When I applied for this role I was asked to write a short blog post about PhD training provision. To be quite honest with you, I was at first a bit stumped by the challenge of writing something genuinely interesting and innovative about this subject. This is not to say that I have not valued the formal training I have received from my university and SGSAH, but I just couldn’t think what to write about it that would be of any interest or value to the reader. I tried a couple of approaches, both equally dry, before I realised that PhD students receive training of some sort on an almost daily basis. It may not be as tangible as a workshop on ‘surviving the viva’ or ‘public engagement’, but it is valuable nonetheless.
This unofficial training comes in many forms; shaping our research, our PhD experience, and presumably our future careers along the way. I assume, for example, that I am not alone in having picked up invaluable skills from the many curators, archivists, librarians that have facilitated my research visits. Writing my first article for publication taught me more than I could possibly have imagined about accepting and utilising criticism, sharpening my argument and generally tightening up my writing. And organising a conference… more on this soon! But when choosing a subject that I could cover in just 200-300 words, I realised there was one – often forgotten – source of training that has been of great importance to me throughout my own PhD experience.
And so I chose to write about other PhD students, who have been a constant source of information, inspiration, support, sanity, (and sometimes stress) throughout my own PhD experience. I have learned so much both about academic development and coping mechanisms from the students I’ve met through the SGSAH cohort, my academic department or at conferences along the way. This all came as something of a surprise. I didn’t have this same experience on my Masters programme, and I had been warned repeatedly that undertaking a PhD could be an incredibly isolating experience, particularly if – like me – you don’t live in the same city as your university. I’m a pretty self motivated person and I thought I’d be capable of getting through the three years pretty much on my own, but if I had, I would have missed out on a lot.
There is nothing more valuable to a brand-new PhD student than meeting equally overwhelmed newbies, and learning that imposter syndrome is the norm in academia. The natural networking that takes place at PhD events is the best possible way to rehearse an elevator pitch for your project. Finding people in your own subject idea to bounce ideas off before taking them to your supervisors makes for more productive supervisory meetings. Forming a reading, writing or discussion group can be hugely motivating and productive, and this is something I’ll be focusing more on in an upcoming post. Even at this point in my own PhD I learn so much by just watching my peers deliver a confident public lecture, handle multiple jobs alongside their research or tackle funding applications.
As a SGSAH funded student I was forced to attend cohort events that I dreaded initially, but quickly came to enjoy and even look forward to. But if you do not have this same set-up, there are many other ways to connect with other PhD students, even if you are a long distance student like me. In my first year, I looked out all the PhDs at my university working on dress or textiles, and we starting meeting on a semi-regular basis to discuss our research and share our PhD-woes. Collaborating on projects or organising events has proven, for me at least, a brilliant way to feel less isolated. Using Twitter has a similar effect, and is a great way to make links with people who may be attending the same conferences or workshops, putting names to faces before the event itself. And attending public lectures at your local university, even if it is not the university at which you are enrolled, is a nice way to feel like part of the academic world.
I feel so lucky to have been part of a PhD ‘cohort’ (or squad if you will), and for the members of that group with whom I have put on events, shared conference abstracts for feedback, discussed the best methods to avoid procrastination, and planned Christmas dinners. Last year I even shared an unofficial PhD office for a while, which was pretty ace. Without the PhD squad, I would be a far less skilled or dynamic – and, to be fair, less busy – PhD student.
I hope those at the start of their own PhD journeys will remember to take the time to observe their fellow students; not to compare yourself, but to learn and develop.
If you’d like to share your own thoughts on working with other PhD students, or any other part of the PhD experience, I’d love to hear from you. Check out out submission guidelines or email me. You can also follow SGSAH on Twitter and Facebook, for regular updates on all the latest happenings and opportunities they have to offer.