By Chelsea Sambells |

Attending university-sponsored seminars and colloquia about the latest research in your field are extremely rewarding experiences- however, what happens after the papers have been delivered and the audience has no further questions? Well, this is where you head down to the pub. And, in my experience, the pub is crucial to the “education” of a PhD student. Here’s why:

Departmental gossip. The pub is ground zero to better understanding your “colleagues.” Of course, you’ll want to be careful what you share, but listening to others is always a great place to start. It will also help you appreciate the larger dynamics at work during your study. You will learn which profs hate teaching certain classes (and hopefully you can subtly volunteer your over-eager tutoring services). You will learn which admins you want to court with chocolates and wine, as they will process all your future scholarship applications, travel reimbursements and, of course, your viva paperwork! It’s jaw-dropping juicy. Pull up a chair and start listening.

Let your guard down. Academics are notorious for being competitive, demanding and in possession of flawless memories. Pubs help to lower all defences so that you can see your colleagues for who they really are. Interestingly, I discovered that the most intimidating heavyweight champions of academia are actually total softies, who are far more compassionate and understanding than you’d think. They also forget dates and names, just like the rest of us. Ask them about cooking, their family, or travelling. You’ll soon realise how normal they are.

Everyone has doubts. A PhD is a long, gruesome process to conduct a major research project ON YOUR OWN….FOR YEARS. There are naturally going to be ups and downs. You will feel lonely at times. The pub is the perfect place to compare notes. You’ll soon realise that supervisors don’t have all the answers, that others’ research is in a FAR worse state than yours, and that, yes, it’s okay to be disappointed that your application for funding (for the third time that “fiscal year”) has, again, failed. It’s okay. Share these doubts with your pals over a pint. Your concerns will certainly mirror theirs and, more often than not, I found these conversations both reassuring and insightful.

Who you want on your side. As the pints go down, you will soon discover which of these well-educated people are actually genuine and sympathetic to your research. One key piece of advice: postdocs. These comrades-in-arms are an untapped wealth of information, caught in an awkward position of being “part” of the department, and yet still possess the student mentality. They always root for the underdog. Befriend them. They will cheer you on with more wisdom and empathy than you’d ever think possible.

What the cool kids do in their spare time. Pubs remind academics that there’s more to life than research. Ask simple questions like “what are your hobbies?” or “where’s a nice spot for lunch?” and you’ll discover another side to life. This is especially crucial during the first year of a PhD, when you’re still settling into a foreign city and making friends. You’ll be astounded at the diversity of what people do regularly, such as: running clubs, secret vodka bars, Yelp events, video gaming, Ultimate Frisbee, salsa classes, highland canoeing, and singing folk music at the Royal Oak.

Ultimately, your doctoral experience is whatever you make of it. Everyone has intellectually intense, lonely and challenging times during their studies but – fortunately – pubs bring balance and levity to the whole experience. Never underestimate the power of a pint!


Chelsea Sambells is a fourth year PhD student in history at the University of Edinburgh, studying an evacuation of 60,000 French and Belgian children to Switzerland during the Second World War. She hails from Western Canada, has two degrees in Communication Studies and a MSc in Second World War history from the University of Edinburgh. You can find her on LinkedIn or Facebook, or in the pub.