I don’t even want to think about how it became mid-October. The last time I looked up it was the beginning of July. But, it’s just been the beginning of a new academic year and there are lots of new PhD students popping up around the place. I’ve been working from home near Leeds over the summer and I’ve not seen the inside of my department for a while, so I’ve mostly been hearing about the trials and tribulations of the new starters on social media. I’m part of a network (which I’ve mentioned before) on Facebook, the PostgRAD Study Gang, which I have to say has been incredibly helpful in terms of support and gee-ing for me as a student working remotely, and also in terms of being a way to organise meetups and shut up and write sessions in the physical world!
I wanted to offer some suggestions for new students, based on what I’ve found helpful. I’m six and a half months (the half matters) away from scheduled submission on a thesis based in Library and Information Science with a hint of pedagogy, youth studies, politics, personal construct psychology, phenomenography and critical theory, so I hope my experiences so far can be helpful to those at the beginning of their studies in and around the field (and maybe further through and in other areas, who knows).
1) Decide on what software you’re going to use for writing your thesis in now. I’ve used Microsoft Word throughout and it gets to a point, even on a laptop that was new at the start of your studies, where somehow, Word gets creaky and it can’t handle the amount of text and formatting you’re using. You will be told by the more technologically advanced that LaTeX is the way to go and these people will scoff at you and say they told you so when Word stops responding, hangs in mid-air, or even, as mine started doing, starts deleting lines and lines and lines of your work infront of your very eyes when your hands are nowhere near the keyboard and will.not.stop. I decided to divide my thesis into separate chunks in different documents (which I’m sure will be a whole new nightmare when I need to merge it) and keep my cursor as far away from the heading toolbar as possible (which evidently seems to be the root of the problem) rather than changing over to using a whole new piece of software. I weighed up the pros and cons of sticking with Word or changing to LaTeX and I decided that at the point I was at, I’d find it more stressful and upsetting to change over than to handle Word when it played up. You might want to make a decision now to save yourself some strife.
2) As I just mentioned, my copy of Word doesn’t like my use of headings, but I do. If you don’t already have experience of using them, I really recommend you start. It means that if your department requires you to use a numbering system for your thesis sections they (theoretically) update automatically, it makes the layout of your document clearer, and helps you to visualise the structure of your writing both figuratively and literally through the navigation pane. You can jump around your document with ease, and if you use the subheadings you can drag and drop, or delete, entire chunks of writing. Start using this tool straight away and it’ll save you from having to implement it on an existing large document later. I also use it as a way of working out structure when I get to the stage where what I have and what I want to have are very different things.
3) Use your library. I can’t recommend it highly enough, of course, as a librarian…but some features will be a godsend. Different universities use different systems, but if you can’t get hold of a journal article, the library will probably be able to get it for you. Likewise with books, but I also recommend finding out if your department has a budget for staff- and student-driven stock requests. If there’s something they don’t have that they really should, because it’s useful to you (and other students), then ask for it! If the library doesn’t (or no longer) subscribes to a journal that’s core to your field, try finding out why. Which leads me to…
4) Find out what journals are core to your field, and which journals in fields related to your topic are key for you to be aware of. This is useful not just for getting hold of stuff to read (though I do recommend searching through different databases rather than individual journals) but also for planning what journals you’d like to try to publish through. Have a look through the Directory of Open Access Journals as well as subject databases on the library website to find out what’s out there relevant to you.
5) Start thinking about getting published early. The process often takes a long time, so it’s good to think ahead, but it also helps to have in the back of your mind an idea about how your thesis could be turned into publications. So far I’ve had publications from my literature review, methodology and initial findings, and I’ve had a book chapter about how my methods and findings can be used in practice accepted. Not all of these are peer reviewed, and not all of them need to be, but it helps. There’s value in finding out about the different kinds of publication that there are, working out how you feel about open access, how you want to communicate your work to other students, academics, people working in whatever field you’re in, the wider world etc.
6) Get to know people, particularly other students (in your department, online, elsewhere) because they have a kind of empathy you won’t find elsewhere. Also the people working in the office in your department, they will save your life one day sooner than you expect.
7) Get to know your supervisor. Don’t be afraid of them, they are human too. Probably a very stressed human, but one with responsibilities for you nonetheless. Find out what they expect of you and have a chat about what you can expect from them. This will change throughout the process – in my first year I had a weekly meeting with my supervisor, then it became less when I needed less guidance about the direction of my reading and instead had my head down analysing data. Books like this can be really useful – this one in particular has a section on supervision.
8) Don’t worry about your topic changing, either immediately or a few months in. At some point it’s inappropriate to change your topic wildly of course, but there are lots of good practical and theoretical reasons for it being necessary in the early days. Mine was going to be about how public libraries support democracy, but it became apparent early on that public libraries in the UK are bad places to do fieldwork in right now, democracy is a complex concept, the methodology I was going to use wasn’t informed by enough theory, the theories that had been used in related work were too flawed for me to accept, and that the topic was too broad to handle. It’s now using a different research site, a specific notion of democracy, looking at a specific area of LIS (information literacy) and using (too many) strong theories. Talk all this through with your supervisor and always make sure they know what direction you’re heading in.
9) Don’t worry about wasting time reading things that later become irrelevant. Also don’t read too much. This sounds like an awful truism and is an abstract thing to think about balancing before you’ve really started, but keep it in mind. It’s one of the most valuable things my supervisor told me.
10) Keep an up to date document of things you’ve done, like training, publications, presentations, conferences attended etc., including dates and brief details. This will be invaluable for putting together upgrade or progress reports and your CV.
Image: CC by Joachim Schlosser