My Oscars Acceptance Speech: PhD Acknowledgements

Thesis acknowledgements are a chance to say thank you to everyone who has supported you through the long, arduous process of a PhD. I am under no illusions of how many people are actually going to read my thesis, however, and I wanted to make my appreciation a little more public. So I have reproduced my acknowledgements here. If my PhD was an Oscar, this is what I would say in my acceptance speech:


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Me with my supervisors, David Gilbert (left) and Innes Keighren (right) on my PhD graduation day (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

First of all, I would like to thank my supervisors, Professor David Gilbert and Dr. Innes Keighren. They agreed to supervise my PhD when my original supervisory team fell through during my Masters, and I will always appreciate that. Since then, they have guided me through the PhD process with skill and wisdom. They work well as a team; their expertise complements each other, and they always made an effort not to offer contradictory advice. I will always be grateful for their knowledge, feedback, and support. I would also like to express my appreciation to my advisor, Dr. Mike Dolton, who has always been ready to provide a second (or third, in this case!) opinion.

I owe an important debt to the Economic and Social Research Council, for funding my PhD, and for trusting me with the freedom to change the project as my research evolved. I am also grateful to the staff at the various archives I have consulted during my PhD; their knowledge and advice has been invaluable. I would also like to thank my examiners, Dr. Briony McDonagh and Professor David Green, whose feedback helped me to produce a better thesis.

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The post-graduation group photo (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

The Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, has been an encouraging and supportive intellectual home for me over the last eight years, I am grateful to everyone there for contributing to such a nurturing environment. The Social, Cultural, and Historical Research Group has been particularly important to me during my postgraduate career. The Landscape Surgery seminar group has been a lifeline over the last four years, making me feel part of a community in what can be a lonely experience. I am also grateful to the organisers and attendees of the London Group of Historical Geographers seminar series. The meals afterwards in the Olivelli restaurant on Store Street were integral to the development of my networking skills—they helped me to feel like I belong in the world of academia. I would also like to thank my fellow PhD students, at Royal Holloway and elsewhere, with whom sharing experiences has given me strength.

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Celebrating my PhD graduation with my family and partner (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Lastly, I could not have got through this without the support of my friends and family. Rachel Taylor has shared my achievements and setbacks with equal enthusiasm, even from the other side of the world. Daniel Dougherty has always believed in me, even when I haven’t believed in myself. My cousin, Theo Hardcastle, has made my Wednesdays a joy and has been a wonderful distraction from all things PhD. My sister, Emily Awcock, is unfailingly positive, unless you try and make her go for a walk. My Mum, Tricia Awcock, from whom I could not ask for more. My Dad, Graeme Awcock, who showed me what an academic looks like. I am grateful to you all.

This thesis is dedicated to my Nan, Olive Awcock, who always supported me, even though she never understood why a nice girl like me would want to study protest.

Preparing for your Viva: Collected Resources

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The printed copies of my thesis before I submitted them (Photo:  Hannah Awcock)

A few weeks ago, I passed my PhD viva! As my viva got closer, I spoke to lots of people about theirs, and many had actually enjoyed the chance to talk in-depth about their work. I also trusted the work that I have put in over the last four years, and trusted that my supervisors would have told me if they thought my thesis would fail the viva. So whilst I was nervous about my viva, I was also quite looking forward to it. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed the viva, I definitely would not say it was a negative experience, and it definitely wasn’t the terrifying occasion that some people expect it to be.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t too nervous before and during my viva was the preparation I had done. I read my thesis, trying to identify anything my examiners might ask about, and made notes on a series of general questions that I thought might come up. I found this to be quite a good way of getting ready for the viva; I felt well-prepared. I put the list of possible questions together from advice from my supervisors and others, and from the websites listed below.  The list of questions that I prepared for, in no particular order, are:

