a few weeks, you should have (a) decided whether this works for you or not -- and tweak or change your rhythm as needed, and (b) have covered quite a bit of ground on your initial research, inshaAllah.

The Free School Lane Site. This reminds me of UCL.

One of my classmates in Hebrew class is a post-doctoral fellow in Linguistics, who did his PhD in Cambridge about ten years back, experienced a difficult PhD -- he didn't get much support from his supervisor, it took him 5 years -- but he made it and became a specialist in that area! Here was his advice:

4. Have good friends. A few good ones is better than many not-so-close ones. Also important, know your friends' weaknesses, so you don't completely give in to their ways, and also so that you can help them where they need a friend's advice and support.

5. Ask for advice from people, don't be afraid to ask for advice. Listen to their perspectives, but you don't have to act on their advice if it doesn't suit you.

6. Be really curious. Open up your views, don't judge the ideas (related to your research), just be curious and get as much input as you can. Later you decide what's best for you and your study.

7. Do one thing that's different from your PhD. It could be completely unrelated to your study, it could be slightly related, but go out and be involved in something other than your research. These should all help you consider your research topic with fresh eyes, and in a broader view. Most importantly, it takes you a step back from your research, and we all know that things look differently from afar.

 Trumpington Street

I haven't found my reading-and-note-taking rhythm yet, nor my perfect desk/reading spot, or a (Cambridge-based) circle of friends that really click with me/kindred souls for keeps, but I will find them inshaAllah. 

اللهم بارك لنا في أوقاتا، آمين

PhD postcard

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Dear friends,

I've begun my first year (they call it the probationary year -- you'll only be officially registered as a PhD student once you pass the first-year assessment) of PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Really, though, my research is historical (as opposed to being a study of politics...and...international studies. I've been to three separate sessions on methodology so far and now, more than ever, I find it hard to say "historical" (and a host of other terms) without weighing in the ways people have defined it/them.

Ideally, this post would be a letter with many snapshots enclosed. But (a) I no longer have a camera except for the one on my phone and (b) I can't transfer the phone photos to my laptop at the moment, but I managed to e-mail this photo from my phone before the tech-y problems arrived:

I bought a whole salmon at ASDA and cut it up to be frozen. This is much cheaper than buying salmon fillets, I wonder why we never thought of doing this in London.

Sorry my first photo from Cambridge is of a fish. The past few days have been spent in mapping out where the books that I need are -- this university has more than a hundred libraries but I'll probably only frequent 4 or 5 of them, and it's not like we get access to all the libraries anyway --, and then sourcing books than cannot be found in any of the Cambridge libraries, ferreting around the internet for human sources of information, plotting a realistic plan for the next several months of research, and getting used to living in Cambridge. Haven't bought a bike yet. Or a duvet. I made some laundry detergent, though, and I'm quite happy with the results so I shouldn't need to spend so much money on regular ones any more :)

Remember me in your du'as!

Until next time,
Maryam
St. Catharine's College, Cambridge

Thursday, October 29, 2015

5 (x 4) things I wish I'd done in my first year of PhD

A couple of days ago, I attended Cambridge DOCking Station's "‘5 things I wish I’d known last year’: A Networking & Mentoring Event" at the Criminology building. They put together a panel of second- and third-year PhD students, who shared their regrets/insights about what they could've/should've done during their first year. A few of the points were repeated by most or all of them -- which means I should watch out for these things--, and overall I thought they gave really helpful advice.

Here are the things first-year PhD should heed:

1. Plan supervisions ahead, draw up a list of question you want to raise with your supervisor. Simply put, have clear goals for each meeting.
2. Start writing as soon as possible.
Talk to people in your department, not just PhDs, but the postdoc fellows, the lecturers, everyone. They know things you don't.
3. Plan for your final year and for your post-PhD life...this helps you to stay focused on finishing your research successfully, but
4. Avoid planning for the future too rigidly, enjoy the research process.

5. Remember the very privilege of being able to do research -- you'll appreciate your position (all of its highs and lows!) better.
6. The process of reaching your final PhD goal is like a downward (or upward, whatever) spiral, with you starting from one end and aiming for the other. Let's put in some visual aid:

Explanation: because your research goals are on side A, you'll feel discouraged every time you realise that you're at a point on side B (have you ever, after weeks or months of sifting through the literature and materials, found yourself back at the same place you were before? That's side B.)
The thing to remember is, no matter which side you're currently on, you are moving down the spiral, which means that you are getting closer to your research answers. 
It will feel slow or stationary sometimes, but just. keep. going.

7. Read broadly, attend a variety of talks and events to keep your mind active and open and curious.
8. Establish from the start your key expectations with your supervisor.
9. Peer supervision. Get PhD colleagues and postdocs to comment on your work. Yes they're busy with their own work, but be persistent and keep asking. 

10. Manage your supervisor. They are extremely busy people, do not take their time for granted, but chase them down for feedback if you need to. If they forget, remind them. Right now, in the midst of your cluelessness about your PhD, it seems like your supervisor will be the one to manage your project, BUT NO. It is your project. You manage it, and manage your supervisor's commitment to it as well.
11. Plan your learning time. Set aside time to actually read and understand and learn new skills.
12. Collaborate up. This means that, whenever possible, ask for comments on your work, seek research collaboration opportunities, and establish relationships with academics who are higher up the seniority ladder.
13. Ask for help.

