The First Chapter

Last week the Graduate School where I am based hosted an official welcome event for all graduate students. Amidst the barrage of information about various forms and processes, the woman sitting next to me asked the presenter shyly if there was anything in particular we were actually supposed to be doing, other than reading and making notes?

This question sums up the slightly bemused conversations I’ve had with other PhD students in my department, all of us wondering if what we’re doing is right, if we’re reading enough, doing enough.

It’s this- the lack of structure- which is the strangest thing so far. I’ve been attempting to treat the PhD like a job, aiming to work Monday-Friday 9am til 5pm in the Graduate School. I have a feeling that sustaining such a high level of self motivation over three (although the number of those who complete within three years is depressingly small- it’s more likely to take four) years is going to be really challenging.

At the moment I feel rather at sea. This is apparently natural, though. I’m told that now is the time for reading and pondering, trying to grasp hold of what it is I’m getting at in my research, before shaping and refining my proposal and reviewing relevant literature. Sometimes  I wonder if I’m spending rather too much time pondering, though…

Amidst the panic of RF1 forms, trying to get to grips with the Graduate School’s hot desking etiquette, and read everything that I’m meant to be reading, it’s easy to lose sight of what this is all for. More than anything, I feel a incredible sense of gratitude to be here, to be doing this. I still can’t quite believe it. It feels as though any moment someone will approach me and say that they’re terribly sorry but there’s been a mistake- that my place was actually meant for someone else. Chatting to some others, it seems that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Having a peer group, a support network of people who actually understand what doing a PhD is like, is really important. On the first day, I met the six other students in my department which was lovely, and I’m glad to have them to chat to now. Despite the fact that we’re all studying such different things, it’s great to know that we’re all in the same boat and can empathise with each other’s experiences. I’m also lucky that a good friend from my MRes has also just started his PhD. I’m hoping he’ll continue in his role as my proof reader and academic counsellor- something he has been rather good at in the past (you can pay me later, Adam).

Possibly the best part of the Graduate School’s welcome though, (apart from the free lunch of course- apparently even doctoral students conform to that particular stereotype) was the presentations given by former PhD students who had studied at Sheffield Hallam. They gave us the benefit of their experiences, sharing advice and offering tips such as taking every opportunity to promote your research, and trying to write and publish as much as possible. Hearing first-hand about the challenges they encountered and the strategies they employed to overcome them was incredibly reassuring. The fact that they developed successful careers in academia from the same point that I’m at now help me to feel like my aspirations are achievable.

Another useful piece of advice we were given by one of the former PhD students was to check out @PhDcomics whenever we need a bit of light relief. I think this one sums up my current sentiments perfectly!

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O this learning, what a thing it is!

And so, it begins. Almost four months since I got the email which quite literally changed my life one Monday afternoon in June, I have started as a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University.

I am no longer within the safe, known boundaries of a taught degree, with its scheduled lectures and seminars, its specific learning outcomes and deadlines, and a ready-made group of peers who are also trying to work out what on earth post-structuralism means. For anyone, embarking upon a PhD is a step into the unknown. It’s hugely exciting; the future is bright and full of promise. Yet it is also full of unseen challenges, and is more than a little daunting.

For me personally, I feel a bit of a fraud. I won’t be the first to admit this, and certainly won’t be the last. My first degree back in 2007 was in something completely different, a joint honours arts degree at UEA in Norwich- which I loved because it basically enabled me to write about Shakespeare for three years. But when I came to undertake a part time MRes in Research Methods as part of my professional development, it meant that the language and practice of social science were a bit of a mystery to me. I discovered a love for qualitative research, though, enjoying writing in different ways and reflecting on what concepts such as ‘reality’ really meant. But I always felt I was playing catch up with my peers, all of whom seemed to had some grounding in the discipline, and unlike me had understood the difference between an ‘ontology’ and an ‘epistemology’.

Despite doing well in the MRes, I hadn’t ever considered further study until I met my Postgraduate Research Tutor at a conference in March of this year. We got chatting about my MRes and he told me about the PhD scholarships which would soon be advertised. I applied because I thought I might as well, being unhappy in my job and realising that my part time degree was something I cared far more about.

On the same day I received an email telling me I had an interview for the PhD, I was told that I was at risk of being made redundant from my full time job. I realised that this day marked a watershed moment in my life- I could be left with nothing, or I could be offered the chance to start a career in something I really loved. Two weeks later, I was made redundant. Five days after that, I was offered the PhD. June was something of a whirlwind month!

I’m lucky to have this opportunity, this new beginning. I feel really fortunate to have the chance to study something I love, and the time and space in which to do it. I can’t wait to begin.