By Sarah Thomson |

“What did you do on the first day of your PhD?”

Before I started, this was the question I asked my older and wiser PhD friends. Once the whirlwind of inductions, meetings, admin and training has died down and you’re sitting at your desk as a Newly Minted PhD Student- then what happens? Where do you begin?

This the end of the sixth week of my History PhD, so I thought I’d write this month’s post about what the first few weeks of being a PhD student have involved, for the benefit of any curious PhDs-to-be!


Induction events and (usually mandatory) training

free stationery- a perk of induction events!

*warning* The admin and induction talks definitely don’t stop in Welcome Week! I didn’t anticipate how much time I would spend attending welcome events and compulsory training during the first few months of my PhD. Of course, there were the usual ‘welcome to the department’/’here’s where the library is’-type talks that come with beginning any new degree. However, I then had three more inductions specifically related to funding, where people explained opportunities ranging from conference grants to mid-PhD internships. My department also runs a core class, ‘Professional Skills for Historians’, which all new History PhDs are required to attend for two hours per week, and I believe this type of course is now fairly common. And, since I start tutoring undergraduates in January, I’ve had tutor training.


Meeting supervisor(s)

Of course, arranging the first meeting with your supervisory team is an important part of the early weeks of the PhD. I was lucky that my primary supervisor was keen for us all to sit down together before the end of my first week, and he also met with me during Freshers’ Week for a more informal chat. I have three supervisors, so getting them together early on was (I hope) helpful for all of us, especially since they haven’t co-supervised before. This meeting really helped me to get a sense of what I should be working towards over the next few months. We set some concrete goals for the rest of the semester, which helped me to feel like I had some more manageable tasks than simply “write a PhD thesis.” I can’t stress this enough: all supervisory teams work differently. Within my cohort there are people whose supervisors have required 3,000 word essays every few weeks, whereas mine don’t want to see anything in writing before Christmas. I meet my primary supervisor every week or two, whereas others see theirs once every six weeks. Though all first year History PhDs are working towards similar things, how you get there varies a lot more than I’d expected.


Reading, reading, and more reading

My supervisor sent me an email shortly before I arrived on campus saying, “when you’re ready to start work, pick a new book on your topic and read it.” Starting small with ‘read a new book’ was actually incredibly reassuring to me, and it helped make the seemingly insurmountable pile of things I could read feel less intimidating. Lots of people start their PhD by reading relevant secondary literature, but knowing what is and isn’t relevant has definitely been one of the challenges so far. I’ve also found it quite easy to get distracted by more immediate deadlines (such as writing conference abstracts or filling in application forms). I’m hoping that setting myself some concrete goals, like sending my supervisor a plan for my literature review in X weeks, will help me to start feeling a bit more focussed.

books, laptop, garish university-branded coffee cup- all the early PhD essentials

Browsing potential funding sources

The nature of my research means I’ll be spending a fairly considerable amount of time doing archival research overseas. There are various sources of funding available for PhD researchers, but taking some time to write out a list of places to apply to (and, more importantly, the deadlines) was definitely worthwhile. One of them had a deadline in October for travel taking place over the next 18 months, so I’ve ticked off ‘first research funding application’ already! Though this felt like a sidestep from my research, I know that in the long run my project (and my bank balance) will hopefully benefit from spending some time on funding applications early on.


Speaking to archivists 

This one is very subject/topic-specific. Since my project will involve working with materials that haven’t been processed or made available for research yet, putting in Freedom of Information requests has eaten up a bit of my time over the past few weeks. Luckily one of those archives also offers research grants, so I was able to work with an archivist on both applications at once. Again, this didn’t feel like it contributed much to my research, but I knew that it was something that I’d have to get a start on early on in my PhD.

Some archives still require snail mail letters for important requests (to my great shock)


Of course, this post comes with the obvious caveat that every PhD is unique, so others may well have had a completely different experience of these early months. For instance, I have friends whose research materials are close by so have already started delving into their primary sources, while others (like me) are currently 5,500 miles away from their most important archive. Everyone’s PhD is very different, but I hope this post demystifies the early weeks of the PhD for any curious PhDs-to-be!


Sarah is a contributions editor for Pubs and Pubs and a first year History PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, where she is researching legacy building in the Reagan White House. She’s currently using her literature review as an excuse to amass useless facts about US presidents which she can inflict upon her unsuspecting supervisors. 


All images: Sarah Thomson