The Oxbridge Essays Guide to Surviving Your PhD – Year Two: Consolidation
As you head into the second year of your PhD, you're probably feeling a certain amount of relief. You've made the sometimes difficult adjustment between a highly structured taught Master's programme to a full-time research degree in which you've got to determine your own work schedule and negotiate how what and when to deliver with your supervisor. By now you've got a clear outline of the shape your research is going to take, you've got a clear idea of the kind of intervention you want to make in your field, and (if required) you've upgraded your registration from an MPhil to a "proper" PhD. If you're very lucky - or an exceptional researcher! - you may also have received a funding award, providing validation that you're onto something and that your discipline is anxiously awaiting your intervention.
Whether you've taken to the research degree format like a duck to water or have had a few bumps and scrapes along the way - here you are in your second year. It's real. You're doing this. And in a couple of years' time, you're going to be handing in your thesis and defending it in your viva. So how do you get from here to there? If your first year is all about innovation - about freeform idea generation and distilling your creative ideas into a form that can actually form the basis for a doctoral degree - the watchword for your second year should be consolidation. That is, the process of building successfully on the platform you set up for yourself last year, and embedding yourself more fully in the structures of academic life and scholarship.
A fine balance
We get it. Consolidation is a far less exciting keyword than innovation. It implies discipline and incremental steps forward. It suggests you're going to be making fewer of the creative leaps you made last year. Well, to some extent this is true. If there's a year to be ultra-disciplined in your PhD degree, this is the year. Ideally, you'll do more of writing your PhD thesis chapters this year than in either of your other two years. You spent a lot of last year planning what you were going to write and you'll spend a lot of next year revising and revisiting what you've already written. In terms of volume, this is the year in which you'll be putting an awful lot of the flesh on the bones of your thesis project.
But of course, none of this means this year can't also be your most fun. You'll see your project really begin to take shape, and you'll start to explore what it means to live an academic life by networking, attending conferences, giving talks, and submitting work for publication if you haven't already. If you're cut out for a scholarly life, you're likely to enjoy the perks - and the feeling of being immersed in this new world full-time - a lot. And you deserve to. You've gained admission to the club on merit, and you're an important part of your department and institution's research culture. Your challenge is going to be balancing the joy of being part of this world with the industry and discipline. Enjoy the after-hours talks, wine-and-nibbles research events and collegial get-togethers, but not at the expense of your work. This will ensure you stay a part of it beyond your next two years (if that's what you want to do, of course).
Keep on moving: Avoiding writer's block and the eternal literature review
Once you've established the structure and direction of your research, you're going to have to read. A lot. Over multiple trips to the library, you'll acquire a massive stack of books that are likely to require you hire a van to return them all at the end. (Pro tip: don’t return them all at the end. Make a habit of dropping books in the returns slot a few at a time, as you're done with them. You can always borrow them again if you need to revisit them in a year's time!) And of course, you need to get to know your area of study thoroughly, which entails reading in-depth in a way you never have before. Nobody wants to be caught out in the viva with a "Have you read Thomas's work?" question and be forced to respond: "Who's Thomas?"
Covering the field comprehensively can be a daunting task at first but you'll soon find yourself chasing up references with gusto: chasing down quotations or cited studies to their original published forms, and chasing down the papers they cite in turn. But there's a big word of caution to be offered here: you can't spend the whole of the remainder of your PhD reading. And it's impossible to read every last thing ever written on your field, or every last study undertaken. You need to use your supervisor wisely here. Don't just ask for suggestions on materials you should read; ask for guidance on their relative importance. In every field, there are influential thinkers whose work you should know like the back of your hand. And others whose work you should be aware of, which means you should skim it, know it exists, and be ready to quote from or engage with it further as required.
But the key thing to do is to write as you read. The literature review section of your thesis should accomplish two things. Demonstrate appropriate depth of reading and breadth of understanding of the central issues in your field of study, and lay the groundwork for the intervention to follow. Your literature review shouldn't simply be a "brain dump" of everything you've read. It should have a clear shape and trajectory, leading towards the gap in current work that you want to identify and exploit. And this means you should be thinking about its trajectory from the moment you start reading. You should frame your summaries and your engagements with other scholarly work in your field with your own research in mind, and you should interweave your reading with this focused writing activity from the start.
Above all, don't fall into the trap of waiting until you've done "all the reading" before you start writing. This is an easy trap to fall into because it can often be quite pleasurable to read and read and read some more on a topic you find interesting and convince yourself that you're working hard on your thesis every day. But there comes a point at which reading ceases to be due diligence and starts being a form of action illusion procrastination: of telling yourself you're hard at work when you're avoiding the daunting task of starting to write your damn thesis.
