Questions for PhD students from Master’s students (or is a PhD like a tortoise wading through gloop?)

Our Master’s rep Beth has driven this fascinating conversation, with contributions from the PGF committee and Twitterworld. It’s turned about to be a pretty major piece, and while it probably won’t answer all of your questions, hopefully it will give you a good flavour of what’s it like to be a PhD student.


  1. How do you manage to sustain motivation in your research area?
  • Phil Emmerson: This is hard to answer. The short answer is I just do. I love what I do, it simply interests me – the more I work within the area, the more questions and answers start to emerge which keeps you going. The best way to sustain motivation is probably as simple as picking a topic that you find truly interesting and intriguing, then follow it and see where it goes?
  • Maddy Thompson: Yeah, very hard to answer at the moment as I’m month 4 into at least 15 months of writing… It can become hard to keep motivated. I tend to get around this (although I probably wouldn’t suggest this to everyone!) by trying to take on smaller activities. So I’m part of the PGF, and the SCGRG, I took a small teaching qualification last year, and I do around 5 hours of teaching a week. This means I’m always busy, and I can often get stressed about the lack of time I spend on the PhD BUT, I am the type of person who thrives on having several things to do. Plus, when I really can’t find any motivation, doing another task for an afternoon gets my mind off things, and makes it much easier to come back to.
  • Jen Owen: I’m definitely the same as Maddy and can stay more motivated when I have multiple things on the go at once. Obviously this can carry more stress because you are juggling commitments but it works for me! Saying that, I think it comes down to loving my research topic and wanting to do it justice.
  • Lucy Baker: I like to keep speaking to the people involved in my research; key stakeholders and my supervisors who are really interested in my topic. I have a motivational picture board by my desk too. One image is of possibly the best pancake I’ve ever eaten and one is of the Alps, but the rest are all the fun times I had on fieldwork and most importantly the people I met during interviews whom I can’t let down by not completing!
  • Tim Fewtrell: My research looks at young British Muslims, so I am very lucky in the fact that my research area is constantly within the public eye, particularly within politics and media. These constant reminders of the relevance of my research is a motivation for me.
  • Chris Martin: I’m kinda with Phil on this. My research is based on an adventure playground and I’ve been involved in playgrounds for a few decades and I’m passionate about the subject area. I am a mature student and am studying half time while working, and while this is sometimes a tricky balance it means I don’t get bored. I also have multiple things on the go which usually helps but sometimes does make life confusing and complicated. What also drives me on is coming across new ideas and ways of looking at things.
  1. Do you enjoy doing your PHD? What part of it do you enjoy most?
  • Kieran Phelan: Of course! It is having the freedom to spend time doing what you love that is the best bit- even if writing and getting your ideas down on paper is sometimes frustrating!
  • Phil: Big picture: LOVE IT!; Small scale: sometimes hate it (never lasts long). The most enjoyable aspect for me is getting the smallest spark of an idea and then kicking it around with colleagues, through literature, on paper, in my head until it works and makes a real contribution to my work.
  • Dan Casey: I especially like the opportunity to teach undergraduates and masters students and organise my own events. The ability to travel to new and exciting conferences is also great. Writing up, like Kieran, can be really frustrating – particularly as I try to be a perfectionist. However, I’m hoping at the end it will have been really worth it!
  • Lucy: Be realistic. Don’t expect to enjoy the whole thing and don’t worry if you’re going through a rough patch, we almost all do. But choose something you really want to find out more about.
  • Tim: I love the flexibility you get and the autonomy you have with your own work. I like talking to people and broadening my understanding of complex issues within my own research, and also learning from my peers.
  • Chris: I absolutely love it even though at times I feel like I’m really thick and I don’t understand some of the shiny new concepts everybody else seems to be spouting about. At the end of the day my passion for learning and my subject area wins through and eventually by asking what I consider to be dumb questions and persevering I usually end up getting the gist of most concepts. I enjoy the thinking and writing most.
  1. What reasons did you have to undertake a PhD in Geography?
  • Phil: I enjoyed my undergraduate dissertation, I enjoyed my masters one even more, I was quite good at geography, I didn’t want to stop doing it, I still had stuff to learn…
  • Maddy: Same… plus I just love Geography!
  • Wilbert den Hoed: I really started to enjoy getting out there to do research during my masters (in Geography and Planning) so I decided a PhD would help me get more experience in that direction. Besides, Geography always has new research frontiers and is very relevant societally.
