Muppets, Marat, Partridge, PhD Advice & Philosophical Societies!

Literary and Philosophical Society Newcastle. Courtesy of
Literary and Philosophical Society Newcastle. Courtesy of

This week, the PhD feels like it has kicked up a gear. After 4 months of blissful research, reading and rumination I have my first official hurdle; the 4 month review. Worryingly this review is known at Sunderland as your ‘official registration’. As it stands, 4 months in, my PhD is not technically ‘approved’! Luckily it’s not just me this applies to, a key part of the PhD is a constant review of your progress to justify that you are on track. Depending on your temperament, you could see this as a frequent ‘get out clause’ for the uni or a helpful guidance process. I take the latter view, sadly my mortgage provider takes the former.

As far as I can ascertain the review procedure is similar to the advice the Special Forces Soldier gives on Alan Partridge’s Mid Morning Matters, when describing how to tackle a “radicalised, RSPB Neo-fundamentalist” you must “Repeat and Adapt.”


The process of learning is not a linear one, things are constantly in flux in these first few months and the key to these reviews is to make sure you are constantly repeating to yourself what it is you are actually studying and how to achieve it. Simultaneously you should allow yourself to adapt to unforeseen lines of inquiry. It is fine to go down avenues you didn’t expect, there will be many, but you have to agree where your home is otherwise you’ll end up getting lost. As you can see here, metaphor is not my strongpoint!

So, my date is October 2nd and I have just submitted my review forms and as of this morning I have finished my powerpoint presentation (God I hate Powerpoint! A presentation software with all the design nous of Changing Rooms – there’s a PhD to be done on Powerpoint, poor presentation and the lack of engagement in education – rant over).

I have cold sweats remembering the interview for getting this PhD Scholarship. Having been in the workplace for the last 10 years I had forgotten the rigours of academic inquisition. There is nothing quite as terrifying as having 6 experts in their field scrutinising your every thought. My only succour is that I was lucky enough to be accepted on to the programme, off the back of that interview, although I still haven’t finished paying off the therapy bills.

So, despite the ministrations of fellow PhD starters who say “it is not as bad as you think”, it is with great trepidation that I await the review.

I thought I wouldn’t bore you here with my actual review- you can hopefully see elements of my progress in my blogs. What I thought i’d do instead, which is hopefully useful to anyone doing a similar project of study, is to offer my advice based on what i’ve learnt so far.

So, what have I learnt in 4 months of a PhD? My 7-point PhD Advice Plan if you will (it appears, like metaphors, snappy titles are a weakness too).

1). Make sure you love the subject. There is no substitute for passion. No-one else is going to do it for you and you will spend a lot of time striving away by yourself. No-one is going to pat you on the back, so you have to be strong willed and determined.

2). Time flies. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you have ages to do this. In one sense it’s the most time you’ll ever have in your life to work on something, but in another it’s a minimum 100,000 word project that requires a huge amount of research and reading and that takes time.

3). Don’t say “I’ll do that next week.” So far, my biggest regret is the weeks when I’ve read articles and planned on writing them up or pulling them apart only to return to them weeks later and have forgotten everything in them. This might just be me, as I am known amongst friends for my shocking memory, but I think that the times I have tackled something head on, have been the times where I’ve made the best progress.

4). Ask for help. The best thing I have done so far has been to track down experts to help. If you don’t know something, ask. Don’t sit and stew. Also, remember that experts come in all shapes and guises – they aren’t just your Supervisors, although they are of course a great resource. Also, don’t fear contact with strangers, I am yet to have contacted someone who hasn’t been anything but extremely helpful and encouraging.

5). Be ambitious. The weeks between being accepted and actually starting my PhD were mainly spent pacing round, in between semi breakdowns, saying “I can’t do this.” Well 4 months on and I’m writing a blog giving advice. I write that line cringing, as I know that no-one has asked for this blog so it is largely vanity, BUT one thing you will learn is everyone thinks they can’t do this and that people will find out that they’re a fraud. It’s called impostor syndrome and even the people you think are seasoned pros at conferences most likely suffer from it. At least I hope they do!

6).Write a Blog. Without question my blog has been the best thing that I have done so far in my study. A blog is a repository for all your thoughts and it is unbound by the rigours of academic writing. It’s a place to think out loud and also to make mistakes. It’s also a great source of comfort when panicked about writing 100,000 to know you’ve already done 20,000 without thinking on the blog – the without thinking thing may be a problem! It’s really satisfying returning to it and thinking, oh actually I was wrong or, even better, that you’ve now answered a question you had weeks before. It has also been a great help that people have actually read it and if you are one of them then thank you very much. This week the blog had it’s 1,000th view and I am immensely grateful that people take the time.

Hitting the 1,000 views mark on the blog. The three readers taking it over the mark were from Indonesia and Israel. If you know who you are, i'll give you a prize and i know no-one from either country.
Hitting the 1,000 views mark on the blog. The last two readers were from Indonesia and Israel. If you know who you are, i’ll give you a prize as I know no-one from either country.

7). Enjoy it. This is such a trite and cliched thing to say, but it really is a fantastic opportunity. An institute of learning has taken a leap of faith in you and said that they think you are capable of making an ‘original contribution to knowledge.’ If they think you can, you can. That doesn’t mean it’ll come easy, but with enough effort it’s great fun.

With great power, comes great responsibility

Voltaire or Spiderman – whichever inspires you more.


Wish me luck. I’ll see you on the other side.

Distraction 1: The North in the Long Eighteenth Century

This week I went to my first conference – The North in the Long Eighteenth Century. It seems to be the norm that you go to conferences in your second year, but I am impatient. This conference was at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle and if you haven’t been it’s a remarkable building and one of the gems of Newcastle. At the same time as doing a PhD, my comedy group is in development with a production company on a sitcom involving books and if it ever got made i’d love to film it there.

I was particularly fascinated by the talk given by Jonathan Peacock entitled, ‘Jeremiah Dixon of Cockfield, 1733-1779.’ It described how Dixon, of Cockfield near Bishop Auckland, was responsible along with Charles Mason for plotting the Mason-Dixon Line. It is little gems like finding out the North East invented Dixieland that make studying so fun. Even better, I get to justifiably play one of my favourite songs of all time on the blog.

There was also a very useful talk for my study given by Adam Smith (Sheffield), ‘Writing the North in the Eighteenth-Century Periodical: The Case of the Yorkshire Freeholder.’ Having just finished his PhD it was great to chat to him about his experience and his knowledge of Eighteenth-Century periodicals will no doubt come in handy in my study.

Distraction 2: Marat at the Lit and Phil and marriage

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)

In a bizarre coincidence, my Dad contacted this week to say that he had read somewhere that Marat had lived in Newcastle for a short period and that his work about Capital Punishment at the time can be found at the Lit and Phil. This fascinated me as I have always loved that period and especially the painting of the death of this revolutionary Frenchman. I have done some tentative searching, but for now it is an interesting distraction that i must avoid. If anyone knows anymore though, i’d be fascinated to hear.

Finally, I went to the wedding of my good friend Guy Mankowski this week. He is also finishing a PhD and already has two published novels with a third on the way. Having previously lived with him for nine months in a sort of slightly more pretentious version of Men Behaving Badly, it was great to be there seeing him all morning suited and booted and chuffed at marrying his beautiful bride and ace dancer Bethany, who he met when we lived together. Congratulations.


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