GuildHE Research Doctoral Festival: Notes from a Panel Discussion on being a Doctoral Candidate

Thank you to everyone at the GuildHE for the opportunity to attend their 2023 Doctoral Festival as an alumnus. I participated in this event back in 2017 (see tweet below), and at this year’s event I contributed to a panel on the ‘lived experience’ of being a doctoral candidate.

The following blog is a lengthy set of notes I wrote up to prepare for our panel. Firstly here are some things I have done with my GuildHE connections and knowledge since 2017:

  • Made friends! I am still connected with people, I invited them up/down to Worcester for our annual PGR conference and managed to utilise the GuildHE travel fund to help them get there. Interestingly all have taken different paths and gone on different trajectories
  • Kept in contact with Rachel at GuildHE and this has led to further activities around the Concordat to Support Research Integrity and meeting great people around the sector who I definitely would not have bumped into. I would highly recommend following them on Twitter

Part 1 – beginning a PhD…

Questions posed to the panel about: how did it (the PhD) all begin? 

  • What was your motivation? 
  • Practically what did you need to do? 
  • Did you face any challenges or barriers to overcome? 
  • What do you know now that you wish you’d known then? 

My notes:

Similar to the conversations yesterday, I did not know what a PhD was until I started my taught master’s programme. My motivation grew out of a couple of opportunities during my master’s including securing a small amount of funding to travel to an archive in Switzerland. I did my master’s part-time, self-funded and I think this gave me a good perspective on the time, pace and resources needed to do more research in a university setting.

Practically, I think a big turning point for me was the opportunity to write up one of my master’s essays into an academic journal article. My master’s dissertation supervisor guided me through the process and I had the time during the first summer of my programme to do it. This behind-the-curtain look at what it takes to produce a journal article gave me the practical experience of ‘how’ to research beyond a taught programme. It also stood out on my PhD application and I could use it during my interviews. I applied for several PhD funding pots, very fortunate to secure the studentship at Worcester.

Yes, how long do you have? There are some standard tropes around challenges and barriers. I think we discussed and raised a number of them yesterday. I blogged about quite a few and this was a useful outlet for me. At some points as well, I was heavily engaged in PGR activities in/outside of Worcester. I found talking to people and discussing relatable challenges and barriers were incredibly valuable to keep perspective and finding ways of moving forward. My headline challenge was finishing, I should have handed it in around October 2019 and ended up handing it in January 2020. I felt a lot of shame for ‘getting an extension’ but I had valid (and university permission) to do so. There is a fine balance between becoming an autonomous researcher and following a well-drilled structure during a PhD. I think I found ways to make the structure as elastic as possible but needed to learn to manage the consequences of not always keeping it in the system!

I genuinely would not change a thing, as I was extremely fortunate (and worked very hard) to gain all the positive and negative experiences during the process. The reflection I have around ‘wishes’ is to be more present. A PhD and academic career are often described as a relentless conveyor belt, always looking towards the next thing… I wish someone had worked with me in a clearer way to explain the choices you have, for example, you can take annual leave and pause, you can say no to a request if the timing is not right, you can resist setting deadlines if the structure does not suit you, and you can go back over different stages of your programme if the linear patterns do not fit your pace. If you are more present and in tune with yourself then these choices are easier to see and make.

Part 2 – the middle (messy) bit of a PhD…

Questions posed to the panel about: what happened in the middle (of the PhD)? 

  • This is the researching, how did/is it going? 
  • Did anything change in your plans since you started? How did you deal with it?  
  • What is your personal highlight from this time? 
  • What advise can you give someone still in the middle? 

My notes:

I loved collecting data! My project was multi-model qualitative, and I got to collect documents, collect policy forum event transcripts, and collect semi-structured interview data. I struggled to collate and analyse this amount of data sensibly and coherently. It took me three substantive attempts to sketch out and write up my findings and discussion chapters. And at times, my write-up felt very descriptive, I had to work very hard to strengthen the analytical aspects. I think this was both helped and hindered by having an interdisciplinary approach and differing views from my supervisory team. The biggest tip I have here is to use the British Library EThOS system and gather theses related to your methodology, disciplines and topic areas… it is useful to see how others have structured their PhDs and almost have a benchmark.

