Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

4 things I learned in a year of PhD work

4 things I learned in a year of PhD work

N.B. this post would more accurately be titled "5 things...", but the fifth thing I learned is that nobody ever reads the preamble on list posts, so let's get straight to it.

1. School life is a delicate balance

I wrote last year about the potential loneliness of postgraduate life. This was a particularly big issue for me doing a masters at a new university, away from most of the friends that I'd made over the past four years. I'm happy to say that my social situation has improved, and I find myself a lot more contented with life in the PhD than in the research masters. This is partly because of simple things: I have a desk in an office in my department now, which makes it easy to feel part of a community; I teach quite a lot, which means I get (a kind of) regular social interaction; and I just know more people and have more stable relationships with them. The transition from undergrad wasn't easy, and life as a postgrad is always going to be different - less emphasis on knowing lots of people, more work, less partying, more work, less vegetating in bed, more work - but it can be every bit as (or more) fulfilling.

One way of making it fulfilling is to get involved in school or department events. Helping to run things is a useful way of getting to know people, getting your name and face around the school, and earning the academic equivalent of brownie points. If you're lucky, you might even get paid. Just going along to coffee mornings, seminars and so on is a really useful way of making sure that people are nice to you when they see you around the department building. It might also allow you to know that other things are happening in the event that you get left off the departmental PhD mailing list for 8 months (...). Even without all that, it's a good opportunity to talk to interesting people who do interesting things, and maybe even get a few ideas for your own work. You also get the chance to explain what you're doing at the moment to other people who are likely to understand it, which can help you to work through issues you might be having (academic or pastoral) and get new ideas or references that you might never have heard of otherwise.

With that said, it's easy to make yourself too available and have all of your time sucked up through your department. Sometimes it's necessary to shut yourself away and just work, and it's important to make sure that you're able to do that. You could probably, if you wanted, go to so many events - academic development workshops, careers opportunities, seminars, inaugural lectures, department drinks, lecturer try-outs, etc - that you would have no time at all to actually do your research. Probably don't do that. Having a free day or two every week or so is a really helpful way to plough through some reading or writing, provided you don't end up on a Netflix and Guilt binge.

2. Teaching is the best

Honestly, the best thing I've done this year is get into tutoring. There are actually very few opportunities to teach in my own subject area, as Science and Technology Studies has a fairly small undergraduate presence and postgrad courses are usually small enough that they don't require extra tutors. Instead, I've been teaching Sociology and Social Policy, both at the first year level. I have no formal qualifications in the latter, but I've spent a lot of time engaging with politics through debating, and a once-over of the reading list was enough to get me to the point of being able to teach it (I would hope) reasonably well. Very little of my undergraduate was sociology, but most of my PhD and second masters was sociologically grounded, so teaching that has been a bit easier. It's also given me the opportunity to (re)learn sociological fundamentals in such a way that I feel the rest of my knowledge has become a lot more grounded.

First year students in subjects like these are an eclectic mix of those who are taking it as their major, those who are really interested in it as an outside course, and those who don't really care but are there regardless. The hope is that you can stimulate the first two sets, and engage with the third in such a way that they end up enjoying it. You can't always succeed in all of these objectives, but tutoring at the first year level allows you the unique opportunity to colour those students' perceptions - for better or worse - of university and teaching at undergraduate level. I think that's quite a gift, and it's one that I'm really grateful for. I'm working on producing some extra resources (explainers in video and text form of some of the trickier topics) for next year, and I'm heading up the Sociology 1A tutoring team as Senior Tutor next semester, which is another really exciting challenge.

Whilst marking gets a really bad rap, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Often students will have very little experience of essay writing at a high level, and you get to shape the way in which they're going to approach future writing projects. That's important, because so many students come in with surprisingly few essay writing and analytical skills, and ameliorating that is absolutely key to achieving further down the line.

Depending on where you are, teaching can also be pretty well-paid, and it's likely to pay dividends further down the line with respect to employment opportunities. 10/10 would recommend to a friend.

