By Dr Emma Hunter |

As the Deputy Director of the Graduate School, it’s a huge pleasure to welcome new PhD students to Edinburgh, and to welcome continuing PhD students to another academic year. I’m very much looking forward to getting to know you all over the year ahead.

The Pubs and Publications team asked me what advice I’d give to those starting out on a PhD, and what I wish I’d known when I started.

Now, as you may well have already noticed, there’s a cottage industry in generic advice for those embarking on a PhD. Just a few weeks ago, two writers in the Times Higher Educational Supplement offered their own ‘Ten Steps to PhD Failure’ as a way of providing such advice. The article was rightly panned: because each PhD is different. You have all come to your PhD at different stages of your life, with different previous experiences, and you will have different hopes and expectations for the years that lie between now and graduation.

So my first piece of advice is …. to ignore all the generic advice literature about ‘how to do a PhD’, let alone how not to do it. Instead, here are a few reflections, shaped by my own experiences both of having been a graduate student and of supervising PhD students in my field of African and global history, and which may or may not help you as you embark on the PhD journey.

  1. While a PhD is ultimately awarded for the successful research and writing of a PhD thesis, the PhD is more than just the thesis. Over the years ahead, you will spend the bulk of your time researching and writing your thesis, but, like all academics, you will also do much more than that. Precisely what will depend to some extent on the nature of your research, but for many of you it will include teaching undergraduates, organizing workshops and reading groups, and presenting your work to the academic community and to the wider public, whether through conference presentations, journal articles or maybe blogs aimed at a broader audience. All of this will contribute to the final thesis you present for examination, but it will also help prepare you for your future careers beyond the PhD thesis.
  2. Take charge of your own PhD. On one level, taking the initiative means knowing when your deadlines are and making sure you’re ready for them. But it also means much more than that. You have the power to make things happen. If you want to read some new work in your discipline, set up a reading group to do it. If you want to bring other researchers together to present work or debate or discuss a particular issue, set up an online forum or apply for funding to hold a workshop to do it. We’re here to help you with the logistics – whether that’s organizing a particular type of training or helping out as a panel chair or discussant – but the best initiatives come from you.
  3. Be open to serendipity. It’s important to have a plan for your research, and keep focused. But at the same time, it’s important to be open to the unexpected discovery that can take your work in a new direction or serve as a basis for a future project after the PhD. Of course, some of these may be red herrings. Which is why…
  4. It’s good to talk. The image of the solitary academic in a garret probably never bore much resemblance to reality, and certainly doesn’t today. We all need to discuss our ideas to refine and develop them, and the more people you have to read your work and listen to your presentations the better. This isn’t just a question of making good use of your supervisors, though that is crucial; it’s also about peer support networks and taking the opportunity of going to conferences and workshops both within and outwith Edinburgh. They’ll help you realise when you’re on to something exciting and, on the other side, warn you if you’re about to disappear down a rabbit hole!
  5. Think about what success means for you. PhD theses are excellent preparation for careers in a wide range of fields. When I look around the cohort of friends from my PhD years, I’m astounded by the number of directions in which a PhD in history leads – some are teaching history in schools and universities or working in museums or publishing, others are putting their skills to use in the civil service, in university administration or in financial services.  So start thinking now about what you’d like to do, and what you can do to help make that happen: graduation will come sooner than you think.

Lost-usb-stick fix


I started by saying you that you should ignore all generic advice. There’s one exception. If I could give you one piece of advice that really counts it’s this – unlike the poor person depicted here, take good care of your USB sticks!



Dr Emma Hunter is Lecturer in African History and Deputy Director of the Graduate School in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

(Cover image (cc); Image 1 (c) Emma Hunter)