  • How did you come to research the topic/how does it relate to your earlier studies?
  • Who are your intellectual influences?
  • Summarise your key findings?
  • Why did you choose your case studies?
  • Explain your relationship with theory.
  • What is original about your work/ what are your contributions to knowledge?
  • How does your work contribute to geographical debates?
  • Which topics overlap with your area?
  • What are the strongest parts of your work? What are the weakest?
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently?
  • Do you have any plans for publishing your work?
  • What did you learn from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
  • Why was your research worth doing?
  • What published work is closest to yours? How is it different?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How has your thinking about the topic changed as your research went on?
  • Did you have any problems with the data collection process?
  • How would you hope that this research could be followed up and taken further?
  • Do you have any questions for the examiners?
  • I didn’t get asked all of these questions during my viva, but most of them came up in some shape or form.

And here is a list of webpages and blogs that I used to collate my list of questions and for other general advice:

Nasty PhD Viva Questions by Dr. Andrew Broad is written from a Computer Science perspective, but I think that most of it is generic enough to be helpful to other subjects. As well as a list of possible viva questions, it also contains advice for preparing for the viva in other ways, such as preparing a summary of your thesis.

Research Essentials: Top 40 Potential Viva Questions is a comprehensive list of questions that your examiners might ask.

University of Leicester Graduate School: Practice Viva Questions is another helpful list.

David Denyer: Questions in a PhD Viva provides another list, as well as some general tips about the attitude with which to approach your viva. Many of the questions are similar to those in the other resources listed here, but I thin that is quite reassuring, as it shows that similar kinds of questions do tend to come up again and again.

The Guardian Higher Education Network: How to Survive a PhD Viva: 17 Top Tips is a compilation of advice from different people. It covers both before and during the viva.

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A celebratory post-viva selfie with my family and partner (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have two main pieces of advice about doing a PhD viva. The first is don’t blag answers; if you feel like you can’t answer a question, or need to spend a bit more time thinking about it, then have the confidence to say that. The second piece of advice is take a few moments to think before you answer each question; there’s no rush, and the examiners will appreciate a more thoughtful answer. Fundamentally though, try to relax– you never know, you might actually enjoy yourself! Whilst the viva itself is important, your thesis is what really matters. The viva lasts only a few hours, but the thesis is your lasting legacy, and in many ways, it speaks for itself.

How to Write PhD Acknowledgements: Collected Resources

I have had some feedback that the blog posts I put together on resources for writing thesis Introductions and Conclusions. The latest thing I turned to the internet for help with is my Acknowledgments, and I’m glad I did. Although the Acknowledgements aren’t assessed, they are significant, not only because it’s important to thank the people that have helped and supported you, but also because it says something about you as a researcher.

Doctoral Writing SIG: Writing the Acknowledgements: The Etiquette of Thanking suggests who to thank and what order to thank them in in order to avoid causing offence. Reading and Writing the Thesis Acknowledgment: Support, People and Identity is a guest-authored post by Lila Mantai who conducted an analysis of 79 thesis acknowledgements to explore what kinds of support PhD students value most. It made me think about the purpose of the acknowledgments, and how they might be perceived by others.

Newcastle University Writing Development Centre: Acknowledgements is a short post that provides some useful vocab if you run out of ways of saying “Thank you to…”

For Acknowledgement: Useful Expressions for Acknowledgement: Samples and Examples has a somewhat longer list of possible vocab. What’s Acknowledgment? provides a brief introduction to acknowledgments and what they should include. It is aimed more towards journal articles than PhDs, but it still came in handy.

Patter: I’d Like to Thank…The Important Work of Acknowledgments is a brief reflection on what the author of acknowledgments gets out of them. It points out that acknowledgements can situate a researcher in academic networks, showing the reader the author’s scholarly context. This is something I hadn’t thought about before.

Times Higher Education: The Best Academic Acknowledgments Ever is perhaps a better indication of what not to do rather than good practice, unless you want to passive-agressively criticise someone, or propose to your partner. It may be a reminder that it’s all been done before, so it’s probably not worth trying to be original or witty, unless you’re very good at it.