  • Dan: I love Geography – the diversity of topics and the way the subject looks at societies and the environment together and the links between both really enticed me to continue studying in a Geography Department. Someone’s always researching something you’ve never heard of before or thought about! Makes it interesting.
  • Lucy: Avoiding a 9-5 and I love to travel.
  • Tim: I am similar to Phil in that, for me, the best part of undergrad was the dissertation. Working on a single project  with a larger scope and the time and resources to actually produce something that I can be proud of (hopefully) is appealing. There also aren’t that many opportunities in life where you can get paid to get a qualification.
  • Chris: I wasn’t going to do one as I couldn’t afford it! When I finished my Masters, which I was only able to do as I got made redundant and got a redundancy payment and other support, the idea was to get a ‘proper job’. My supervisor was an external verifier for my MA and over a number of months talked me into doing one and found some funding to pay fees (but no living expenses 🙁 ). Hence I have to work but my research is exactly what I want to do and builds on my MA. In terms of Geography,  in all honesty that was just where my supervisor was coming from, but I am now a convert!
  1. How do you manage the deluge of emails?
    1. Maddy I don’t…
    2. Phil me neither…
    3. Jen: You could spend whole days dealing with emails particularly if you are arranging fieldwork or teaching! Therefore I try to set aside email-free hours where I turn off the notifications and concentrate on other things, and then blitz the backlog in one go.
    4. Dan: Usually try to look at the subject line or who the email’s from to see how important it might be first. However, I’m always usually on email trying not to miss anything – my friends sometimes get a laugh out of it as they always see me on my emails!
    5. Tim: I am really bad with my emails, but I do try to make sure that I have nothing outstanding at the end of each day (even though I usually fail at this).
    6. Chris: I try to set aside email free chunks of time but not very successfully. I tend to ignore ones that aren’t from people I know or seem relevant by the subject header.
  1. Do you get any holiday as a PHD student?
    • Maddy: Yes! This is probably one of my favourite parts of the PhD. With my funding body (ESRC) I get up to 6 weeks of holiday a year, which I only have to organise with my supervisors (funding continues as normal). Opportunities for conferences and fieldwork also means I can often get the unviersity to pay for flights, attend a conference, then hang around and explore the place myself afterwards. Through this, I’ve been to the Philippines, Australia, San Francisco, Poland, and now Canada!
    • Wilbert: Equally to Maddy, my funding body (social science faculty) states 6 weeks, as long as you notify your School and supervisors. Also the conference opportunities got me to travel to the US and much of the UK (may not be special to most, but 2.5 years ago I had never been on this island).
    • Lucy: Yes and make sure you take them!
    • Tim: I’m sure it is different for everyone doing a PhD, but for me it has been really easy to take holiday when I want. It is a pretty flexible lifestyle really. I think it is a much easier transition from undergraduate/masters than for people who have gone straight into a full time job.
    • Chris: Holidays, yes I get them, but I tend to not take them as it’s not always convenient to fit them in with my work. I also like going to conferences and using that as an opportunity to look around. I’m off to California in the middle of February and Calgary in September, and I travel around the UK quite a bit too.
  1. To those that study part-time, do you find it manageable?
    • Anja McCarthy: You do what you can! I’ve been part time (2.5 days/week) then full time, then back to part time (1 day/week) while writing up. It was definitely more challenging at the beginning doing my literature review on a part-time basis when I had to remember where I left off each week. It’s relatively easier to write up my analysis in small chunks, though there never is enough time! Less time for procrastination, in theory anyway!
    • Chris: Manageable is a bit like the length of  a piece of string. I find that I absolutely have to put in the hours and have to be pretty strict with myself. I do often feel like I’m running to catch up as work sometimes needs to be a priority. At the end of the day I always meet deadlines and get really good feedback for what I do so it is do-able. I’m not actually the most disciplined person either so I do find it hard. The other thing is that I live in Devon and go to Leicester Uni, so often feel isolated as well. Not sure that it’s actually much different for full time students actually, at least if you’re part-time you do have longer to complete things, which can be a blessing as well as a curse.
  1. How did you decide where to study? What is most important to look out for?
    • Wilbert: Newcastle is where my funding and wider research project were. The city itself is very important, you have to ask yourself ‘Can I live here for 3+ years?’, also if it’s lively enough and well connected to home or other places you frequently visit.
    • Kieran: For me, the most important thing was the expertise and my supervisors. If you have poor supervisors, then your project won’t be as successful as you’d like it to be. Secondly, I would say look out for the general feel of the place. Is it sociable? Does it provide opportunities to do the things that are important to you (academic and non-academic)? Ultimately, can you see yourself calling the place home for the next four (ish) years?
