What I learned during my first term as a PhD researcher

Embarking on a PhD can be daunting, yet the first term brings opportunities to make a strong start by establishing solid working processes for the months and years to come. Kim Harding, a first-year PhD candidate in the sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London shares what she has learned since starting her course.

I shook off the burden of originality

You may arrive at your doctoral studies with the notion that you need to deliver a significant, original contribution to knowledge. However, as Pat Thomson writes in her blog about academic practice, a solo PhD will most often offer “small variations in research in a field that is relatively well-trodden”. So don’t feel encumbered by Your Great Idea; instead, concentrate on how you are building on existing scholarship and adding to it. Admittedly, this isn’t as cool as ‘original contribution to knowledge’, but it’s a lot less anxiety-inducing.

I identified where and when I’m most productive

Identify what in your day is high-intensity (eg writing, editing) and what is low-intensity (emails, admin). Then find the space — and the appropriate time of day — that is most conducive to getting the work done. For me, the hard work finishes before lunchtime, in a place where I can think without interruption — my sofa works very well for this purpose. In the afternoon, I’ll move to somewhere more favourable to low-intensity work, like a busy area on campus, preferably one that sells coffee. Find whatever works for you.

I learned to talk about my research in one sentence, at the drop of a hat

You’ve probably heard of the ‘elevator pitch’ — the dazzling sentence that explains your research in a nutshell. After my induction week, in which I clumsily tried to explain my research to peers (“I’m interested in, er, selfhood and, er, digital lifeworlds”), I distilled it into something more compelling (“I’m researching how teenagers that identify as non-religious create meaning through digital technology”). For added fun, take your elevator pitch and condense into six words. Currently, mine goes: “Is the smartphone a devotional object?” The six-word challenge completely over-simplifies what you do, but it forces you to think about the essence of your research problem. It’s also a great conversation-starter.

I didn’t spend much time in the library

I had a romantic idea that I would be spending hours in the stacks grappling with Important Social Theories. But it hasn’t really worked out like that so far, because I realised I never get my best work done in libraries, no matter how many beautiful books I am surrounded with. Instead, I have taken advantage of the many resources on offer to the doctoral researcher: graduate school workshops, one-day events, seminars, lectures. Rather than being considered a distraction from the ‘real’ business of being in a library, they are an essential part of the research process, providing fresh angles on my discipline, ideas about how to do my research and a chance to let off steam with other researchers.

I made more lists than strictly necessary

My Evernote files are full of lists. Lists about what to read. Lists about what to write. Lists about people I want to talk to and lists about things that I will eventually make more lists about. OK, so I admit I’m an obsessive list-compiler. But planning the work is the work. Sitting for hours in the library reading books that you fancy the look of isn’t a bad idea in itself, but meticulous planning ensures you know why you’re reading those books and what it contributes to your research. Moreover, a ton of scheduling and planning is required to ensure that you have the mental energy to apply yourself to the issues at the core of your research, with focus and purpose, without feeling like you’re drowning in a sea of emails and looming deadlines. If you keep on top of the detail, you free up precious brainpower for Your Great Idea to grow.


What did you learn during your first term as a PhD researcher? Have you nailed the art of the ‘elevator pitch’? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Kim Harding is a PhD researcher in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research explores how non-religious teenagers create meaning and enact their values through the digital technology they use. In her non-academic life, she works as a freelance journalist.


Cover image: question-questions-man-head-2519654 / jambulboyCC0 1.0

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