Top Tips for (UK) PhD Students

Last week I gave a talk at the 6th Postgraduate conference in Bioethics supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Institute of Medical Ethics, and PEALS at Newcastle University. The conference consisted of 4 ‘keynote’ talks by established academics (who then held masterclasses), a good number of postgraduate presentations spread across 7 or so panels and a couple of ‘added value’ sessions. I was one of these latter presenters and I attempted to give a bunch of ‘top tips’ of things to do whilst studying for a PhD in the UK. Hopefully at least some of these translate across national and subject/ discipline boundaries. My talk was aimed at UK students studying for a PhD in ‘bioethics’ and I have reproduced the main points below:

1. Visit a Library to Do Some Intensive Research:

In my actual talk I mostly focused on the resources of the Wellcome Trust Library and pointed out some useful features of the surrounding area (the UCL SU cafe, directly behind the Wellcome Collection, and excellent for cheap coffee and lunch; the excellent second hand/ cheap academic book store Judd Books; and the Bloomsbury Waterstones). However if you get a chance to spend some time, even a few days or a week, at a different library during your PhD it is worth doing. I twice spent dedicated time in the Wellcome Library and the Royal Society of Medicine Library. I also spent a few days in Georgetown’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics bioethics research library in my first year. With all the research resources the internet provides for modern academic research it may not be that you will find anything new but it is definitely worth hiding away for an intensive period of focused reading, writing and ‘research’. One thing I forgot to mention during my actual talk is that institutions (often American institutions) offer unpaid visiting research fellowships to PhD students. It seems to me that there is not a strong tradition of UK PhD students doing this, or knowing about the possibility. However it seems to be a common thing across Europe and worth checking out. If you can plan a trip properly you home university may offer travel scholarships and other forms of support. 

2. Read the THE:

The Times Higher Education or the THE is the newspaper for the UK’s higher education sector, the equivalent of the USA’s Chronicle of Higher Education. If you are a UK PhD student who wants a job in UK Higher Education it is worth keeping up to date with what is going on and the best way to do that is either by subscribing to the magazine (perhaps sharing the cost between a few of you, subscription includes 3 codes for the iPad app) or regularly checking the website. One of their best features is their excellent, informative and highly stimulating book reviews like this one, or this one

3. Read a PhD

I was pleasantly surprised to find many of my audience had in fact read a PhD. I was under the impression that many PhD students had never thought of such a thing. It is a good idea as, after all, you are trying to write one. Whilst you will not find a PhD whose structure you can (or should) imitate it will give you a feel for the endeavor you are undertaking. Furthermore you can steal check all the bibliographic references to see if you are on the right sort of lines. Another good thing to do is look up the outputs (monograph or articles) from a PhD and get a sense of the differences. Whilst some books are almost exact reproductions of PhDs the best entail a substantial rewrite. Similarly the translation of a thesis into peer reviewed journal articles is not an easy task. You can get an idea of the nature of the task by comparing a PhD to its outputs. The best way to currently find PhDs is through the British Library’s free EThos service. They are engaged in a program of scanning doctoral thesis from various UK HEIs and, on request, will prioritise the one you are interested in free of charge. You can read these in an e-reader or, in my experience, have them printed two pages per page, double sided and ring bound for about five quid. 

4. Explore some Tools of the Trade: 

a. Reference Managers: Frankly I am surprised at the number of academics (and PhD students) who do not use reference managers. I would be lost without my preferred program Zotero. It is brilliant. Not only does it keep all your references in one handy place but you can capture them from webpages (Jstor, most academic journal publisher sites, google scholar/ books, amazon etc) with a click. If you put in the open URL resolver of your library with another click you can see if it is in your library and then click through to the resource automatically. PDFs (and notes) can be attached to the references. They can be tagged and put into sub-collections. I am not sure how good other reference managers are at all of this but no one has ever convinced me any of them come close to the brilliance of Zotero. There is even an iPad app and you can synch your collection across any number of computers. I haven’t even mentioned the write-and-cite functionality provided by the Word plugin or the fact it will build bibliographies for you and even convert between different reference styles. Or that you can install a copy of it with mobile Firefox onto a USB stick and take it with you to use when visiting libraries. Get it. It is made by librarians.

b: Writing Tools other than Word: There are plenty of alternatives to Word. Some, like Open Office, are ‘direct’ alternatives. Others are a bit more interesting. If there is one thing I would like to have had during my PhD it is Scrivener. Originally Mac only, it is now available for Windows. IMHO it is worth paying for. There are plenty of other possibilities out there including programs that present you with a blank page, having little or no formatting options. The interoperability of modern computers and word processors means restricting yourself to Word is an unnecessarily limiting choice. I am only beginning to get to grips with the possibilities of Scrivener but it is already proving to be a powerful tool assisting with both my writing and my thinking. The downside is a lack of Zotero integration but there is a auto-match up functionality if one writes in a {curly bracketed Harvard style}.

c: Social Media: Social media, it would seem, might be a ubiquitous recommendation. Certainly you should be on and explore groups on facebook. But do you really want to be on Twitter or have a blog? These things need constant attention and, particularly in the case of a blog, regular updating. There is plenty worse then finding an old blog that has not been updated in months, only has a couple of entries and is now obviously abandoned, but it is not a good look. Twitter is less of a concern in this regard but it still doesn’t look great. Perhaps rather than having your own blog you might contribute to a group blog or otherwise express yourself. The GLEUBE project ran a series of polemics on their website. There are other kinds of opportunities such as this available and I would recommend seeking them out. It can help you develop an ability to express yourself succinctly and in non-academicese. Whilst I would recommend also having your own website, even if it is fairly static and perfunctory. Nevertheless, do think twice before opening up a fully fledged blog. 