How to Write a Good PhD Thesis Conclusion: Collected Resources

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I asked the internet for help writing my PhD conclusion, and I got a great response! (Photo: Horia Varlan)

A few weeks ago, I started drafting the conclusion of my PhD thesis. I had absolutely no idea where to start, so I hit Twitter and Google looking for advice. I tweeted the PhDForum asking for advice, and got a brilliant response. As well as loads of good advice, it also gave me an emotional boost, reminding me that I am not going through the PhD process alone. I also found some great blog posts and websites. So I thought I would put a few of the best tweets and links together in a post of my own, in case they were of any use to anyone else.

I used Twitter’s newfangled Moments feature to collect up all the Tweets I received, they can be found here.

And links to the blog posts and websites I found, with a short description, are here:

The WritePass Journal: Writing your PhD Thesis Conclusion A nice short summary of what a PhD conclusion should do, what it should include, and some top tips. Also has links to other advice on how to write conclusions. WritePass is an organisation that students can pay to write essays etc. for them, but the WritePass Journal provides helpful advice on a range of topics, for undergraduates as well as graduate students.

Patter: What Not to do in a Conclusion, Part One: Christmas Present Five A discussion of four common mistakes in thesis conclusions.Patter is a blog run by Pat Thomson, a Professor of Educatuon at the University of Nottingham. It is a great source of advice for all aspects of academia. Conclusion Mise-en-place. Christmas Present Six A blog post about preparation you can do before writing your conclusion to make the writing go more smoothly. It poses six questions to answer before you start writing.

Global PAD Open House: Writing a Conclusion Not quite as relevant as the other posts mentioned here, as it its about conclusions generally rather than just focusing on a PhD thesis. However, it does talk about the need to be interesting and avoid being too formulaic, which I think could be an easy trap to fall into when other advice pretty much gives you a checklist to follow. Global PAD Open House is developed and maintained by staff in the Centre of Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick.

PhD Talk: Writer’s Lab: How to Write your Conclusions, Part II: Doctoral Dissertation Provides some helpful practical tips, such as putting all your chapter conclusions into one document to use as a starting point. PhD Talk is a blog run by engineer Dr. Eva Longsoght and contains some really helpful advice.

DoctoralWriting SIG: How to Make a Great Conclusion Recommends starting a folder for ideas about your conclusion about halfway through your PhD. For those already beyond that point, it has a freewriting task that might be helpful. Doctoral Writing SIG is a forum for those interested in doctoral writing.

James Hayton PhD: What Goes in the Introduction, What goes in the Conclusion? A brief blog post about the differences between an introduction and conclusion, which might be helpful if you are writing them both at roughly the same time. James Hayton is a PhD consultant.

5 Reasons Why I Love My PhD

Some bits of your PhD are tough, and some bits are damn hard. I have been going through a particularly difficult stretch recently; I am coming into the last few months, and everything is taking about twice as long as I need it to. On some days, it is difficult to remember why I signed up for this in the first place. But I do love my PhD, and I want to hold on to that, so I made a list of all the things about my PhD that I enjoy:

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I have always enjoyed spending time in libraries, and I’ve certainly been able to do a lot of that during my PhD! (Photo: Tony Evans).

1. My topic. I have always loved history and geography, and protest is a topic I’ve been interested in since the Student Tuition Fee Protests in 2010. I was an undergraduate, and it was the first time I got involved in protest. The connections between my experiences and my studies in Geography were obvious. London is a fantastic city to research as well, I love being able to spend my days finding out more about the people and events that have shaped the history of one of my favourite cities in the world.

2. Working in the archives. Whilst I was conducting research on the Gordon Riots, I spent quite a bit of time in the Rare Books and Manuscripts room at the British Library. I consulted the diary of John Wilkes, radical politician and perpetual pain in the neck of the government in the middle of the eighteenth century. I got a little thrill knowing I was touching pages that he had written. I also just enjoy spending time in libraries and archive reading rooms, surrounded by books, in peace and quiet. The Bishopsgate Institute Library in London is a particular favourite of mine, it is exactly what a good library should look like!