14. Keep writing. One way to do is is to always write on a fresh file/document/sheet instead of writing and editing over a new one. This helps you to keep track of your progress because you can compare your older work with your more recent ones.
15. Have specialists and non-specialists look at your work.
16. On writing and note-taking: keep your literature review/broad perspective notes separate from your close analysis.
17. Consistently re-examine your voice and perspective. It needs to be critical and authentic, beware the trap of cultural imperialism, which tricks you into adapting a point of view just because it's prevalent and seems correct.
18. Take advantage of travel opportunities. Apply to all the funding available, and even if it seems remotely applicable to your research/recreational situation, ask. 

There should've been 20 points, but the other two probably were repetitions of the other points so I didn't write them down. Additional advice:

19. Don't think of your PhD research as a title. Your research scope will expand and change and twist, so lower your barriers and keep an open mind.
20. Don't reference things that aren't directly relevant to your argument just so you can bulk up your footnotes.

On managing your reading (your to-read list will grow forever more):
21. You can't read everything.
22. Read book review articles. This is a lovely cheat tip, but doing this really does direct you towards the central debates of the topic and area.


I also attended the History faculty's introductory session on "Good Research Practice" for PhDs/historians, but I'll lay out the loot from that one in another post inshaAllah.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tips for first-year PhDs

Now that I am almost three weeks into this adventure, I've met my supervisor, made friends in college and in the department and elsewhere, I have received some advice from others who have more experience doing a Humanities PhD. All of them have helped me look at my open schedule and the PhD process differently, and I suspect that these tips will be very valuable to me as I trudge ahead.

I have always wondered what it's like to be a PhD researcher -- what is expected of me, what can I do to get the most out of it, what challenges should I be prepared for, what perks should I not miss out on, and basically how will it change my life? Maybe you've been thinking about these things, too, so here's what I've heard so far:

From my supervisor:

1. Spend the first two months or so of the PhD exploring your topic. Be open to all the possible ways of examining your topic, and map out what sources are available.
2. Enjoy your experience.


Sometimes I get lost.

From a 2nd year Middle Eastern Studies PhD student:

3. Try to do a bit of everything everyday. In any research area/phase that requires intensive and extensive reading, it's easy to lose yourself in one book or subtopic, and emerge from the rabbit hole 2 or three weeks after that. And then you'll realise how out of touch you've become with the other aspects of your research, that you're now 3 weeks closer to the first year assessment deadline but have not examined the other subtopics/authors yet, and it'll be more difficult to shift your focus quickly.

This is the work routine that worked for him (he didn't realise this until he was several months into his PhD): Chunk down your morning into sessions where you do, say, some language work, and then some essential reading of Egyptian history, and after that a reading of your primary sources. So by lunch time, you'll see that you've covered quite a lot, which is very satisfying and encouraging. After lunch break, you can then concentrate on one thing that you've chosen for the day. Repeat. After a few weeks, you should have (a) decided whether this works for you or not -- and tweak or change your rhythm as needed, and (b) have covered quite a bit of ground on your initial research, inshaAllah.

The Free School Lane Site. This reminds me of UCL.

One of my classmates in Hebrew class is a post-doctoral fellow in Linguistics, who did his PhD in Cambridge about ten years back, experienced a difficult PhD -- he didn't get much support from his supervisor, it took him 5 years -- but he made it and became a specialist in that area! Here was his advice:

4. Have good friends. A few good ones is better than many not-so-close ones. Also important, know your friends' weaknesses, so you don't completely give in to their ways, and also so that you can help them where they need a friend's advice and support.

5. Ask for advice from people, don't be afraid to ask for advice. Listen to their perspectives, but you don't have to act on their advice if it doesn't suit you.

6. Be really curious. Open up your views, don't judge the ideas (related to your research), just be curious and get as much input as you can. Later you decide what's best for you and your study.

7. Do one thing that's different from your PhD. It could be completely unrelated to your study, it could be slightly related, but go out and be involved in something other than your research. These should all help you consider your research topic with fresh eyes, and in a broader view. Most importantly, it takes you a step back from your research, and we all know that things look differently from afar.

 Trumpington Street

I haven't found my reading-and-note-taking rhythm yet, nor my perfect desk/reading spot, or a (Cambridge-based) circle of friends that really click with me/kindred souls for keeps, but I will find them inshaAllah. 

اللهم بارك لنا في أوقاتا، آمين

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

PhD postcard

Dear friends,

I've begun my first year (they call it the probationary year -- you'll only be officially registered as a PhD student once you pass the first-year assessment) of PhD in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Really, though, my research is historical (as opposed to being a study of politics...and...international studies. I've been to three separate sessions on methodology so far and now, more than ever, I find it hard to say "historical" (and a host of other terms) without weighing in the ways people have defined it/them.

Ideally, this post would be a letter with many snapshots enclosed. But (a) I no longer have a camera except for the one on my phone and (b) I can't transfer the phone photos to my laptop at the moment, but I managed to e-mail this photo from my phone before the tech-y problems arrived:

I bought a whole salmon at ASDA and cut it up to be frozen. This is much cheaper than buying salmon fillets, I wonder why we never thought of doing this in London.

Sorry my first photo from Cambridge is of a fish. The past few days have been spent in mapping out where the books that I need are -- this university has more than a hundred libraries but I'll probably only frequent 4 or 5 of them, and it's not like we get access to all the libraries anyway --, and then sourcing books than cannot be found in any of the Cambridge libraries, ferreting around the internet for human sources of information, plotting a realistic plan for the next several months of research, and getting used to living in Cambridge. Haven't bought a bike yet. Or a duvet. I made some laundry detergent, though, and I'm quite happy with the results so I shouldn't need to spend so much money on regular ones any more :)

Remember me in your du'as!

Until next time,
Maryam
St. Catharine's College, Cambridge