As a PhD student just beginning my third year, I can tell you that in a PhD there will be ups and downs. Sometimes everything goes right – you’re reading interesting things, writing flows like a dream, conference papers get accepted, and you can’t believe that you’ve been allowed three to four years to spend in this way. Things can go wrong though and it’s worth considering the following nightmare scenario:
You’re eighteen months into your Arts PhD and facing the dreaded ‘upgrade’ process. You’re not sure how you’re going to get through this as you still only have 2000 words of your first chapter, the archive you need is being difficult about access, and your supervisor is in America and hasn’t spoken to you in months.
Disappointingly you weren’t successful in your grant application, so you’re living on tomato soup and juggling part time jobs just to pay the rent.
You feel completely isolated and see no hope of getting your thesis finished, let alone getting anything published.
Where did it all go wrong?
You would have to be very unlucky for all these things to go wrong, but as all of these things, at some time during the PhD, have happened to me or my friends, here’s some advice to help you avoid this scenario.
Firstly, think carefully before applying to do an Arts PhD. Where, when, with whom and how you’re planning to do your PhD are almost as important to think about as what you want to do it on. Also, given the financial, time and even perhaps opportunity costs of a 3-4 year course of study, you have to be sure you really want to do this.
- Where. This is one of the most important decisions to make. Institutions now run grant application rounds themselves and have different numbers of awards to give out. They will also have their own priorities when it comes to what sort of projects they want to support. It’s also important to find out what the research community is like: how many people of your specialism/period are active in the department, what sort of research groups are there. And then there are practical things like, how well resourced is the library? Or how far is the institution from any archives you might need?
- When. You are looking at embarking on a course of study for 3-4 years, so you need to plan for this personally and financially. You should also find out about the deadlines at your favoured institution for applications for places and funding.
- Who. Your relationship with your supervisor will be very important for your success. Find someone who is interested in your area of specialism – academics usually provide information about what they would be interested in supervising on their web-pages – and contact them directly. Also, are they likely to be at the institution for the period of your PhD?
- How. Will you be carrying out archival research, or do you need a strategy for publishing and attending conferences? Also, how do you plan to support yourself or secure funding? If you are not successful in gaining funding remember to budget carefully – think about how long it will realistically take you to finish, and find out if the fees will go up over the four years.
If you can answer all these questions, then you will be well on the way to making a successful application for a PhD. And if you are successful then the academic life can certainly be rewarding. Discovering something in a little known archive, presenting your ideas at conferences, teaching undergraduates, all these things can be hugely enjoyable.
And if you find you have something to say – something important – then a PhD could be the first step of an exciting academic career.
*Upgrade is a progression point which involves submitting some written work (eg a chapter) and then having a discussion about it with two academics. They then assess whether the project is viable and whether it will produce publishable work. The three possible outcomes are (1) you pass, (2) you are asked to try again when you are more prepared, or (3) the academics decide that the project is not viable or not of the required quality and recommend that the work is submitted in a shorter form for an MPhil rather than a PhD.