Peaks, Troughs and Plodding

So I’m now in my second year of my PhD. Doesn’t time fly? Since my last post I have written a nice little chunk of what might end up being my thesis; I have begun teaching (and therefore marking (booo hisss)); and I have been accepted to speak at a few conferences April – July of this year. I’m still loving what I do. However, I have figured something out about the life of a PhD-er that I didn’t know when I started.

It is a truth [fairly widely] acknowledged that a PhD involves peaks and troughs.

There have  been some great highs – momentum, light-bulb moments, good feedback, and a general sense of progression. But then there are also dull, dragging lows. I’m in one at the moment; the trough before the upwards climb to thesis-joy again. I know the peak will come. I know that this week will (IT WILL) be more productive than last week. But the reality is that there is some plodding to be done in a PhD.

So plod on.

Writing a Conference Report

Another task that I had to do in my ‘manic month’ of conferences was write a conference report…having never been to a conference, and having therefore never written a conference report.

The conference itself was a two-day event with great food, varied papers, and interesting people from all over the world. It wasn’t entirely relevant to my own PhD but it was fascinating nonetheless, and conferences that don’t completely tick all your boxes are still useful for a general awareness of what’s going on in academic thought. For example, at the end of the conference, at a discussion between attendees, it was agreed that there was a gap in academia for that which had been the conference theme.

But getting down to the business of the conference report, let’s go through five simple things to bear in mind.

Firstly, consider who you are writing for.
– In this instance, I was writing for the sponsors of the event (a more detailed affair) as well as for the university website (a more succinct version of the same). In the conference we organised, we had to write a report for our funding body where we were given a template – details to be included of how much money was spent, what the feedback was, what we’d do differently. However, in this case, there was no template and no real guidance so I set to work writing.

Secondly, write how you write.
– I’m a drafter and so I pretty much wrote all my notes down first off. Then I made the document more concise, taking bits out, and adding bits in where needed. When it came to the website version, I cut a lot.

Thirdly, consider details.
– Details needed in a conference report include general information on the running of the event, the chairing of the sessions, and the content of the papers. But what is also useful is a sporadic inclusion of the speaker’s presentation style, his/her humour, or his/her engagement with the audience. Also, some minor details on the venue might be helpful, and the general atmosphere of the conference – relaxed, intense, engaged, questioning etc.

Fourthly, don’t worry if you don’t understand the paper.
– The conference report doesn’t allow for pages of detail and so the conference papers that are harder to understand can perhaps feature as shorter paragraphs – even sentences.

Fifthly, demonstrate threads.
– Try and spot threads in the themes and content of the papers. Make these similarities explicit, foregrounding how the conference has led to wider discussions on subject ‘x’ or question ‘y’. At the end of the report, again, tie together the things that were in common.

The report is there to give an overview of what happened, what was discussed, and what was concluded. It is useful to those who attended, and those who didn’t. It is useful for the organisers and the funders. Overall, it’s a very useful document.

But don’t worry too much about specifics. Enjoy the conference, get stuck in to discussion, and conclusions will follow on naturally.

Organising a Conference

One of the things I’ve been rather busy with over the past couple of months has been organising a conference at my university. 

It was a postgraduate conference in my academic field. The organising committee consisted of 4 post-grad students from a couple of disciplines who didn’t really know what we were supposed to be doing, and one lecturer who whipped us into shape. We started planning in November, stepped it up in January, and then hosted the conference at the end of May. It went really well and we had great feedback. 

However, during the process I realised a lot of things that I would have like to have known at the start. For my benefit (so I can look back over this next time) and hopefully for yours, here are some tips for conference organising:


– Make notes, if you have received funding, of dates and details required by the funding body. They may want an interrim report and/or a post-conference report. Make sure you are aware that these will need doing otherwise they’ll fall through the net. 

– Delegate someone to keep an eye on money – how much you’re being given by funders, how much you’re spending. They can keep hold of receipts in a central place so that the finance report is not a big mess at the end. 

– Hold regular meetings. More shorter meetings are much better than fewer longer meetings. 


