Reflecting on the Northern Lights Workshop

This week’s guest blog comes from Thaddeus Thorp, who is in the second year of his PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, supported by a SGSAH Doctoral Award. His thesis focusses on commercially-driven social mobility in the western Roman empire during the first century A.D. Thaddeus, along with Laura Donati, Sam Ellis, Ambra Ghiringhelli, and Rory Nutter, was a member of the Organising Committee for the Northern Lights Workshop 2018/19, which he reflects on here.

Despite all the collaborative opportunities that SGSAH and our own institutions offer us, PhD life is inherently solitary. Each thesis is unique, dealing with its own problems and challenges until it can add that little bit of additional knowledge to human understanding. Furthermore, university departments can be quite fragmentary, meaning that even if you have peers working on something similar to you, they are often at another institution in another part of the country, and you will usually only meet them at large conferences dominated by leading academics. Unfortunately, there is not much that anyone can do about the first source of loneliness, but there is something that we can do to tackle the second.

That was how the ‘Northern Lights Workshop’ was born. Our team of five second- and third-year PhD students in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, with considerable help from academic and administrative staff, decided to organise an event in which we could reach out to our colleagues and peers in Ancient History and facilitate mutual learning. We envisaged an annual one-day workshop for ancient history PhD students from across the north of the UK, for whom it is not always possible to get down to London and Oxbridge where the biggest conferences are normally held. In this workshop we could meet each other (often for the first time), present our research as short papers, and network with experienced academic staff who would also be there.

To help make the workshop stand out, our lead academic sponsor suggested that we include a compulsory ‘Three Minute Thesis’ exercise for all speakers and delegates. This is a daunting task that requires you to summarise your entire thesis into a presentation just three minutes long. We were initially apprehensive: it’s not normal conference practice, so would people want to take part in front of an audience whom they had only just met? But in the end, we decided to go for it. The most common question at the beginning of a viva is ‘what is your thesis about?’, so giving ourselves some training for that couldn’t do any harm! Only some of us would give papers, but everyone, even the first-years, would do the ‘Three Minute Thesis’. Suddenly, the ‘Northern Lights’ looked totally different from any other ancient history postgraduate event.

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One of our speakers taking part in the Three Minute Thesis

But workshops like this don’t just come together by themselves, and the organising process was a real learning curve and source of training in itself. We early-on set the date of the 26th April 2019. This would give us a year, and position us in that perfect time between the end of term and the beginning of exam marking. Our academic sponsor was very helpful but keen that this be a ‘student led’ event, so we divided up responsibilities: we needed to research catering, merchandise, social media promotion, room-booking, and funding applications. Then we would meet every two to three weeks and slowly bring things together.

The biggest hurdle was the funding. We knew that some money could probably be found in the department, but it wasn’t much and would not let us host an event anywhere near the size that we thought important. That was where the AHRC Cohort Development Fund came in. If you have never applied for it before, the process looks daunting. SGSAH require collaboration between institutions, a detailed plan for the day, and the expected training outcomes, alongside a clear budget and an enthusiastic statement of institutional support. We were apprehensive at first but knew that it had to be done; only a few weeks after our first meeting, we were enthusiastically writing our application, and it was probably the best thing that we could have done.

Some of the best learning is structural: you are set clear objectives and given the tools to achieve them, and all that is required is hard work. It looks tough, but the rewards are immense. That was our experience of the Cohort Development Fund. The application’s expectations forced us to think more clearly and more broadly than we had before. For example, the inter-institutional collaboration: this was not something that we had previously considered, but approaching and engaging with peers at the universities of St Andrews and Glasgow made the world of difference to the whole project, giving us new perspectives and ideas, and in all providing a foretaste of what the whole workshop was to be about. Not every project is lucky enough to receive CDF funding, but don’t let that ever put you off: the lessons from the application process itself are worth almost as much as the cash.

We were lucky enough to receive a generous grant and, alongside money from the department and the Classics Association, it was enough for us to plan a very exciting event. Soon, the catering was organised, the rooms were booked, the abstracts were in, and the papers were chosen. Despite last minute hiccoughs like the departmental common room being double-booked for the reception and us making the odd spelling mistake on our room signs, the day was suddenly upon us! I don’t think any of us slept properly the night before.

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The Northern Lights Organising Committee

Anyone who has ever run one of these events knows that they go by in the blink of an eye: you spend the whole time running around, ensuring that the PowerPoint is set up for the plenary, the handouts are printed for the panels, the coffee has arrived for the afternoon break, all the while smiling and meeting people and listening to papers, and you’re not able to actually appreciate the thing until it’s all over. I think that we will all be reflecting on it for quite a while.

Looking back, the quality of the papers was brilliant. We had speakers covering all aspects of ancient history, from Greek migration to Roman children, Alexander the Great to the cult of Mithras, and despite initial nerves everyone rose to the occasion, with strong arguments and imaginative uses of evidence. Members of staff asked challenging but constructive questions, and peers who lived and worked on opposite sides of the country suddenly found themselves seeing opportunities for co-operation and collaboration in each other’s work.

Best of all, in our reception at the end of the day, speakers and delegates, all of whom having been unsure of what to expect, told us how much that they had enjoyed the workshop and learned from the experience, and several even suggested that they would like to host the next meeting, either in their own institution or jointly with another university. This was immensely gratifying and excited us for the future of our subject. Ancient history won’t survive this age of austerity and closed minds without collaboration and openness, and that’s just what Northern Lights set out to achieve. As our head of department said at the reception, as he addressed thirty young, diverse, and passionate ancient history scholars-in-training: ‘you are the future’.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at or connect with the blog on Twitter

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