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.

ICHG 2018: Some (Nice) Reflections on Academia

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The 17th International Conference of Historical Geography was held in July 2018 in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I recently attended the 17th International Conference of Historical Geography (ICHG) in Warsaw, Poland. I had a brilliant time– it was a week full of exchanging ideas, meeting new people, and catching up with old people. The conference is held once every three years; it was last hosted by London in 2015 and I was there, heading towards the end of the second year of my PhD. Someone commented that the cycles of the ICHG feel like markers in your career, which got me thinking about how far I have come in the last 3 years, between London 2015 and Warsaw 2018.

I have certainly got ‘better’ at big conferences; in 2015 I co-organised one session at the ICHG, in 2018 I organised 2 on my own. I am better at networking, and I have learnt that it is not just about meeting new people, but also about developing relationships with people that I have met before. I’m less afraid to use the opportunity to ask more experienced academics for advice; I have finally convinced myself that they won’t think I’m stupid and/or annoying for asking.

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The speakers in “Historical Geographies of Protest and Dissent.” From left to right: Carl Griffin, Briony McDonagh, me, Nathan Moore, Iain Robertson (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

There are other areas of academic life on which I’m making good progress. Whilst I was in Warsaw I got word that my thesis revisions had been accepted by my examiners. I won’t technically be a Doctor until I graduate, but I will be a Doctor, it’s definitely happening. In 2015, the only geography department I knew was Royal Holloway. It is a fantastic department, but it meant my experience was rather limited. Since then I have also taught and worked at Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central Lancashire. I have learnt to give lectures, run tutorials, and write and mark assessments within a variety of different academic cultures.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, not by a long shot. I had moments during my PhD when I thought I would never finish it, and there were chapters that didn’t come together for months. I’ve had conference papers rejected, and for the jobs I got, there have been many, many more that I did not. I think it is important to acknowledge our failures as well as celebrate our successes in academia; it is all part of the process.

I am only at the beginning of my academic career; I still have a long way to go. By the next ICHG in 2021, I will have published some journal articles, and be on my way to securing a permanent academic job, if I haven’t already. 3 years ago, I would have qualified those goals with ‘hope’ or ‘might.’ Now, I am more confident in myself and my abilities. Of course, I still have my moments of fear, insecurity, and doubt. But they are becoming less common.

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Celebrating making it through the conference with a cocktail and friends (Photo: Ruth Slatter).

This blog post is not meant to be a big old boast (although I do think that female academics in particular could do with being more confident about expressing our achievements). It is meant to be a message of hope. I spoke to a lot of PhD students in Warsaw, and I recognised in many of them the same insecurities I felt back in 2015. There is a lot of discussion about how hard academia is to get into, and it is. But I can also give you loads of examples of people who have succeeded, in all kinds of ways, including outside of academia. So I guess the purpose of this blog post is to say to those PhD students: don’t be too hard on yourself. It might take you longer than you think, and it might not look like you imagined, but you’ll get there.

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 Introduction: Collected Resources

I recently collected together all the help I found and advice I was given for writing my thesis conclusion, so I thought I would do the same for the Introduction. Below is a list of all the blog posts I found helpful, but if you were only going to take on one bit of advice I would say make it this: Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to write your introduction. It may be the shortest chapter in your thesis, but it isn’t easy and it’s important to get it right- first impressions matter! With that in mind, below are the links to some blog posts I found useful:

PhD Life: Your Thesis Introduction. This blog about doing a PhD is run by the Research Exchange at the University of Warwick. This blog post has some very helpful ideas about things you can do to get started on your introduction, and it makes the whole thing feel a bit less intimidating.

Explorations of Style: Introductions  is a general post about how to write and structure introductions. Structuring a Thesis Introduction applies these principles specifically to writing up a PhD, which is a very particular form of writing. Explorations of Style is written by Rachael Cayley, an associate professor in the school of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto.

Patter: The Thesis Introduction. I found this blog post helpful for explaining why my research matters, something I have been grappling with for quite a while!

James Hayton PhD: Leaving Your Thesis Introduction Until Last? It Could Be A Mistake… I found this post a little bit to late to follow Hayton’s main piece of advice- I had written everything else by the time I started to think seriously about my introduction. It might not be too late for you though!

Doctoral Writing SIG: How Long is a Thesis Introduction? Changing Thesis Structures. This post considers the importance of following accepted guidelines when it comes to writing a thesis introduction. Every thesis is different, but it can be a risk stepping too far outside of what is considered normal.

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.