– If you’re on the organising committee, don’t present a paper as well. All of us on our committee presented papers. Some handled it better than others but I would advise that the two are not done together. If you are organising, stick to that. If presenting a paper, then give your time to that. 

– Make sure, if you are chairing a panel, that you are not afraid to stick to the time. A lot of conferences do not stick to the schedule. Make sure beforehand that all the speakers know that they will be stopped after a certain amount of time. 

– Make sure the food is good. If you are providing lunch or snacks, make sure it is top quality – don’t scrimp here. People appreciate good quality catering at events. 

– Enjoy it. Don’t get bogged down in what should be happening, who should be where. Enjoy speaking with people and comparing ideas on academia and on your field. Tell those who have given papers what you thought (be nice), and encourage those yet to give their papers. 


– Get feedback. This is not only a great confidence boost for you as you reflect on the success of the conference, but it provides some concrete evidence for the running of the conference and aids you for next time. 

– Write down what you’d do differently or what you’d do the same (hello!). By the time it comes round to another conference committee, you’ll have forgotten otherwise. 

– Get back to work! You’ll have spent so much time on the conference that now you need to get head down and get moving on the PhD. So on that note, I’d better get my head down. 


Today and just today

It has been too long. I apologise. 

I have had a manic 6 weeks of deadlines, workshops and conferences. I have had to organise events, write papers, suss out my own PhD progress, and make a lot of train journeys (I’m not getting on a train for a while now…). 

I’ll try and write about each thing in the next few weeks – how to write a conference paper, what conference etiquette is etc. But for now I need to focus on the calm after the storm. 

I’ve been ‘doing’ lots of academia. I’ve been meeting lots of academics. I’ve been hearing a lot of ‘how to make it’ in the world where ‘impact’ is the only thing that counts. To be honest, I’ve been getting a little disillusioned. 

What if I made a mistake and this whole PhD thing isn’t ‘me’? What if I’m about to commit myself to a life of long hours, relentless deadlines and full diaries? What if I want a normal life? What if I want a family down the line? What if I leave academia, could I ever clamber back in? What can I publish? How do I get published? These questions swirl madly like the washing machine that has been on the go for the past couple of days due to the gorgeous summer sunshine. 

But on the weekend, in a completely different context, I got some great advice. I’m so grateful for friends who are willing to skip small-talk and get to the depths of the feeble ‘how are you?’ question. I’m so grateful for the way one friend in particular, exposed what I’d turned academia into – a god, an authority, a ‘be all and end all’. I’m so grateful for the way she grounded me back in the reality of life which is meant to be lived, and time off which is meant to be TIME OFF (I am bad at checking emails when I shouldn’t). I’m so grateful that actually, academia really does not matter. 

So, in the words of my friend, today I will live today. And tomorrow can worry about itself. 

Worcester Sauce

Short post today. 

Funny though. 

I was reading a diary of a guy from the late nineteenth century the other day and came across an entry that made me chuckle (and email my husband straight away). 

I read it again to make sure I’d got it right. Yep. 

He was travelling and no where near ‘civilisation’, but his ink had run out so he was using worcester (or is it worcestershire) sauce to write his journal.

Ah, the sheer resourcefulness. Genius. So think of that when you reach in the cupboard for some Lea and Perrins!

That’s all for now folks. 

My First Conference

So I wasn’t feeling well last week (hence the lack of post…I apologise), but managed to get along to my first conference as a PhD student. I was armed with packs of tissues, bottles of water, and enough paracetamol to last the week. I was expectant, excited, and nervous. What if I didn’t understand anything? What if it was a waste of a day? Why can’t I go back to bed? were the questions spinning round my mind as I walked towards the registration desk.

Lo and behold, a name-tag appeared with my name on it – good sign that my online registration had actually worked – and I was given a bad of goodies. When I say goodies I mean: the programme of the day, a list of abstracts, a list of contact details for the other delegates, a notepad and a pen! To be honest, the prospect of a free pen is a great incentive for any Brit to attend an event, but adding a free notepad in there too…well this stationary-loving student was hooked and ready for the day.

