I’ve always had a huge appetite for learning, but it wasn’t until near the end of the second year of my undergraduate History degree that I began to consider further study. At that point, I wasn’t sure how to get to PhD level. I’m now nearly a year into my PhD and, while it hasn’t always been easy, I’m certain that a PhD was the right option for me.
Finding your niche
Allowing yourself to explore different areas during your undergraduate (and masters) is really important. You may think that one area the one you want to go into, but exploring other areas could open up new options for you. Don’t shut yourself off to other options, as you could be missing something that you’d really love.
When I started my undergraduate degree, I was convinced that medieval history would be my area. However, as I explored the different optional modules available, I fell in love with a period that previously I’d known very little about beyond the basic school curriculum, the early modern period (think Tudors and the English Civil War). It wasn’t until my third year that I really took the plunge into this area, choosing all my modules in this area and doing my dissertation on it too. During my masters I also chose very early modern themed modules, but kept expanding my knowledge of other areas by doing a course on Digital Humanities, which I really enjoyed.
I’m now doing a PhD on early modern Britain, and due to the pandemic, have been using my knowledge of digital humanities to help my research. You never know what will come in handy!
Get some experience in academia (beyond your degree)
In my last blog post I discussed how you can prepare for a PhD during your degree. It’s important to give yourself of a taste of the sort of things that will become your normal during a PhD before you start, particularly if you’re interested in a career in academia!
Many conferences, particularly at the moment, are free to attend. You might be able to give a paper as a final year undergraduate or masters student. I attended lots of conferences and research seminars during my undergraduate, and presented at a conference during my MA. This gave me a big confidence boost and helped me to meet different people. Look out for opportunities to work with academics as a researcher. In my third year I worked on a digitisation project with one of the university archives, which taught me some really valuable skills.
It’s also beneficial to get involved with your SSLC. Understanding the department’s inner workings will help you transition from student to researcher to staff. I’ve been involved with department representation at various levels throughout my degrees, including my current PhD. This knowledge of how departments function helped me to get to grips with Warwick when I started my PhD.
Talk to others
Talking to someone doing a PhD will help you to understand what day-to-day PhD life is like. If you don’t know anyone, department events are a great way to meet researchers. In my experience, most people will be happy to give you a few pointers! Another option is to talk to your lecturers. It’s in your interest to tell tutors about your plans as you will need academic references to get onto a PhD – the better they know you, the better their recommendations will be! Keep an eye out for Careers events on further study and take advantage of the opportunity to have an appointment to discuss your ideas.
Take some time away from academia
It’s tempting to try to go straight through from undergraduate, masters, and then onto PhD without taking a breath, but it can be really beneficial to take a year (or more) out between one or both of your degrees before you start the PhD. This can help you to decide whether doing a PhD really is the right thing for you. You might end up falling in love with another career path, or find that actually, university is the place you want to be. Taking some time out also gives you the opportunity to put more time into your PhD application, which is particularly important if you’re trying to get funding.
Try to get some work experience during your degree to keep your options open
I did lots of volunteering (as I was interested in heritage) and also worked for the university for several years. After my masters I worked full-time for a year in student services at another university. While I really enjoyed this, it helped me to decide that a PhD was what I really wanted to do. Even so, if academia doesn’t work out, I’ve got another career I can go back to.