    • Lucy: I stayed close to home and where I did my Masters. It’s less exciting, but I have a good support network around me of family and friends.
    • Tim: Staying at the same place as I did my undergraduate has positives and negatives. I am very comfortable, I have many friends and I am involved a lot in the sport here. However I will have been here for almost 7 years before I leave, so I think I will definitely be ready to move on!
    • Chris: As I mentioned previously, I was persuaded by my supervisor to do a PhD so didn’t really even think about locations. If I had to choose I would have chosen Exeter, as the geography department is good and it’s close to home!
  1. How much support do supervisors offer within your PHD and how often are you able to meet with them?
    • Maddy: Most institutions will advise 1 hour a month with supervisors for at least 10 months a year. On top of this, they also read and provide feedback on your work. Depending who your supervisors are, you may see them a lot more than this. I for example bump into mine in the coffee room and occasionally have mini-informal progress meetings with just one of them. My supervisors are of the opinion that they will help me as much as I ask. They don’t give me deadlines (but I can request them if I wish), and generally just let me get on with it.
    • Kieran: Whilst most institutions suggest 12 over the course of the academic year, in practice it is often much more regular. At the University of Nottingham, we have an open door policy. If my supervisors are in and have the time, they will sit down with me to talk through ideas that I’ve had or offer their opinion on my work. I have a really good working relationship with my supervisors, who are regularly in contact with me to see how I am getting on. They often email things of interest to me throughout the week and we meet informally at the various research seminars the school. Being in the department helps a lot, as you find informal corridor conversations fuel great ideas. The Geography Department at the University of Nottingham has a great social feel, and good supervisor-student relationships seem to be the norm.  Supervisors are there to help you get as much out of the PhD process as you can, and are there to bounce ideas off of.
    • Phil: I am required to meet with my supervisors ‘officially’ once a month but in reality I see them a lot more often (pretty much whenever I need or want as long as they are in the building). It seems to be customary these days to ‘invade’ one of my supervisor’s offices every friday afternoon along with all of his other PhD students which means we can also discuss things as a group too. While my supervisors have always been supportive, the kind of support has changed over the last 2 and a half years. At first it was very hands on, reading lots of my work and setting me tasks every month to be completed. These days my task for the month is generally “carry on doing stuff! ” and they trust me to send them stuff when I want it to be read but don’t worry if I don’t send them anything. They have also been hugely helpful in mentoring me and pushing me to do things outside of the PhD thesis itself.
    • Lucy: It depends what’s going on in the PhD, but I expect at least 1-2 hours per month as well as comments on drafts. I advise against having a professor as a supervisor because they are too busy (although well connected). Make sure you have at least one supervisor who is always there for you at least by email and responding in a couple of days (unless on leave).
    • Chris: Same as everyone else above, and my supervisors are really supportive and generally happy to provide what support I need.
  1. How did you approach prospective supervisors?
    • Wilbert: They approached me.. Well, basically there was a vacancy coming out from the School and I applied. Generally I think most universities have a small number of funded PhD spots where the topic is more or less defined. Keep an eye out on those!
    • Kieran: I read widely and engaged with the work of potential supervisors. I then looked at where they were based, and which research groups they were in. I was really lucky that my supervisors were based in my original undergraduate institution so I just asked them whether they would consider supervising me. But my peers who were not, often emailed speculatively to departments and to individual academics with project ideas and arranged to meet them/skype them to talk further. One American colleague arranged a trip to visit the campus and meet with potential supervisors staff over coffee- they said it was invaluable to get a feel for the place and the team.
    • Maddy: I didn’t really do much approaching… One was my undergrad and Masters supervisor. And he suggested the other one as they have worked together well before and the research interests fit my own.
    • Jen: I approached potential supervisors when applying for the PhD place and funding, and identified them by looking up their research interests and publication histories to see if they aligned with my research idea. The responses I had were varied, some did not respond and with others I had long phone calls and received advice on my proposal.
    • Lucy: I applied for an open PhD topic and then sent an email asking a suitable lecturer in the University, it wasn’t planned very well and I got lucky.
  1. What other things have you participated in and opportunities have you had from completing your PhD  other than completing your own research?
    • Maddy Being involved with the PGF has been a great opportunity as I’ve organised a conference, led the committee, and get lots of chances to meet the wider geography network. I’ve also had a 6 month fieldwork visit in the Philippines, as well as a 3 month overseas institutional visit in Canada. Both of these trips were fully paid for by my funding body, and are not things I would have been able to do in most other jobs.