Lots of small talk ensued straightaway. Talking to everyone about their research, I realised I hadn’t actually got round to doing what I told you all to do in my post  “defining your doctorate”, and so I blundered through a couple of explanations before getting it down to a succint but curiosity-rousing one-liner. After a cup of tea and more small talk, the bell rang, we were summoned to the keynote, and the day began.

To be honest with you, there was nothing on the programme related to my study. Even when papers had ‘translating’ in their title, they were using the word for the sake of a catchy title rather than indulging my research interests. However, this being said, I found the whole day extremely interesting. Having never been to a conference but being involved in the organisation of one in May, I learned a lot – just from observation – about the running of the day. Having never presented at a conference but being in the middle of preparing a paper to present in June, I learned a lot about the practicalities of giving a paper (note to self: DO NOT USE POWERPOINT EVER… OR COMPUTERS….OR ANY TECHNOLOGY). Furthermore, I felt as though my knowledge of so many different topics was widened just by my being sat for 20 minutes listening to someone who loves what they’re talking about.

I was glad to be out. Of course. My nose was streaming, my head was pounding, my muscles were aching. But I really enjoyed the day and am looking forward to the next conference! 

Birthday meat

So Saturday night was a birthday party. The birthday girl was someone I’d met in January, and who studies in my PGR office most days. She’s Romanian and her English is astonishing (-ly good). Dinner was at a meze (mezza?) place, and so save a lot of fuss (and food-envy), we ordered platters to share. What ensued was basically an evening of meat – sooooo much food was on those platters that we had to challenge each other to finish them!

Why am I telling you about meat, about dinners out, about platters and challenges?

Because on the table were people from Italy, Spain, Chile, Hong Kong, Malta, Taiwan…and I’ve forgotten a couple! I love that I was able to go out with new friends; that these friends are from all over the world; that through my PhD, I get to see a little of these incredible countries, their cultures, and their people. Moreover, I have the privilege (there’s that word again) of enjoying the night’s conversation in my mother tongue, while everyone else spoke a second or third language.  

It was a lovely social side to my research and I hope that as my project progresses, friendships will grow too.

Privilege and Dust

Last week I had the privilege of reading some extraordinary writing.

My PhD involves literature from the 1800s, and so I often find myself in the obscure parts of the library whenever I visit. But last Thursday I went to the ‘special collections’ section – that little-known and little-seen area located in the basement of my uni library.

As I descended the stairs, the smell of books got stronger. The dust started to make me sneeze. I put my bag in one of the lockers provided at the door, realised I didn’t have £1 to lock it and so, trusting that thieves wouldn’t think to go to the ‘special collections’ section, I continued into the room. Before I got there though, I saw a sign informing me that only paper, pencils and laptops were allowed. I haven’t carried a pencil in my bag since I was 11, and I’m more of a note-scribbler than a typer, so I proceeded into the rare books section armed with only a notebook.

After a touch of confusion with the man in charge (who let me borrow a pencil), I found out how to find the books – fill in a piece of paper for each book, he disappears, and then reappears with the requested books. I sat down at the table to begin my day of reading.

Hours later, with tears still streaming down my face, I left with the feeling of privilege.

All day I had been reading diaries and letters of people who were in an uncertain context, who were working because of conviction and integrity, and who were brutally honest with their writing. I had been reading words and pages that I doubt many have read. I had been reading glimpses of someone’s world, a world they’d scrawling in notebooks, not necessarily thinking that some emotional PhD student would one day be weeping over them. I read a wife’s description of her husband’s final hours on a boat to Mauritius. I read a lonely man’s lament after his wife died in Sierra Leone. I read a traveler’s sighs as he pondered over the potential futility of his work.

I have been reading for weeks, but only dry words and emotionless records. On Thurday I felt like I was reading people, lives. I read something almost tangible.

Perhaps it’s just the dust, perhaps it’s just the fact that the books are yellowed and fragile, but that day felt like my PhD might actually touch something precious.  

What a privilege. Bring on more reading.

So what are you doing?: defining your doctorate

The ultimate question. Simple, on the face of it. A natural query. In fact, I heard it a lot this weekend as we had a big family gathering with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins (or first cousins once removed, whatever the definition is).

