By Tracy Kirk |

Much is written about what you should and shouldn’t do during your PhD research. I believe, as in life, everyone’s journey is completely different, even if the destination is the same! So, I’m going to explain what I’ve learnt, so far.


A bit about me

While I don’t profess to be different to others undertaking doctoral study, I have a combination of different circumstances which are relevant to my PhD journey.

I sat my undergraduate degree at Stirling University from 2007-2011. My son was born three months into my degree, meaning we moved back to the Scottish Borders. Therefore, I travelled to Stirling from the Borders (about 130 miles round trip) for more than three years.


Tracy Kirk

Ultimately, this meant juggling being a mum, travelling, studying and working out of hours at a local hospital. It was all worth it and I managed to gain my first class honours in Scots Law. However, the solitude I faced during this time of my life, due to a combination of factors, is something I was determined to learn from during my doctoral research.

Here is how I have managed it, so far.


Expanding social groups

Since the start of my PhD I have been a part of the ‘vibrant PGR community’ at my institution. This means travelling the 160 round mile trip to Newcastle to attend optional PGR lunches. Allowing me the opportunity to meet students and staff members thus extending my social networks has led to me becoming a member of PubhD and setting up my own research group.


Getting involved with PubhD

PubhD is a brilliant social opportunity for researchers to discuss their work in the pub. Having spoken at the inaugural event in Newcastle and subsequently becoming a part of their team, I began my quest to bring PubhD to Scotland. Glasgow has been a fantastic success, and I am in the process of organising events in Aberdeen, Stirling and Edinburgh. We are always on the look out for interested speakers and I’ve met lots of interesting people from different disciplines – talking about your research helps you organise your research while also expanding social groups – in the pub, what could be better?


The PubHD banner

I set up a research group

Within my own institution, I set up a children’s research group, which brings together researchers whose work is predominantly based around young people. This has been one of the most valuable social groups I could have created. It has led to collaborations between researchers in different disciplines as well as providing valuable support for those experiencing the highs and lows of doctoral study. We are hoping to hold a mini-conference at the beginning of 2017 as well as continuing to extend our group membership.

Just because a group doesn’t already exist, doesn’t mean you can’t start one!


Give yourself time to think 

Years ago, I remember listening to a professor who said she got through her PhD by making bread. It seemed like a strange use of precious time. However, I now appreciate that you need to do something non-PhD related that allows you time to think. For me, that time is best spent going to the gym or running. During my undergrad I’d have dismissed any suggestion of exercise as being time I could not afford to lose. However, I now know that it is when time seems most precious that exercise (or baking bread) is important. Sometimes your brain just needs time to think. Heading to the gym for an hour, or going for a run allows my mind to relax but be focused in a different type of way. It is while exercising that I am able to synthesise all the information flying about my head and make sense of arguments I was previously too stressed to understand.


Believe in yourself

As daunting as PhD study is, the very fact you have been accepted onto the programme, and in some cases been given a studentship, should be a major confidence boost for you to start from. Yes you have a lot to learn. Yes you will make decisions you need to rethink and make mistakes you need to rectify, but believing in yourself is so important. Submitting conference abstracts, standing up to discuss your research in social or professional situations and ultimately giving conference papers are all part of the process, so you may as well enjoy it!

Tracy's first research poster

Tracy’s first research poster

I recently wrote a blog post entitled ‘Sometimes you need to accept compliments’. I’m definitely guilty of being too hard on myself. Accepting even the simplest of compliments is important if we are to believe in ourselves.


Take all the advice you can, but be prepared to only use some of it 

Regardless of what we do in life, we will always receive conflicting advice, and the PhD process is no different. As someone who wants to become an academic after my thesis, I will listen to all the advice sent my way.

People may make generalised comments about PhD study; ‘wait until you hit the mid point wall’ is one I’m particularly irritated by! While it is important to know what pitfalls may occur, everyone is different and there is no guarantee you will suffer the same problems. I’m determined to hold onto my optimism!

One of our Professors co-edited a book of particular importance to me. ‘The Legal Academic’s Handbook’ brings together advice from over 60 established academics for early career academics like me. While not all of the advice is relevant to me, having the advice at my finger tips is invaluable. So take all the advice you can get, but be prepared to only use that which is helpful.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that your PhD is yours! As important as your supervisor is, this is your PhD so don’t be afraid to carve your own paths.

So, for the time being, I’m going to continue with my research, being a mum, running my own business and blogging about all three. I’m a third of the way through my PhD journey, let’s hope that things continue to be positive, despite the pressure of doctoral study.


Tracy Kirk is a Law Ph.D Student at Northumbria University. Her research focuses on the rights of adolescents. She is also the founder of PubhD Scotland ( and blogs on her combined life of doctoral study, running her own business and being a mum.

Feature image © WikiCommons; Image 1&3 © Tracy Kirk; Image 2 © PubhD