An Introduction : Commencing the Ph.D.


Like many before me, the decision to start blogging has been a process (to say the least). Much like commencing a workout routine, continuity is the most difficult part. I have started blogging several times, always resulting in a dead blog with about a dozen posts, mostly photographs, that for a time placated my parents, desperately trying to keep tabs on me while I was starting life in a new place. In 2009, two months studying abroad in Paris produced a travelogue detailing various jaunts around the city, my thoughts on cultural differences, and restaurant reviews. I stopped writing when my travels took me to Greece and I realised that sitting on a beach reading Middlesex all day does not make for an interesting blog (though I just finished Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot, and plan to write a post soon about his inability to write female characters that aren’t awful). The point being, of course, that no one wants to read about my sunburn.

I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa without further attempt to blog, and ended up with a Bachelor of Music degree in Voice Performance (soprano, preferred repertoire pre-1700 and post-1900) a Bachelor of Arts degree in Early and Medieval literature (proof that at one point in my life I was able to translate Beowulf), and a minor in French (quel surprise!). My gap year was spent working a variety of jobs from substitute teacher to bar waitress and applying to graduate schools. I moved to England in the fall of 2011 to begin a Master of Studies course in Musicology at Wolfson College, Oxford University. While at Oxford I began a blog that I kept private, and accumulated a total of twelve posts.  The subjects ranged from knitting projects to my travels in Europe, digitising early manuscripts as part of a research assistantship with DIAMM, but eventually my blog apathy crept back in. I stopped blogging in April, and my course ended in July.

Inspired by the wildly interesting content and professional-seeming appearance of my friend Katie DeVries Hassman’s Ph.D. blog , I thought the Ph.D. may as well be a reason to attempt, yet again, this surprisingly difficult task. So why not gear this toward academia? Integrating research interests into a less formal setting seems like a good way to blend school and every day life – a helpful mixture for a Ph.D. with no coursework.

My academic focus is on medieval music notation and manuscript studies, with a specific focus on French monophony of the fourteenth century. Giving a slight twist to the normal medieval focus is the fact that my other major research interests involve digital humanities and the way that new technologies affect musicological research, including the teaching of medieval music to students. I would like for this blog to eventually be a place to self-publish academic research. If I can get past the blog-apathy wall, that is.

The start of a new course in academia is always daunting; the amount of busy work to accomplish before actually settling into research never seems to end. Yes, I am a new Ph.D. student currently in that limbo-esque place, but this is my second year in England, so I feel relatively qualified to talk about starting a postgrad course in a new country. My Ph.D. advice will be as yet untested, but I’ll post updates detailing the success of my methods. I’ve decided to make a short list of ways in which a student can facilitate this process while managing the new aspects of life that also come with starting a Ph.D. – new home, new city (and/or country), new neighbourhood . . . new spellings.*

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. All those emails you get when you first arrive at your new University – read them. Make note of the people who send them, and actually email them back if you don’t understand something. Yes, the administration is being inundated with emails during this time, but that’s as much a part of autumn as the leaves falling from the trees. If you’re not sure of something, ask. Don’t feel silly – it’s email. You don’t have to see the person’s face when they read your ridiculous question(s). I’m pretty sure I sent the funding office at RHUL about fourteen thousand emails between my acceptance and arrival. It’s okay.

2. Stay organised from the beginning. Make lists, and actually do the things on said lists, no matter how boring and/or unappealing they may be. The sooner all the bookkeeping stuff is out of the way, the sooner you can actually get started planning the important stuff – your research. If you have to do things like open a bank account or get a phone, make sure to prioritize these activities. The sooner they are taken care of, the sooner you can actually start living in your new city.

3. Even when you think you have nothing to do, there’s always something you can be doing. Case in point, blogging about PhD work. But really, start a list of books, articles, and book chapters that may be pertinent to your research, so you know what you have and haven’t read. Start a bibliography (especially if you aren’t using EndNote or another reference tool) with annotations so that you can easily access the information you gather early on in your research. In the words of Lisa Simpson, ‘I make a lot of lists’ (Episode: “HOMR” – Season 12 #9).

4. Explore. Get to know the area your school is in. Especially in longer programs like the Ph.D., the city is going to be your place of residence for several years. Take a day and walk around – especially if, like me, you have a slight commute to get to your campus. I have about a 30 minute journey total, between the train and walking, so typically when I go to campus I am going to want to stay a while. It’s nice to know the location of coffee shops and cafés, as well as pharmacies, grocery stores, banks, cash points, and any other thing that can save you some time later on when you may need something. This is especially pertinent for international students, especially if you are not a native speaker of the country’s language. Allowing yourself to live in the country where you’re studying is a great way to perfect your language skills — order coffee, do your shopping, listen to conversations in public, and make conversation whenever you can. When living in France, I once had a lovely, long conversation with an older woman who lived in my neighbourhood, after she saved me from an embarrassing moment involving a windy day and a short, billowy skirt.

5. Go to everything. This is not a joke. If you have the opportunity to go to lectures, do it. The first year of a Ph.D. is really the best time to do this, since your research topic is still somewhat malleable. Basically, if you’re going to receive new information that may help form your thesis, now is the time to do it. Plus, it’s a great way to make connections with other colleges or institutions and meet people in your field, or other fields that may be pertinent to your research topic.

6. Quit freaking out. You just started – now is not the time to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to get a job once you’ve defended and received your diploma. Now is the time to be excited about the work you are going to do. If you get depressed before you even start a major research degree, you can bet that things are not going to get better when you have actual degree stress to contend with. Save the meltdown for when your research gets scooped. 

7. Keep in touch with home. This is geared toward international students, or even students in the States who traveled cross-country to get an education. Make a point to talk to your family and friends at least once every few weeks. I know I always get a kick out of watching my parents try to position themselves within the camera range on Skype – 9 times out of ten I end up staring at either their torsos or the tops of their heads. Not only will these conversations keep your parents from worrying, but it actually does feel nice. I’ve found that, even if I’m nervous or concerned about something school-related, I want to present it to my parents in a positive light, and the act of describing the situation optimistically actually makes me feel much better.

Case in point – writing these organisational tips have made me realise that I have things to do, and I only have five minutes to do them before Downton Abbey starts.

Feel free to start taking bets on when and if I blog again.

*Caveat: due to my academic writing being in Britian, I am attempting to use British English spellings and punctuation in as much of my daily writing as possible in order to more easily work it into my general writing. That is, I’d like to be able to use it without having to do extra spell checks and battle with MS Word every time I have to change the language settings.

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One Response to An Introduction : Commencing the Ph.D.

  1. Pingback: Using Social Media: A Graduate Music Student’s Perspective | Royal Musical Association – Student Blog

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