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PhD diary: Preparing for a PhD

Charlie Pullen explains the process of preparing for a PhD in the first of his blogs about his journey through the experience

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Charlie Pullen

September 19 2017


About halfway through my first year as an undergraduate reading English literature, I decided I wanted to become an academic and teach at university. That meant I had to get a master’s and then a PhD.

When I was younger, growing up in a family with no experience of higher education, the thought of studying an undergraduate degree seemed unrealistic and out of the question, so the prospect of becoming a postgraduate seemed like a particularly ambitious act of overreaching. Half a decade later, however, I have emerged from a year of applications and interviews, and am about to start a funded PhD in English literature.

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I have previously written for Times Higher Education about applying for undergraduate and postgraduate taught degrees, both of which are relatively quick and straightforward. Although it can take a long time to research and understand the differences between the options, applying for a BA or BSc is made easier by a centralised application system (Ucas in the UK) through which you submit one application to multiple institutions. Regardless of how many drafts of a personal statement you complete, for a BA or a MA the finished piece is only one or two pages, a brief indication of interest and purpose that does not require masses of research.

A PhD application, however, is a much lengthier process. Like my MA application, I applied directly to different universities, producing unique research proposals that were tailored to each department and their admissions system’s guidelines. Unlike my MA application, though, I spent a lot longer researching for and writing these applications. 

In my MA application, I could make fairly cursory statements about what I was interested in and what I wanted to write a dissertation on. A PhD application requires a lot more thinking about the validity and worthiness of a project, as well as a greater knowledge of the topic your thesis addresses and the discipline you are working in.

The PhD proposal itself is a much longer document and includes sections such as research context and a timeline for successfully completing your work. Like many applicants, I also contacted and met academics I wanted to be supervised by. Going for funding is a further stage in this process and meant I had to attend interviews. 

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My "application" began in September/October 2016, when I started reading up on my proposed topic and discussing it with friends and previous teachers and ended in March 2017 after I had my final funding interview. In those months in between I made an effort to do things that I hoped would help prepare me for getting and then starting a PhD.

I was working in a full-time job, but I attended public seminars and lectures to keep one foot in the academic world. The most helpful of these was a conference of current PhD students discussing their research and why they thought it was important. This conference gave me a chance to survey new work in my field, allowed me to meet other PhD students and scholars working on similar topics; and it also encouraged me to consider how I might speak about, present and, crucially, defend my thesis.

I found this useful when I was invited to interviews that would determine whether I would get a studentship. The interview is your chance to communicate why your research is important and deserving of what is essentially a small salary to help you complete it. 

One of the struggles here is to have confidence in an idea that you may have not worked on extensively or even at all. My PhD topic has grown out of my MA dissertation, but much of my proposed thesis is exactly that, proposed (and all English students will know what happens to the best-laid plans).

This is obvious: if you’re applying for a PhD, you haven’t done it yet. Part of the challenge is that you must think ahead and estimate how and why it’s going to be successful. I don’t think this is a case of pretending like you already know all the answers or how it will turn out, so much as proving that you’ve considered different possibilities, anticipated challenges, and understood how you may approach these.

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Because a doctoral student, in English at least, must generate and design their own research topic, a PhD may seem like an individualistic endeavour. Researchers in the humanities tend not to work in groups or shared spaces, like scientists do in labs. For this reason, it’s important to choose a topic that you care about. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether my own research will be enough to motivate me to spend the next three or more years working on it. It’s got to be something that makes you want to get out of bed to study each day.

That said, I’m trying my best not to think of my thesis as if it’s some special and personal magnum opus. During the application period that meant getting people with varying degrees of expertise in the topic to read, edit, and critique my application, all while asking myself: "What will other people think of this when they read it? Will it make sense? Will it seem worth the time and money?" I want to treat my PhD like work, not my life’s work.

As I get nearer to beginning, I'm excited but also nervous. One thing I have not cracked over the past year is the ability to summarise my project in a couple of informative yet impressive sentences. I go into far too much detail, which only bores the poor person who politely asked what I’ll be working on, or I don’t provide enough information, which only confuses them.

At the very least, I hope over the coming months and years that I’ll master this skill and gain the confidence to say exactly what it is without fear that people will look back at me with bewilderment in their eyes. You can’t expect everyone to "get" or believe in your work, but I look forward to a time when I don’t mind that they don’t. Until then, I just can’t wait to get started.  

Charlie Pullen is a PhD student in English literature at Queen Mary University London. He will be regularly blogging his PhD journey for Times Higher Education

Read more: What is a PhD? Advice for PhD students

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