    • Phil: Many things. I have been involved in both the Postgraduate Forum and the Social and Cultural Geographies Research Group, been to conferences, organised a workshop, written blogs, written academic papers, reviewed academic papers, presented my research as stand-up comedy, talked to prospective students, done teaching for undergraduates both in the UK and on field trips to Berlin… (probably more than that too).
    • Jen Loads! In our School PhD students have many opportunities to get involved with teaching, so over the last couple of years I have run seminars for a range of modules, taken a lecture and assisted on three UG field study visits (Hong Kong twice and Amsterdam). During my second year I was one of our School’s PGR representatives which gave me chance to bring issues and recommendations to the Heads of School. Also being part of the Mid-Term Conference Team is definitely also proving to be a great experience.
    • Tim: For me, the most important thing I have been involved in, outside of the research project itself, is teaching. At the University I am at there are many opportunities for PhD students to assist in practicals, seminars and field trips. These are always good fun and very rewarding.
  1. When writing, what is the level of feedback you receive before the finalised piece?
    • Maddy First of all, finalised piece is probably not something you’ll have until the last couple of months! I tend to submit drafts to my supervisors which they read and provide annotated comments throughout. We then meet together and discuss the comments. Unless there are HUGE changes to be made, I then move on to the next written piece. My plan is to go through all comments at the end when I know the overall thesis structure. However, they are willing to read several drafts of any chapters, and give very detailed feedback.
    • Kieran: I try to think of writing as an ongoing process until submission. You are not done until you are done. My approach to writing tends to be broken down into bite-sized chunks. Every couple of weeks I work on a theme, which often feeds into broader discussion points. I then aim to collate them all. Each of the themes act as little pieces that I can then re-jig and re-shuffle into a coherent order. When at a workshop, one person described the writing process as having a jig-saw puzzle without the picture on the box. You work at piecing them all together, talking with your supervisors and getting their feedback, until it actually looks like something recognisable. I took comfort from that- especially at times when you feel you aren’t really getting anywhere.
    • Lucy Same as Maddy, but realistically you may not be able to change everything they comment on and I don’t think they expect you to. The feedback is often what comes off the top of their heads and you can always challenge it in a follow up meeting if you don’t agree.
  1. What is the biggest difference of studying your Masters to your Phd? How do they compare?
    • Maddy No classes for the PhD, so all of your time (is/can be) dedicated to the thesis. At the same time, there is much less structure than with the Masters so it can be easy to fall off track.
    • Wilbert The freedom of defining your own project. This is both good and challenging. You stop ‘studying’ and start becoming responsible for an own contribution to knowledge.
    • Kieran: I have recently just finished my Masters. I have found the transition quite difficult. There is no one telling you what to do. It makes ‘work’ very difficult to detach from. As, in theory, all of your time is ‘work’ time, I have found myself feeling a little guilty when I have time off. And when I am not productive, I feel guilty that I am not utilising ‘work time’ to the best of my abilities. I have also found that previously, when I completed master’s modules, I knew where I was, and I could see what it contributed to. I knew that if I did an essay, it would be X percentage of the module grade, which fed into an overall accreditation. With a PhD I have found I can spend a week or so on an idea that actually just doesn’t work. Whilst that isn’t a bad thing, you can sometimes feel frustrated when you are used to the formulaic module routine.
    • Phil: I think the biggest change for me has been the timescale of the project and the lack of obvious “wins” whilst doing it. Seeing my project come together is hugely satisfying but it is an incredibly slow process. I have been doing the project for 27 months and am only just starting to see it hold together as a single thing (and even this feels like mere glimpses). When doing my MRes there were essays and assignments that you had to do in relatively short timescales. They would then be marked and generally I would get a good mark which lifts and motivates you. I really lacked this in my first year of PhD but have found new ways to get those “wins” – being accepted to a conference, good feedback on a presentation, getting a paper reviewed by a journal etc. These help you to see your project and academic abilities progress even if your thesis still feels far away.
    • Dan: I found the first year pretty difficult – especially as I was still exhausted after my masters and I was trying to read and learn loads of new stuff. However, the lack of timetable and having to be self-disciplined I struggle with the most. It’s really easy not to do much haha! And there’s a need to balance the thesis with other stuff you might want to do.
