Krysten Blackstone |

For the past two years, I have been one of the PhD students that does the ‘Welcome to the University’ talks to incoming Masters and PhD students. The session is a chance for the newbies to ask on-degree students questions; the professors leave the room, and left are the new students and a group of PhD candidates.  With the exception of the inevitable question ‘What are the best and worst pubs in Edinburgh?’, (which is obviously the most important of them all) I realised that if these oncoming PhD’s have these questions, others probably do too.  This year I took notes on the questions asked, and below have provided some answers.  Not all the answers are mine, there was a panel of about 10 people answering questions, but that is even better.

Disclaimer: Incoming students to my department will be studying either History, Classics or Archaeology, however, a lot of these questions and concerns will be universal to the PhD experience – especially for humanities students.

What one piece of advice would you give to first year you?

Find a work space – Everyone works differently, and figuring out where you will be the most productive early on is important. For example, I love coffee, but can’t work in coffee shops.  I need the structured setting of an office to get anything done – I spent a bit too long in my first year pretending that was not the case to the detriment of my work.

Focus on languages – If your PhD requires you to read multiple languages, your first year is a good time to get those skills mastered.

Make connections – I don’t mean that in the “networking” sense that seems so self-serving, but with the understanding that it is important for you to know people that are going through similar things. Make an effort with your cohort within the first few weeks.  If you live away from your home institution forge networks where you are.  By the time you get to third year, you will want those friends.  The further into your PhD you get, the more you will realise the value of having people in the same position as you – working roughly toward the same deadlines, and facing the same questions about the immediate future.  Friends in other stages of the PhD are great, but there is a huge difference between third year and first year.  Friends outside of academia are also extremely important to have, but sometimes you just need to rant to someone who gets it.  *Sometimes, here, can be read as every day during lunch.

Take time for yourself – The PhD is basically 3 years of never-ending to do lists, each item with varying levels of importance. There is enough work (depending on how much you take on) for you to work more than 12 hours a day 7 days a week.

   Do. Not. Do. That.

The PhD is mentally exhausting.  No one will disagree with that.  And because of the inevitable exhaustion it is important that you take time for yourself.  Take a day off, binge watch your favourite TV show for the hundredth time, go for a hike, go shopping – do whatever you need to do to take a break from your work.

How often do you meet with your supervisors? Do you meet with them together, or just one at a time?

This one got a lot of mixed responses, and goes to show just how different the PhD is for everyone.

During my first year I met my supervisors every few weeks – my assignments were shorter, and I needed to check in more.  Now, I have official meetings when I have something to discuss with them.  This could be every month, or once in 3 months.  Having said that, I also see my supervisors outwith official meetings on a weekly basis.  It is a very odd week if I do not run into at least one of my supervisors – we attend the same seminars, and they often are course organisers on classes I teach.  This means I have a lot of contact, even if not all of that is in formal meetings.    I also often have my supervisions with both of them at the same time.  They supervise multiple students together, and work well in conjunction with one another.

Others, meet their supervisors significantly more often in formal settings – having meetings once every two weeks are so, even into the third year. Many also have varying levels of contact with different supervisors, meeting one significantly more than the others.

I think in all of this, the most important thing is to remain in contact with them.  If you don’t need to see them because you are working independently on a chapter and its going well, that fine, but make sure you check in.  Even if it is just an email to update them on your progress every once and a while it’s important they know how things are progressing.

Is a part-time job doable?



With Caution.

I have had a part time job since I was an undergrad.  Now in the third year of my PhD I have significantly decreased the hours I work, especially with teaching, but I still enjoy having a break from the PhD.  For 5 hours, one day a week, I can work as a receptionist and not worry about my PhD.  Any problems that come up on shift I fix  immediately, and after my shift I leave and don’t worry about it until the next week.  I find the disconnect extremely relaxing.  Having a part time job also often forces you to schedule your work better – because you may be busier during some hours, you have to work around that.

What is important though, is that you keep your PhD a priority.  Get a flexible part-time job that lets you adjust your hours.  If your part-time job is becoming too much, then take some time away from it.  Never get sucked in to working full time both on your PhD and at work, you’ll burn yourself out.

What about teaching? Would you do it in first year?

I really enjoy teaching, and I think it’s an excellent experience to have during the PhD if the opportunity is open to you.  You learn to express yourself clearly and concisely, you learn more assuredly than ever before what constitutes good and bad writing, and learn a broad range of topics, many of which that will be outside your speciality.  All in all it’s a great experience.  But it would be remiss of me not to point out how much work it also is.  Teaching isn’t an hour a week commitment, even if you are only teaching one class.

I taught in first year, during the second semester, and am glad I did.  Having said that, teaching in the first semester would have been a mistake for me.  Especially the first time you do it, it is time consuming, and you prepare more than you need to, because you don’t yet know how much you actually need to prepare.  Marking takes you twice as long as it will a year later, and you are more inclined to spend time you are not paid for working.  Taking the first few months to adjust to your PhD, if at all possible, is well worth it.

Is there ever really a conclusion?

All of this goes to say, that the PhD journey is incredibly different for everyone.  This is crucial to remember.  Often we have the impulse to compare our lives with others around us and during the PhD that will not help you.  Everyone’s pace is different, everyone works different, the workload everyone can handle is unique to them.  Comparing your situation or word-count with someone else will only cause undue stress.  Throughout your first year all you need to do is work hard, stay focused and figure out what works best for you.  The rest will fall into place.


Krysten Blackstone is the Chair of Pubs and Publications who uses this position to avoid writing the chapter(s), conference papers and fellowship applications she has due in the imminent future.  You can find adamantly refusing to accept she is in the third year of her PhD and procrastinating further on twitter.  


Image 1: Krysten Blackstone, Image 2: Flickr