3. It's never too early to write

One of the common horror tropes I heard about the PhD was of the student who spent two years reading, researching, revising their research questions, analysing their data and faffing around with fonts, only to find that they only had six months left to write the actual thesis. Invariably they would go over time and end up scrabbling around for extra funding or dipping into their savings to tide them over until they could get the damn thing submitted, all whilst trying to crack out thousands of words every day for months on end. 

That's one way of doing the thesis. But aside from the obvious stress-related problems and potential time issues towards the back end of your allotted time, I think that it exacerbates some of the other more tricky parts of the process. Specifically, it's very easy to feel lonely, disconnected and like your work has very little merit and isn't anchored in all that much if you haven't written more than a couple of sentences since you began.

I think writing from day one helps. For some this might mean writing a small amount every single day, just charting what you've done and what you need to do and so on. For me, it tends to mean taking a couple of days every few weeks to crank out a decent quantity of words. I'm a reasonably quick writer when I have an idea of what I want to do, and I can usually get about 5k done in a day or two of set-aside writing time.

Now obviously I haven't finished yet (and fingers crossed I will one day), and I only have my own experience of doing this to write from, but I think this has been helpful. When people (inevitably, invariably, infuriatingly) ask how the thesis is shaping up, it's a lot less demoralising when you're able to say that you actually produced some words for it last week. It's unlikely that they're going to be the final words of the thesis itself, but it's much easier to refine arguments that you're already produced once, later on, than it is to come up with those arguments from scratch. Moreover, those words let me feel like what I'm doing has some shape and substance, and mentally clocking up the amount I've written since last August is a helpful way of bolstering my confidence against the periodic tremors of impostor syndrome.

Nothing terrifies me more* than the idea of coming up on the submission deadline with nothing more than a nicely formatted title page. Regardless of whether it actually helps speed up the process, it's comforting to know right now that I have a cushion of words to fall on when academic insecurity periodically defenestrates me through the fifth floor window of the mental health hotel.

*exceptions include the inexorable approach of oblivion, and wasps.

4. People will start listening to you - maybe too much, but it probably still won't feel enough

One of the stranger things that's happened over the past year or two is that people have started taking my ideas seriously. When I go to seminars or summer schools or even parties (say a little prayer for the people subjected to research chat at parties), people treat the things I say as though they have some weight. Sometimes, if they've read anything I've written previously, they might ask me my opinions on nutrition. This is an odd one, because I'm not an expert in nutrition;  if anything, I'm in the business of questioning whether such a thing exists, what it would look like if it did, and understanding what people think it takes to be considered one. It's strange to be put in a position where that kind of research renders you a potential nutritional expert in other people's eyes. Do I put it down in my thesis? If so, how does that work, reflexively? Is it questions about expertise all the way down?

My response to the kinds of questions I get asked - stuff like the relative merits of the paleo diet versus the ketogenic diet - is usually to carefully state that I'm not an expert in the science, and to briefly explain what it is I actually do, and then give my understanding of the subject from there. I used to qualify these answers less, until my partner pointed out that I might accidentally be misleading people into thinking I'm an authority when I'm not, and causing them to make potentially quite large lifestyle changes on that basis. That's not really something I want on my conscience.

So, people have started listening in some sense, What's perplexing is that it tends to be about the sorts of things that I feel less qualified to talk about. Things like nutrition, or teaching (of which I have a lot of experience, but I don't have a formal education in Education). When it comes to the stuff I spend most of my time researching - expertise, authority, why people believe some things/people/institutions over others - I'm rarely asked for my opinion. It might be because it's more abstract, or because everyone has their own opinion on it, or perhaps because I haven't been particularly effective in communicating that this is what I do. Regardless, it's occasionally frustrating, but I'm sure it's something that will change with time and publications and experience. The takeaway here is probably to be wary of people seeking your opinion on things you know a bit (but not the most) about, but... enjoy it, I guess, if you're into that sort of thing?

Overall, first year of PhD: 9/10. Not as well-paid as you might like, but intellectually fulfilling. Excellent way of staving off existential dread. Would recommend to another meat-sack on a rock orbiting an exploding fire ball.



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