By Sarah Leith |

Let me take you back to the start of my doctoral studies last year.

Standing apprehensively in the back right hand corner of an unfamiliar dance studio, I find myself part of a group of around thirty enthusiastic gym members who are dressed in an array of brightly coloured sports gear. They are all waiting with anticipation, ready to dance for around an hour, while I am beginning to regret my decision to come to this exercise class tonight. I cast my eyes in the direction of the open door and I start to wonder whether anyone would notice if I were to make a very swift exit. Then the door suddenly slams shut and the music starts. Following the instructor, the group, in unison, moves to the right. I move to the left. There is no doubt that I definitely need more practice. However, there is equally no doubt that I am now really, really enjoying myself and that I have forgotten about all the work that I had noted down earlier in my ever-growing to-do list.

That morning I had been sitting at a desk surrounded by a huge pile of books that had been pulled down from the library shelves at 8:30am and I was furiously taking notes. I was beginning to think about how these works would relate to each other within the piece I needed to write for my upcoming first year Ph.D. progress review. However, I still felt uncertain as to how to go about beginning to write a 12,000 to 15,000 word literature review in the first place. Various questions raced through my mind as I ploughed through my huge book pile, acquiring a similarly impressive pile of my own notes in the process: When am I going to be able to start writing? Should I already have started writing? What am I going to write? What is my argument going to be? Will my argument be good enough for the high academic level expected? While I had acclimatised myself to the type of work and the strict adherence to set essay deadlines required by both my undergraduate degree and my MLitt degree, this style of work felt almost as entirely new to me as the dance class that I was about to join. In my head, I wondered if I were moving left, while every other Ph.D. student was currently moving right. 

Let us now return to May 2018. I am back in the very same dance studio and I have been looking forward to this class since the beginning of the week. Unfortunately, I am still not the best dancer in the room, but I have, however, attended many more classes and, as a result, have definitely improved and can now even remember some of the routines. The learning curve in my exercise class reminds me of the learning curve we undergo during the first year of the Ph.D. While I had been uncertain at the very beginning of this process, faced with the daunting prospect of eventually writing 80,000 words, I find myself today with a draft of both my introduction and that literature review I was so concerned about, while I am really excited about the way my argument has developed over the last few months. I realise now that this project is definitely doable. Everyone will feel uncertain at different stages during their first year as they embark on a piece of lengthy original research, but the key is to keep working and improving, much like my experience in this dance class.

As I write, the first year progress review is now fast approaching. I have always been a perfectionist and my exercise class has taught me important lessons: it has taught me the importance of improvement and the time that this takes, while it has also taught me to take time out and to relax. I am in the middle of writing and re-writing an introduction and literature review, while putting together a talk for my research institute’s Reading Weekend, and I am now taking some time out to write this blog post for Pubs and Publications. As I suspected, the first year Ph.D. experience, particularly at this time of year, is a very busy one. However, I ensure that I make it to the gym and a dance class a few times a week. 

I had not thought that the beginning of this degree would be an opportune time to fall in love with a new hobby, or to even start a new pastime at all. Nevertheless, I was slightly fearful of having committed myself to a life chained 24/7 to a library desk for the next three to four years, albeit for the sake of a subject about which I am passionate. So, I had made a pact with myself to make time for more relaxation. Admittedly, the gym will not work for everyone as the perfect place to de-stress, but it definitely works for me and I have found that dancing has especially helped me to unwind and to take my mind off my research. It is so important to ensure you take time away from your work to enjoy yourself, and, as Elle Woods in ‘Legally Blonde’ memorably said, ‘Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.’

Sarah Leith is a PhD student in Scottish history at the University of St Andrews. 

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