Reflections: first year of the PhD

The first year of my PhD has flown by. It seems like I started the project only yesterday and now I find myself embarking on the second year. It’s an especially good time to reflect on the experience as I’ve recently handed in two chapters to my supervisors. Writing an extended piece of work has forced me to stop and reflect on everything I’ve learned and discovered over the past 12 months. The process has also made me think about how I should adapt my working style (I must be more organised!); revealed gaps in my knowledge; and encouraged me to think carefully about how to prioritise for my second year. Many new PhD students will have started their doctorates this month, so with the caveat that this is definitely NOT a ‘how to do your first year’, I thought I’d share some thoughts about my experiences since beginning the doctorate.

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Reflections on Loch Garry

Refining research questions

Much of my first year has been spent getting to grips with the literature in a variety of disciplines in order to work out exactly how to frame and approach my PhD topic. My background isn’t in heritage tourism, and my project was developed by my supervisors, so I didn’t have a grounding in this precise area before I started. In some ways this has been a huge challenge, as a multi-disciplinary PhD requires knowledge of so much background literature. At the beginning I struggled to work out where to focus my reading, and I still find myself being pulled in many directions at once. On the other hand, I made a conscious effort to explore lots of different ideas and approaches, before narrowing down my topic further. I think this has made my research design much stronger, as it’s been tailored to the project, rather than being dictated by one discipline or method. That said, one of the big jobs of my second year is going to be refining this even further and developing a real depth of knowledge in the theories and methods I’ve chosen to adopt.

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So much reading …

Building relationships with supervisors

I started off with three supervisors, who all had different disciplinary backgrounds. There have been major changes because, like everyone else, academics change jobs! The upshot is that one supervisor had to leave my supervisory team (but she remains a very supportive friend, which is no small thing!), and my first and second supervisors switched roles. This has made a difference to the first year, as supervisors have different styles and expectations, which is magnified in this case as mine are based in different disciplines. But this change hasn’t been too disruptive, surprisingly. In some ways it’s actually helped me to focus on what best suits the project and research questions, because I’ve had to justify decisions and methods to someone who wasn’t heavily involved in the original research design. All good training for the viva!

First experience of fieldwork

I had zero experience of fieldwork before I started this project, since my background is in History (no living people involved, usually!). I’ve had a lot to learn about fieldwork practices in a short space of time, and I’m still building up my confidence in this department. The process of applying for ethical approval was actually very useful as it made me consider each decision carefully. Happily the approval also went through quickly too! I was incredibly nervous before beginning my fieldwork, and I had no idea what to expect. The reading I’d done was useful, but there is no replacement for learning by doing. In the end, the interviews I conducted on Tiree as part of my fieldwork in April were extremely enjoyable and genuinely inspiring. I met fascinating people and was bowled over by their generosity and helpfulness. The material I gathered then has helped me focus my reading, and to make big decisions about the direction of the project and future fieldwork.

tiree fieldwork

Interviewing people on Tiree involved a lot of driving past beaches like this. Sometimes I couldn’t help stopping for a snap!

First international conference

I’ve managed to attend two international conferences during my first year, and I feel very lucky to have had these opportunities. Somehow I had the courage to go to the first one by myself – the Memory Studies Association conference in Amsterdam, way back in December! It was a great experience and I learned a lot about how papers are presented and what to expect at these events. This helped me build the confidence to submit a paper for the next conference this December. Although it wasn’t accepted as a full-length paper this time, they invited me to give a shorter version instead. This will be incredibly useful for getting feedback and building my confidence, and I’m really looking forward to it.


Amsterdam on a crisp December morning

How much I still don’t know

In all honesty, I could probably write pages and pages about the first year of my PhD. It’s a huge challenge, and at times it’s been particularly tough, but I have had such an inspiring first year. I still can’t quite believe I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to work on something I am so fascinated by, and meet so many like-minded people who share my enthusiasm. I’ve learned so much from other PhD students and made some brilliant friends. It was a huge decision for me to leave a full-time, permanent position in the heritage sector for this PhD project, but it has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. My recent writing submission has made me realise how much I still don’t know (not that I was ever in doubt of this fact!), but I’m more convinced than ever that all the work is worth it.

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