    • Chris: I think there’s a big difference. It seems like there’s a lot more expected from you at a much higher academic level, and you are expected to drill down deeper and provide a much more robust theoretical basis for your thoughts. There’s also lots more freedom and need to drive yourself forwards.
  1. Would you recommend doing a PhD at your institution in Geography?
    • Kieran: Absolutely! I have stayed in Nottingham since my undergraduate studies. Whilst I think moving away would have been a good opportunity to build a larger network, I think that I wouldn’t really want to be anywhere else. The department is great, sociable and supportive. Plus, in terms of supervision, my supervisors are second to none!
    • Phil: Yes, the PhD environment here is superb with many opportunities and a great set of PhD offices full of interesting and lovely people. If there is a supervisor at Birmingham who you want to work with in particular, I don’t think you would regret it.
    • Maddy: 100%! Newcastle has a great postgraduate geography community (we’re the envy of the politics and sociology departments), amazing friendly staff, and it’s in a great location being a city centre campus in the UK’s friendliest city! We’re quite a critical department, mainly focused on human geography, although the physical side has grown a lot in the last few years. We also have BIG undergrad cohorts, which means lots of opportunities for teaching (and lots of opportunities to make extra money as we get paid £25/hr for teaching!)
    • Jen: Definitely! Our School at Cardiff University has vibrant research group series’ which provide a chance to mingle and share ideas with other PhDs and staff, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved with teaching. Also as those attending the Mid-Term will find out for themselves, we are very lucky to be situated in such a beautiful green and walkable capital city. Also who doesn’t want to work in the building used for filming Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes!
    • Dan: Sheffield is a great place – particularly, for me, when it comes to developing your teaching portfolio (I get paid a significant amount of money less than Maddy for my teaching per hour haha :() but I’ve been given the awesome opportunity to teach in Tanzania on a masters fieldcourse, mark first year exams, lead seminars and I’ve been able to reach Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA) with the help of development schemes at Sheffield. Also, we try to bring PhD students together through socials and monthly training activities, promoting a friendly and sociable atmosphere.
    • Tim: Completely! The postgraduate community at Loughborough is very sociable and very supportive. It’s a great environment to work in with many opportunities beyond the thesis itself.
    • Chris: Even though I don’t get up to Leicester very often, it’s a great place and I totally recommend it.
  1. If you could describe your PhD in one word what would it be?
    • Tortoise – It takes long but gets you there (Wilbert)
    • Jelly – Constant state of gloopy-ness and feeling that things are not coming together but wait long enough and it finally sets into something that’s ‘whole’!
    • More results from the Twittersphere:
      1. Adventure. A bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome (Stefan Rzedzian, probably with help of a dictionary)
      2. Bothersome (Matthew Scott)
      3. Rollercoaster (Melissa Dickinson)
      4. Long (Alexander Macleod)
      5. Mammoth (Wilbert den Hoed)
      6. Ceaseless (Greg Thomas)
      7. Frustrating; banter (Fraser Bell)
    • Evolutionary – the variety of things you can do during your PhD studies are always changing and you’re constantly developing and learning about new ideas (Dan Casey)
  1. What use does your PhD have in your future career goals?
    • Maddy I want to work in academia, so a PhD is basically an essential qualification.
    • Wilbert I’m intending to work outside of academia, in that sense it adds to my knowledge and working experience in my field – working experience in the sense you’ve set up an own project around it and got to engage with several other projects (especially in an interdisciplinary PhD)
    • Kieran: I must admit I don’t like thinking of its ‘use’. At least not yet as I’ve only started. I am doing a research project on Harris Tweed; it’s kind of niche. I find it interesting and that is all I feel I need to justify it.  I think that if you view what you value of your PhD as the ‘end goal’, you miss out on valuing it for what it is; a process. Naturally, if you want to go in academia, it is a staple, but I think it is better to view it licence to enjoy studying what you want. Having the time to fully immerse yourself in what interests you most. Once you have finished, you will find you have accrued transferable skills and ‘employability’.
    • Dan: Like Maddy, I’m looking to stay in academia. I really love teaching, but want to do this at University level, so the PhD is a must. Equally, the opportunity to balance teaching whilst still doing some research and advancing subject matter is a real draw for me.
    • Tim: I am thinking of going into teaching so the many experiences I have gained throughout my PhD will hopefully put me in a good place for that.
    • Chris: I’m also hoping to stay in academia. I started my PhD as it was too good an opportunity to pass up, but as a mature student I don’t fit the usual mold so think I will have to combine academia with other related interests when I finish. One of the advantages of being part time is the ability to develop that in a complementary fashion.