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I loved exploring Chicago during time out from the AAG (Photo: Llinos Brown).

3. Going to conferences. Conferences are long and tiring, but I really enjoy them. They are great opportunities for finding out about the latest ideas and research, and for meeting new people, and catching up with others that you met at previous conferences. Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, and conferences are an enjoyable social respite. They can also be an excuse to travel; last year I was lucky enough to go to Chicago for the Annual Conference of the Association of American Geographers, and I had a fantastic time exploring the city.

4. Teaching. I have been lucky enough to get plenty of teaching opportunities during my PhD. I’ve had a go at marking, demonstrating, lecturing, and running seminars, and I’ve enjoyed most of them. I’ve also helped on the undergraduate field trip to New York.

5. Writing this blog. There have been several occasions over the last few months when I have considered taking a hiatus from Turbulent London, or at least decreasing the frequency of posts in order to concentrate on my thesis. Every time I have decided not too, because I enjoy it too much. The writing style comes to me more easily than the formal academic style, and it feels great when someone responds to a post. So I’m going to try and keep it going for as long as I can.

So there you have it; 5 reasons why I love my PhD. I think it’s really important to be open about the negative elements of postgraduate study and academia, but sometimes you just need to stop and take stock of all the good things.

The Self-Motivation Society: PhD by Timetable

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I have found timetables a useful way of motivating myself during my PhD (Photo: Altug Karakoc).

A PhD is a very individual experience; everyone works in different ways, and finds different aspects challenging. For me, one of the hardest things has been keeping myself motivated. Doing a PhD, it is largely up to you how you spend your time. You might get guidance from your supervisors, you might have work, family or other commitments that you have to work around, but ultimately it comes down to you. Self-motivation is a really important part of doing a PhD!

When I started my PhD, I had 3-4 years to write 100000 words, a mammoth task that seemed both hard to comprehend and far away. It was difficult to know how much work I needed to do each day, week, month, in order to get it done. I tried to stick to a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule, but it was easy enough to talk myself into an afternoon or a day off if I got a more appealing offer, or even if I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My favourite argument I used on myself was “well, 9-5 Monday to Friday is a social construct anyway, so why should I stick to it?”-  I wonder if that one works on employers? Now, as I approach the end of my third year, the panic has set in but I still find it hard to motivate myself to work on occasion.

Something that I have found useful in recent months is timetables. I never used to find them helpful, I was never one of those people who made revision timetables in the run up to exams, for example. At Royal Holloway, PhD students have to undertake Annual Reviews to make sure they are still on track. One of the materials you have to produce for the annual review is a timetable of the work you plan to do over the next year. I must admit that for the first few years, I made the timetable then promptly forgot all about it. However, as the end of my PhD started to loom, I decided to try and make a timetable and actually stick to it.

I planned out every week until the end of my PhD, including conferences, teaching, and time off. I included self-imposed deadlines, on which I have to send pieces of writing to my supervisors, so I have concrete objectives to work towards. And for the most part, I have found it very helpful. I know what I need to get done by the end of each week, and from that I can work out what I need to do each day. It is helping to keep me focused and motivated, as well as breaking down the PhD into chucks that are more manageable.

I have also discovered one important caveat, however. Timetables are only helpful for as long as they are actually helping. There is a fine line between good pressure, which forces you to get on with things, and bad pressure, which puts your mental health at risk. Sometimes things happen which you didn’t predict, and sometimes specific tasks take longer than you anticipated, despite your best efforts. When I was writing up my most recent case study, it became obvious that I just didn’t have the material to analyse the issues convincingly. I had to spend another two weeks doing more research. It put me behind schedule, but it was necessary to ensure I come out with a good quality PhD. In fact, I have revised my timetable several times since I decided to take it seriously. I have even moved my self-imposed final deadline back by a month, because it was becoming clear that my previous date was unrealistic (I was aiming for December, I am now hoping to submit by the end of January. Royal Holloway requires me to submit by the end of September 2017, so I still have some wiggle room). My timetable isn’t set in stone; it is there to help me, and if it’s not helping me, then I can change it.