Doing "all the reading" on any given subject is impossible, so if you wait until you've done that you'll wait forever. Instead, write little and often, ending your analysis with each category of prior research with a transition paragraph that moves the discussion forward and anticipates your methodology. If you've missed out a crucial researcher or school of thought, your supervisor will be the first to let you know, and you can always go back and fill in the gaps later. But your supervisor has no real way of knowing how your survey of the field is progressing if you only ever turn up to your meetings with rough notes about what you've read. The more writing you’re able to hand in, and the earlier you hand it in, the more polished your final thesis project will be.
Living the life: Conferences, talks, publications, and teaching
In addition to being the year in which you start writing in earnest, your second year is the one in which you'll probably start living the life. If you haven't already done so, now's the time to start building your CV and your networks by submitting work in progress to conferences, polishing up one of your chapters (or even an expanded version of your proposal) and sending it to journals in your field, enquiring about teaching work in your department or further afield, and volunteering to present at any talks series or colloquia your department holds. If you find yourself too bogged down in reading or struggling to write your next chapter or section, this is also how you'll make sure your studies stay fun and engaging rather than seeming like a bore!
Semi-Formal Talks / Colloquia
Many departments run a regular programme of talks (once a month, say) where researchers present on their work. If you're lucky, there may be a postgraduate colloquium or similar that's dedicated to giving researchers in your position a venue to try out their research on an audience and receive valuable feedback. Volunteer for these opportunities simply to spruce up your oral presentation style and experience receiving peer feedback in a supportive setting. Especially consider using this kind of forum for a dry run if you're planning to present work at a conference in the near future.
Conferences are the bread and butter of scholarly networking, collaboration, and presentation. Universities often provide limited travel funding for their postgraduates to attend conferences and present papers, so it's well worth asking around to see if such pots of money are available. You should aim to propose papers to medium- to large-sized conferences in your field, where you'll encounter a mix of early career researchers and postgraduate students like yourself, and more senior figures. Don't just submit to the first conference you see, though: a paper at a conference tailored to your specific area of study will demonstrate focus and direction - and afford better opportunities for meeting people who are interested in the work you're doing - than a conference with an excessively broad theme or one into which you shoehorn a paper that doesn't fit terribly well.
Building networks - whether it’s to forge opportunities for formal future collaboration or simply to keep abreast of the conversations in your field - is an increasingly crucial part of academic life. And no matter how many publications in prestigious journals you may have, no matter how excellent your written output and how innovative your research, hiring committees are increasingly unlikely to be enthused by “lone wolf” scholars. So much of your time will be spent serving on committees and engaged in collaborative ventures of one kind or another that you need to show you’re a team player. Fortunately, there are now more ways than ever to do this, even if you’re the kind of person who gets intimidated in a room full of strangers.
Attending conferences, talks and research presentations and chatting to other attendees about their work and yours is a great way to make enduring connections, especially if you can follow up your initial contact with a coffee date the next day. But if that simply sounds too daunting you can now create a web of contacts using social media. Academic social networks like academia.edu offer dedicated networking for scholars, but it's arguably the frequently maligned Twitter platform that will be your most valuable tool for virtual networking with other academics.
If you haven't done so already, set up a professional Twitter account. Tailor your feed to keep you up-to-date with current conversations in your field by judiciously choosing who and what to follow, and tweeting succinct, informative and engaging thoughts on topics that interest you, using their hashtags. Most importantly, the liveliest and most comprehensive conversations that happen at conferences increasingly happen via live tweeting. You should seriously consider live tweeting any conferences you attend even if you are the social butterfly type; if you're more comfortable engaging electronically than in person, though, you simply must make the most of the social networking opportunities conferences now offer. Make sure you know the conference hashtag and, if possible, have a list of the Twitter handles of the other attendees. Attend as many panels as possible, and tweet at other users directly to make sure you're part of the conversation.
You should submit at least one paper to a journal in the second year of your PhD - more if you're one of several researchers on a project and co-authoring your studies. Ultimately, you want your papers not just to be accepted and published but also to be cited widely, so do your research on the journals you submit to. Prestigious, high-profile journals in your field with highly selective acceptance rates will look most impressive on your CV, but your research will likely have given you other ideas about journals that are highly regarded and frequently cited within your particular area of study. And if you haven't published at all yet, it's a good idea to submit your work to journals that hit the sweet spot between prestige and accessibility. You might, for instance, choose to go for a journal that accepts 30% of submissions and gets back to authors with a decision within three months, rather than one that takes a year to reach a decision and only accepts 5% of submissions.