4: What Sort of Bioethicist are you? 

Over on the JME blog David Hunter recently considered the place of bioethics in the academy. Whilst I disagree with some of what he says - for example social science, and particularly sociology, is not and should not be ‘non-normative’; it is merely the case that it has a different sense of ‘the normative’ than that found in applied ethics and law – nevertheless his concern is very relevant to PhD students. It is worth asking whether you are a sociological, applied ethical or a legal bioethicist and what this means for the possibilities of finding an academic job post-PhD. If you want a job in sociology, anthropology, law, philosophy, a bioethics’ center or a medical school all impacts on how you present yourself and what activities you might want to undertake whilst doing your PhD. Particularly the conferences you attend, the paper(s) you publish and the teaching you undertake. Being interdisciplinary and having varied teaching experience is all well and good but when you are a newly minted lecturer in department X you will be required to teach basic core modules to undergraduates; can you do that and can you evidence this? In law it is likely that a necessary, but perhaps not sufficient, condition is having a law degree. In all, experience is likely the key. 

5: Presenting at Conferences (is a waste of time):

Going to conferences, and presenting, is a staple academic activity. Do it, and get comfortable with it. Develop a style and an approach to speaking that suits you and the kind of material you are presenting. My advice is not to read and if you really have to read don’t bore your audience by reading something written in a formal style. I just switch off. Whilst presenting is a central academic skill just presenting at a conference is a waste of time. One main point of presenting is to provide yourself with a deadline which can be very useful when you are in the process of developing a chapter or a paper. Just make sure you present the contents to your audience rather than simply read it out. Another point of conference presentation is to engage with others. This can mean asking questions at other people’s talks. But this should be understood as actually going out to meet new people. It is embarrassing to walk up to someone you don’t know and say ‘hello my name is X’ but this is, essentially, what you should be doing. Conferences are good for making friends and contacts, people who will be there throughout an academic career inviting you to X, Y and Z (and vice versa). You might also find, befriend and subtly road test an external examiner for your PhD. Don’t bug established academics though, ultimately they mostly want to hang out with their friends, the people they met at conferences when they were a PhD student. The people we all remember most fondly are those who did not outstay their welcome. 

6: An Ideal Progression: 

In the UK PhDs are 3 years. At one stage we were moving to a 3+1 model where year one was a (funded) taught masters degree followed by three years of doctoral research. Now most PhD students will have funded their own master’s degree and, if lucky enough to get funding for a PhD, it will be for three years only. Getting finished inside three years is an achievement and one that will stand you in excellent stead not only for the rest of your career but throughout the rest of your career. It marks you as a completer-finisher, as a colleague likes to say. Getting finished in four years is standard and virtually a prerequisite for an academic career. Getting finished in 5 is frowned upon not only by your department but by those reading your CV when you apply for a job. The REF cycle is 8 years. That means producing 4 high quality outputs whilst also fulfilling your teaching and admin duties. A PhD is often two decent articles i.e. half a REF return done in 3-4 years whilst having few other commitments. (Incidentally, REF scoring means two articles are worth more than a book, especially for the early career academic). Given this pressure to get finished, my concluding top tip is the following ideal progression:

Year 1: Present at a (low key) conference and write a book review. Doing book reviews is, for the most part, something of a waste of time. So, do not write a review of a book you do not want or need to read in detail. Do not spend ages on it. No more than a day(!). Do not review a book you can afford to buy. However do do one, it builds confidence, especially if you can do one for a decent journal. MOst journals have a books received section and a book review editor that you can contact offering to review a particular book they have been sent, or even pom you think they might be interested in. Most book review editors will contact a publisher and solicit a review copy of a relevant book. Other possibilities are Philosophy in Review or Metapsychology both of which carry bioethics type books. Medical Sociology Online (BSA MedSoc details here) has a list of books available for review in each edition. The Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness/ BSA MedSoc has a list available on request, see details here. I presume this latter is for the excellent journal Sociology of Health and Illness.

Year 2: Write an article and/ or run an event. Publishing is the name of the academic game. Publishing something during your PhD is now virtually a prerequisite for becoming an academic. So, find something extra to your PhD and develop an article. Keep an eye out for postgraduate essay prizes, often there are only a few entries so if you write a good essay you stand a good chance. Running an event also has lots to recommend it. You can invite people you want to meet, such as potential PhD examiners, or people slightly ahead of you in their careers who might then invite you to speak somewhere or get you involved in something they are involved in. Plus applying for, getting and spending money is a big plus on any early career CV. Sources of funding are Wellcome, BSA postgraduate workshop days, the Society of Applied Philosophy, Foundation for Sociology of Health and Illness, your own department/ university. Plus doing things like this can provide credits to replace those training courses you have to do…. 

Year 3: Get finished.


So, in conclusion, these may or may not help you. All advice offered, and taken, at your own risk. Certainly doing these things will not hurt, but it is up to you if you think they are right for you or not. My assumption has been that my imaginary PhD student has in mind an academic career and so there might be other, better, things to do if academia is not your intended destination. My final top tip would be to ‘never say no’. If someone asks you to do something and you don’t really fancy it – reviewing a naff book for a naff publication venue for example – just suck it up and do it. In a few months you may find that you are asking them for something. I have seen requests refused due to previous refusals of requests. Anyway, hopefully these will work for you. Certainly I have not taken all the advice on this page, I have done far too many book reviews, time that could have been better spent.