It occurred to me lately that it's entirely possible that most people outside of academia have just as much of a sense of what a PhD student gets up to on an average day as fifteen-year old me did of what a quantity surveyor does. Hence this post: a day in the life of a PhD student.*
Since coming to St Andrews, my husband and I have started working stricter 'office hours' than we ever did in the past. So, depending on whether I need to catch the bus in first thing, I tend to get up sometime between 7am and 8am, and slowly nudge myself towards work over a cup of tea (in spite of my name, I am not a morning person). Work starts in earnest at around 9am, either in the university library or in our joint study at home, whereupon I... check my emails. As I'm currently helping to organise the Postgraduate Forum for Modern and Early Modern Historians I usually have a bit of admin to do, be it conferring with my fellow organisers or confirming speakers. There are also usually daily notices of conferences or 'CFPs' (calls for papers - basically open invitations for people to submit proposals of papers they would like to give at specific conferences or chapters / articles they would like to write for specific books or journals), and it's important to keep on top of these. This done, I might make another cup of tea!
Although I'm not yet even close to writing anything that might end up in my final PhD draft, there's an increasing emphasis on the importance of just writing something on a regular basis to keep one's pen sharp or laptop keyboard warm. So I try to do a piece of daily academic writing of some form, be it a conference proposal, blog post, or book review (my current 'big project' is a 3,000 word book review for Reviews in History, so that's absorbing most of my writing time this week). Depending on how well writing is going I might spend anything between one and three hours a day writing - although at the moment, it's usually less, as my current overall focus is on reading some of the central secondary texts for my thesis.
Which brings us to reading. In the field of history there's a slightly daunting word (that, I must admit, I didn't really grasp the meaning of in my first year or so at university), 'historiography', which basically refers to the history of the discipline or of a sub-strand of a discipline. So, in its broadest sense, 'historiography' refers to past developments in history, such as the shift from the Whig approach to history (which saw the past as a story of progress, ever tending towards the heights of modernity) to more 'post-modern' approaches, which question how much objective truth we can ever retrieve from historical sources. In other words, historiography is the study of how the past understood the past. Something which every PhD historian has to grapple with is the historiography of their particular topic. So right now, I'm reading up on the different ways in which past historians thought about mountains in the early modern period. This can also be described as a 'literature review', although the term usually applies to more recent work on the subject, although my field is so relatively barren - and surprisingly unchanging over the past 150 years - that I find myself mentally lumping them together.
A key thing to realise about reading as a PhD student that it is nothing like the relaxing activity of subsiding in an armchair with a good novel, biography, or coffee-table book. The term I've heard for what you have to do as a student and researcher is 'active reading' - if the book is ever going to benefit your thesis, you need to both take notes, and read it critically. If you're ever going to reference it in your thesis, you also need to keep meticulous records of what edition and page a particular quote or idea comes from. In my experience, it also usually requires a very thick dictionary to hand, or the Oxford English Dictionary in a tab on your web-browser. 'History books' or articles, when you get to the level of writing a PhD, are a long way from school textbooks; it's not just about retrieving dates, names, and figures (although this can be important too), it's about understanding and critiquing a potentially complex argument, and deciding whether or not you agree or disagree with it. So, reading, note-taking, and occasionally muttering darkly at an author's predilection for complication jargon, takes up another hour or two of my day.
Finally, two areas which I really wanted to dedicate some time to when I started my PhD were my language skills, and my organisational techniques. So, two days a week I have hour-long French reading classes during the day, and the other three days I practise languages at home - usually two days on French and one day on Chinese, as I'm a beginner at the former and a bit more conversant in the latter. As for organisation, I rapidly realised during my Master's that the system developed during my essay-writing undergraduate days - of taking notes by hand and keeping them in separate folders per essay - just wasn't feasible for a longer piece of work. Paper gets lost, and isn't text-searchable. Before computers, researchers used complex card index systems to keep track of notes, but this seems inefficient when there are so many tools and programmes out there to help do the same onscreen, complete with back-up and full-text search facilities! So I might spend half an hour per day researching and trying out different pieces of software. I'm currently comparing Mendeley and Zotero, two pieces of software for 'managing references'.**
So, that's a day in the life of this particular PhD student. Answering emails, reading, writing (actively and critically!), learning languages and learning new software. The great pleasure of the life of a researcher in this day and age is that this work can really take place anywhere; at home, in the library, on the bus, or at the office (I have an office! It's great). My working day usually ends at 5pm, which means that I just have time now to make a cup of tea, and check my emails one last time...
* Obvious disclaimer: PhD students are a massively varied bunch, and this only describes my own 'average day'. This could vary from subject to subject (a great deal between sciences and humanities - no blowing things up in labs for me), but also between students and, indeed, between stages in an individual PhD student's progression.
** How these work is: every book or article I read, I enter the title and publication details into a reference managing programme. This programme will then allow me to insert these references in the correct 'format' (different journals, for example, want references presented with the revelant information - author, title, publication date - in a slightly different order) into my word processing software without my having to type every single one out again. It also produces a bibliography for a project which, considering that a PhD uses a lot of different books and sources, will be a huge time-saver in three years time when I submit the PhD.