How are you? Fine, thanks!
What are you up to at the moment? I’ve just started a PhD actually…
Oh right!….So what are you doing? *Silence, hesitation, racking my brains for a starting point*

How do you explain a potential three years of research, which happens to be in a very specific field which you’re only just beginning to understand after reading half the library’s books on the matter? How do you put your entire research proposal – with all its concepts and assumed knowledge – into a simple answer for someone who knows nothing about the subject?

I haven’t specified until now, but my PhD is in Translation Studies. If your response to that was, ‘Huh? You can do a PhD in that?’, then that sounds pretty much like every other response I’ve had. This answer obviously isn’t adequate to the ‘what are you doing’ conundrum. I need something tangible, understandable for the common man.  

I therefore go a bit more specific, I give them something recognisable: ‘I’m doing a PhD in Translation Studies and French Literature’. This seems to satisfy most. ‘Oooo, French, that’s complicated’. This makes me laugh – they still know nothing about my project, but they are quite relieved to know that at least it involves something tricky like a foreign language. Sometimes, however, they press me. ‘What specifically are you doing then?’ – they have recognised that ‘Translation Studies and French literature’ is a very broad subject matter and actually want to know more.

So here comes my little spiel. I’ve got it down to a sentence now, a reasonably short sentence that actually tells people what I’m doing without chucking them in the deep end of translation theory and french colonial criticism. Conciseness is a beautiful thing, and it helps me focus on my project. If writing a conference paper, or an article, or a thesis, I’ve had the incredibly simple but useful advice that you need to be able to summarise your argument in one sentence. If you can’t, you don’t understand your own argument. I think this is the same with the question that others pose.

Therefore, as someone asks you rather bluntly what you’re focussing your time and effort on, what you are interested in, what your next three years are going to look like, you get to refine your project even as you answer. You get to tell yourself again what your goal is, what your conclusion will involve. Take that opportunity. Refine the sentence to tell them, but also to keep yourself on track of your work.

I think what’s hard about this particular question is that often the hearer doesn’t want to hear the full answer. They want to voice an interest, they want to figure out what you do all day (yep, I read, I constantly have to tell people that at the moment most of my day is spent reading!!!). They want to be interested. But they’re not going to fully understand the spiel that you spout, let alone the actual project itself!

Of course you won’t be able to tell them every miraculous detail that fascinates you about your project, but you can give them something to latch on to, perhaps something to arouse curiosity, and something to answer the question.

‘So what are you doing?’

What’s your sentence?  

Nod nod nodding – supervision meetings

Last week I had my first official supervision meeting for my PhD. I started my research in January and, before now, have only had a couple of ‘check-ins’ where I’ve made sure I’m doing what my main supervisor thinks I should be doing…

However, official supervisions have started and are a different beast altogether. Gone are the pleasant conversations and nice half-hours of idea-tennis. Gone are the relaxed one-to-ones between the chilled out ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ student and the ‘don’t worry about it’ supervisor.

In their place I found myself sat on the edge of my seat for an hour, rapidly writing pretty much whatever came out of my supervisors mouths (I have two), and nodding along eagerly, whether or not I actually understood what they were saying.

There is a danger with this nodding. At the time it seems to buy you credibility. The nodding makes you feel a peer, makes you feel like you can do what they do. Nodding makes you feel invincible.

But when you come away from the meeting – with your research plan covered in pen marks and scrawlings, the margins full of names of books by authors you can’t pronounce, let alone spell – the nodding turns to a fast shaking of the head. You have to summarise the meeting and document it. You have to write minutes.

I don’t know what the system is in other unis, but in mine, you have to give an overview of the discussions had and the action plan at the end of the meeting. You have to then submit this to your supervisors so that they can see you’ve understood their instructions (!), and then submit it to the university as evidence of your supervisory meetings.

The waiting game begins therefore, as I have submitted my minutes to my supervisors. Will they see through the zealous nodding, or have I been able to understand enough of the meeting that I can actually blag my way through this process?…Only time will tell.