Yes, again, how long do you have? I planned to home in on a very specific claim/aspect of the legacy evaluation from London 2012… anyway, it turns out I had misinterpreted it and it related to an international aspect of the legacy not domestic. I felt silly and this on reflection was a source of my struggles to find a strong thesis statement. However, if things do not go wrong or you do not make mistakes then you’ve not done a PhD… the strength of a project and person, is not how well you planned, but how well you coped with changes and adaptations in and outside of your control.

A personal highlight from this time was being able to work at my own pace and in my way. I think this is one of the biggest privileges of a PhD programme (however you do it). It is your time and energy, use it in the way that brings out the best in you. I am effective when I’ve done some exercise, so I developed a fantastic routine around working for 3 or 4 hours then going and playing golf, or going to the gym, or going for a walk, then heading back to my space and doing another 3 or 4 hours. This is another workplace or later in your academic career is just not acceptable or effective, those glorious 6 months over the spring/summer of 2018 were a personal highlight. I use the Pomodoro technique to time 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of a break. I log this and keep track of my time for assistance in helping pace and keep myself accountable

I would give the following advice to someone still in the middle:

  • Back up! Have a hard copy, hard drive copy and cloud copy (ethics and data management plan dependent) of your work… it feels fragile and if ‘erased’ can be unnecessarily traumatic.
  • Keep a data diary, whether it is on Twitter, in a personal planner, or Excel as a part of the analysis process. This will help during your write-up when you try to remember your thinking, especially if the thinking was 14 months ago.
  • Don’t focus on word count, yes you need to reach certain writing milestones. Actually, on reflection, I probably wrote about 200,000 words… I was most productive when I rewrote chapters or elements and this means writing a lot. Keep writing, sketching, editing… if you are blocked then talk to someone or listen/read/watch people who have been in a similar situation. Writing is key in the middle.
  • Be kind to yourself!

Part 3 – The end of a PhD…

Questions posed to the panel about: how did/will it (the PhD) all end? 

  • How were those last few months? 
  • What helped/is helping you get there? 
  • Do you have any top tips you can share? 
  • What is next?

My notes:

The last few months were tricky, in terms of managing emotions. It is a huge anti-climax handing in, to be honest. You’ve had so many emotions around fatigue, excitement, guilt, determination, pride etc. etc. then the actual processing of these few months is tricky and hard. When I came to write up this answer, I think I’ve got a form of last few months’ amnesia as there is a lot to process and manage.

The supervisory team should be important at this moment, if they are not then reach out to your research school/support network and hold them to account!

I would give the following advice to someone near the end/finishing:

  • Set up a personal email address (if you do not already have one) and connect with people and opportunities via your affiliation rather than your PhD email address. It helped me compartmentalise the end of the PhD process with ‘what’s next’ in my career. I worked very hard on establishing what I value and my measures of success during this period.
  • Pay forward and thank people, do not become consumed by your project and think you are the centre of everything because you are nearly there. Engage with early-stage PGRs and reach out to thank people you’ve met along the way. It is important to keep perspective during this stage.
  • Celebrate the small wins and marginal gains, the biggest milestone is handing in and the viva and I found celebrating much smaller milestones a huge help in achieving and processing the biggest ones. I was very relaxed when I handed in and when I did my viva, largely due to a healthy balance of achieving milestones.
  • Take risks, be bold, and make this end your own… do not be afraid to ‘mess things up’ as this is your finish and make what you want out of it.

Next for me has been 3 years of applications, balancing working in academia on fixed-term or part-time contracts with working with industry in a paid and unpaid capacity, and attempting to keep the pace and progress I had set out during my PhD. To put it into perspective, some of the larger funding bodies such as the Leverhulme Trust or British Academy fellowship programmes have a 7 to 25% success rate. Be prepared to nurture a lot of ideas and applications.

My biggest reflection during this period is to develop your profile and identity, funders and employers are as interested in you as well as your research. Factor in a lot of time and think about research projects early, and think about different models of work as you can be individual, collaborative, industry-based, teaching and research etc. etc. there are so many blogs, podcasts, organisations wanting to support early-stage researchers in this brutal funding environment and job market, make sure to stay engaged with the likes of the GuildHE and get as much support as you can!


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