Retrospective: PhD Application

If I’d been more on the ball, I should have started this blog back in October when I started my PhD. I should have been blogging about all the little hurdles and formalities (PhD application, interview, confirmation, etc.), writing without a hazy, retrospective slant on things. However that didn’t happen, so now I’m left with a choice. Do I only blog about what’s going on right now, and not have a record of my first year? Or do I write a few catch up posts covering some of the stand out experiences so far? I think I’m going to go with the second option, and try my hardest not to bore any readers to tears. That said, blogs are allowed to be a little bit self indulgent… right? Maybe I should view this as a reflexive exercise. I enjoy things being in order, so we’ll start at the very beginning for this post.

The Story of my PhD Application

I’ll start by setting the scene. It’s April 2012. It’s pouring with rain. Work is less than rewarding (less said the better, for now), and I’m getting tired of the same old routine day in and day out. My mind wanders when I should be working, and I start to wonder about doing an MA in Women’s Studies, or something similar. Something closer to the things I was passionate about during the final year of my degree. I send an email to a good friend of mine, asking to meet for a chat about her life and experiences as a “not-that-kind-of-doctor” doctor. She is thoroughly supportive, encouraging me to look at doing a PhD straight away rather than a Master’s. She sows the seeds of I could really do this! Cogs start whirring. Colour me excited, Batman.

Except, you know. Funding and all that. Idle looking around gave way to sums, sums gave way to panicky freak-outs about giving up a job on “really good” money (which I now realise was total rubbish – you cannot put a price on happiness and autonomy, but I digress). I learned quickly that funded options seem to be few and far between. Ugh.

Fast-forward to June. I see a handful of PhD studentships advertised on the Leeds Met website, and I almost explode with excitement. This is it. This is my ticket to freedom! I have a good feeling about the department, and the research areas they are promoting/recruiting for. I throw a few ideas around. Sexuality? Gender? Something about BDSM or pornography?

It’s all well and good, and it will hold your interest for three years… But is it relevant to your personal AND professional development? And it’s been done – how novel is the study you’re proposing? You don’t have a Master’s Jess – you’d better make this a bloody good proposal. 

Hello, creeping self doubt – nice of you to join the party. I can come up with something else. How about women in IT? I’m sick of seeing women leaving my office. I’m sick of women not applying for my job. I’m sick of the sexist stories and sexist “jokes”. There’s my idea. Jokes, banter, women in IT. How can we make jokes and humour research fresher, more exciting? I start to wonder about Internet memes. There’s a technology link there, I’m sure of it. I don’t know if I can quite articulate it, but I decide to run with it anyway.

I spend a couple of weeks slaving away on the proposal, sneakily reading journal articles on my phone during my lunch breaks. I absorb information and figures about women in IT, and STEM careers more generally. I dig through my old university notes and textbooks, looking for methodology and anything that could be construed as relevant. Finally, I decide I’m done with it, get a close friend to check over it for any glaring errors, then submit it.

My PhD application. Gone. Out of my hands. The most nerve wracking email of my life. I feel sick. 

Obviously (given that I’m currently writing in the blog dedicated to my PhD experiences) the proposal did the trick. I was invited for interview in August 2012, and I guess that’s a story for another retrospective blog post. That’ll be a fun one to write…

What did I learn from this experience?

One of the most challenging things about putting together the proposal document was not having access to academic journals. I’d been out of university for three years, so searching for and downloading articles was an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, I don’t tend to admit defeat without exhausting a few alternative options first. One of the most useful strategies I employed was searching for the personal websites of the authors with interesting articles. A lot of the time I was lucky enough to be able to download papers (sometimes in pre-print versions) directly from them. Thinking about it now, with the benefit of almost a year of PhD behind me, sites such as Academia.edu and Research Gate would be excellent sources for getting hold of papers. If I can’t get access to something via Leeds Met I will always check online options before ordering a paper through the library.

It may go without saying, but make sure you read any guidelines thoroughly, especially for funded PhD applications. As with any job application, try to cover points the guidelines have raised, parrot back the buzzwords they use. Research the staff, their areas of interest and previous work. Google is (sometimes) your friend, my friends.

Another thing I cannot stress the value of enough is having a good friend to proofread your application. My go-to friend for proofreading is a technical author by day (guess I’m lucky like that), and she was an absolute gem when it came to checking for errors and suggesting minor changes to the proposal. You can guarantee you will miss SOMETHING, especially when you’re so invested in the piece.

Be passionate. I’m sure this will come up again when I get around to writing about my interview, but be passionate about your proposal. If you can’t get enthusiastic about your research, you’ve no hope of selling it at interview. Do it for the love of it, because it matters – otherwise if you do get a place, you’re going to have a miserable few years ahead of you. There’s nothing quite like waking up and NOT hating what you’re doing – trust me. I’ve been on both sides of that one.

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