The Cake Connection: Studying for a PhD at Surrey English and Languages

“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the seven dwarves. In the beginning you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you’re usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.” – Ronald T. Azuma

There are many different ways of describing the PhD process. For me, working on my PhD is a bit like eating a cake and counting calories as you do. You start eating from the top layer: getting ideas, looking into possibilities. As you get into the middle and your research becomes more grounded in your own ideas, you may experience panic attacks – “Can I really do this?” This is the calorie-counting: the more you know, the more you also know you don’t know and it puts you in full alertness mode, because the time for completion is not very long. And the clock is always ticking.  As you dig tunnels of knowledge through books in the many libraries or online resources, seemingly with no light at their end, you may start feeling like a small ant ascending an insurmountable mountain. Or like Sisyphus, doomed to repeat a task that’s impossible to complete.

Worse still, you may feel all alone with your cake slice, in the world of your own research that gradually becomes delineated by your methodology, where the only other people who share that land with you and give you advice on how to navigate your way through it are your supervisors. You feel alone because by starting to work on your slice, as you take responsibility for it, you’re beginning to mark out your own intellectual domain.

And yet, this layered cake is what connects you with other PhD students, and is precisely why you’re not alone. At Surrey English and Languages, we share this cake connection. It’s quite tangible as The School of English and Languages offers and supports several opportunities for PhD students to develop, practise and gain confidence as researchers as well as to reflect on this process collaboratively, with other doctoral students.

The training sessions for English and Creative Writing are one such opportunity. This year, these meetings are jointly conducted with MA students, and they offer a chance to ask questions, to talk about research ideas, and to get to know staff members and their vast and interesting experience. The School also organizes the Cultures in Contact Research Forum, where academics working on a variety of topics are invited to speak to staff and postgraduate students. These meetings are not just a good platform for academic discussion and exchange of ideas. They’re also an occasion to see how others present their work, offering good models to learn from.

Courtesy of the School, we, as PhD students, are also holding a series of postgraduate-led meetings and workshops called REST. REST stands for REsearch STudents. These meetings were initiated by one of our colleagues, who has now successfully completed her PhD, as a means of offering support in a friendly and more informal atmosphere. What we do at REST varies but principally REST is here to listen to the concerns of postgraduate researchers and to offer an opportunity to talk about them in a supportive environment of peers. If there’s anything that postgraduate researchers want to see addressed, be it the challenges of assessment, giving presentations, teaching, or anything else, we do precisely that. It’s the postgraduate students themselves who are in control of what we do. These meetings also allow us to catch up with each other and with what we’re doing. And REST is now on Facebook!

At the end of the year, the School also offers an opportunity for students to practise their skills. Early June sees the PhD students taking part in our School Training Day. This is a symposium, co-ordinated by the postgraduates themselves, where students are invited to present their research and findings up to that point in the form of a conference presentation.  It’s a unique opportunity for students to practise their presentation skills and experience a conference-like atmosphere. Despite its name (Training Day), it definitely feels like a real conference and in that respect it becomes a very useful event to take part in, especially in the early stages of PhD work or if students wish to boost their confidence in giving conference papers.

These good practices make doing a PhD at Surrey an interestingly formative experience. The cake becomes quite a bit easier to digest when eaten in company.