As I have said, the process of doing a PhD is different for everyone, and what I find useful might not be helpful for everyone, or even anyone, else. However, I think its important for PhD students to talk openly about our experiences, and discuss what works and what doesn’t. So please let me know if you’ve tried timetables, and if so, whether or not they’ve been useful to you.

Getting Grants, Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life After the PhD

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Getting Grants: Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life after PhD was organised by History Lab Plus at the Institute of Historic Research in London on the 15th of July 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As I near the end of the third year of my PhD, what comes after is starting to loom increasingly large on my mind. As a result, I signed up for an event organised by History Lab Plus about life after the PhD. Getting Grants, Getting Published and Staying Sane: Life after the PhD took place on the 15th of July at the Institute of Historical Research in London, and I found it very helpful. There was a workshop about our post-PhD hopes and fears, and four panel-based sessions on making the transition, getting funding grants, getting published, and jobs outside academia/impact/public history.

The thing about advice is that it is personal; you can only really talk from your own experience, and it quickly became obvious that the post-PhD period is just as varied as the PhD itself. For example, it is very hard to get an academic job without a publication, but almost everyone seems to know at least one person who managed it. Any career is an individual experience, and people can only really give advice from their own personal experiences, which may not be relevant to yours for any number of reasons. This is something I always try to remember when given advice.

One piece of advice that does seem to be universally applicable is to spend time thinking about what you want to do after your PhD. Do you want an academic career? Do you want to turn your thesis into a book? Do you want to focus more on teaching or research? Think about what you want to achieve, and then decide which jobs/opportunities/ experiences will help you to get there. Also think about what skills you have, what you can offer to a potential employer. What are you interested in, and what are you good at? I spend a lot of time thinking about life after the PhD, but before this event it hadn’t occurred to me to try and think in these practical, concrete terms that might actually be helpful instead of just terrifying.

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There were four panels covering multiple different aspects of life after the PhD (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There were other bits of advice that I think would be useful for everyone; for example Emily Russell, an editor at Palgrave Macmillan, gave a talk about the process of converting a thesis into a book, but I think the aspect of the day that I found most helpful was the sense that we are all the same boat here. There must have been around 30 people sitting in that room, all of whom are coming close to finishing their PhD, or just recently had, who all had very similar questions about what comes next. As a PhD student, I am constantly being made aware of how difficult it is to get an academic job, how competitive it is (the ‘CV arms race’ is an analogy I like). As a result, I often find it hard to be happy for my contemporaries when they achieve something that might give them an advantage over me if we applied for the same job. My first reaction is frequently jealously, or despair that I haven’t managed to achieve the same thing yet, and I hate it. Life After the PhD was a reminder that we are all in the same boat. We are all dealing with the pressure, we are all getting frustrated about the structural systems that make academia so tough in the first place, and we are all worrying about how we are going to pay rent and feed ourselves when our funding runs out (those of use who were lucky enough to get funding in the first place). So we need to look out for one another. This can take the form of joining a union or a campaign like FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Academia), or simply being nice to one another- one of my favourite pieces of advice from the day came from Dr. Will Pooley and is a favourite saying of comedian Adam Hills: “Don’t be a dick!” Will posted the text of his talk on his blog.

I am scared about what is going to happen when I finish my PhD- this is the first time in my life when I don’t know what I’m going to do next, where I don’t have a solid, concrete plan that I know is going to work out. However, events like Life After the PhD  help me to put it into perspective. As well as providing advice, the day was an opportunity to discuss my fears, and my ambitions, with others who are going through the same thing, which I found helpful.

I would like to thank History Lab Plus for organising the event, particularly Kelly Spring and Jessica Hammett.