I promised to answer questions on the blog as well. And no question was as popular as my honest opinion on my first year of the PhD, as I am about to finish it. So here I will describe my experience.
Before we start I should outline some details. I am a PhD student at the Warwick Business School (WBS), doing a PhD in Business and Management, with a specialisation in Behavioural Science. However, I receive funding from both the WBS and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Some funding schemes make changes to the baseline of the first year in the PhD. It did at least for me. As a result of being ESRC funded, I entered a 1+3 program, meaning my first year would be another master degree, an MA in Social Science Research.
Now this sounds like a big change, but it really isn’t. The difference between an ESRC and an exclusively WBS funded student is very little, as the latter still has to do courses as well. It is just these courses would not necessarily happen at the same location, with the same people that you entered the PhD with.
So normally, you enter the courses provided by the Business School. In total you’d have seven courses over the year, and an upgrade in September, just before starting the second academic year. This upgrade is to show your development over the past year, what you have written so far and how well you fit your own research.
These seven courses will not fit your research specialisation. No one mentions that you are going to be doing courses at a rather low level, outside of your own specialisation. So let me tell you. The cohort hired in my year for the Behavioural Science specialisation is all people with backgrounds in economics. We all have experience with using statistical analysis programs (R, Matlab, Python, Stata) and have been trained quantitatively. So it was quite surprising when a group like this was forced to take courses in qualitative methods, that we do not know and will not use. It of course caused a lot of grumbling and whining. In hindsight it wasn’t too bad, is what most of them will admit now.
There were non-topic-specific courses as well, which you could choose in the second term. These courses called themselves research operations or other meaningless names, and it was just everyone discussing their PhD topic and getting help with writing up drafts for the upgrade. Those courses were not bad at all. You had topic-specific courses as well, such as Entrepreneurship, in which the broad directions of studying entrepreneurship were outlined. I quite enjoyed that one.
As I was ESRC I had a slightly different course set-up. I had six courses, of which four were ESRC taught and two had to be taken at the WBS. I ended up taking both Entrepreneurship and Theories of Organisation and Work, which are both very different from what I research. I thought it’d be funny to still branch out in my PhD. These courses were fine. I really did enjoy Entrepreneurship because so much of it is behavioural science applied to business.
The ESRC courses were similar to the mandatory WBS ones: quantitative methods, qualitative methods, philosophy of social science and research design and ethics. I will link the ESRC page, if you’d like to read up on the program specifics.
Did I enjoy these courses? No. Was it the most awful thing I have ever done? No. Did I learn anything? Definitely not anything useful for my PhD. But I got to hang out with people I wouldn’t normally hang out with. And maybe I should explain why that is.
Interdisciplinarity There is a reason such a wide variety of courses is being taught: the PhD students in the business school are not from the same disciplines. The WBS has several subgroups. One of them is Behavioural Science, there is Entrepreneurship and Innovation, there is Management Research, Finance and then some. As a result, there are people from quite different backgrounds. This makes working together very interesting. Especially when sharing an office. You start out being in an office with another 15 people. It helps bonding they say.
In the ESRC group, these differences were even more prominent. As people were in fact studying history and philosophy and were in the same class as psychology and business students. That truly was very eclectic. But mainly it was just hectic. In the courses that were being taught, especially quantitative methods, the differences in training slowed down the course to such an extent that it wasn’t worth being taught. I am all for interdisciplinarity, but it does have to serve a purpose, not detract from it.
I will be honest in admitting that I took the ESRC funding offer because it is associated with a certain level of prestige. But their 1+3 is just a mess. If it weren’t for the WBS Doctoral Program Office (DPO), which is not ESRC affiliated at all, I wouldn’t have made it administratively. And that is something I want to very clearly state: having more than one funding source, knowing that they both have different guidelines and expectations can prove difficult. Not all programs are this bad. Leverthulme (Bridges) is great. So is Chancellor’s. But these programs don’t add as many restrictions. I would recommend watching out for that.
Socialising The other issue resulting from the ESRC’s interdisciplinarity, is that there is very little common ground between people. Moreover, there was no specific place to hang out together. As a result hanging out with ESRC folks did not happen. This was also due to the fact that many ESRC students already had families, did not live close to campus, or had jobs next to the PhD as well. It was an odd mix of people.
In the WBS however, as we shared a massive office, it was much easier to get to know each other. Especially if you did courses together. I don’t go the office myself much because I prefer working at home at all hours of the day, but I genuinely would recommend for anyone to go. It’s good to leave the house as a PhD…
The reason I am emphasizing the social aspect is because doing a PhD can be very isolating. There is no genuine structure to it. You just have to meet your supervisors often enough and progress in your courses and research. It doesn’t matter how, when, where and with whom you do this. As a result you could go weeks without seeing anyone if you just want to work at home. This isolationism is why a lot of PhD students struggle with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. So going to the office is a good start to be surrounded by people. Get to know each other better, plan some things together. Have a movie night with a bunch of people from the office, grab a meal or a pint together. Before you know it you are actually friends. I can genuinely promise it helps to just go out to the office.
Research Supervisors are aware that due to the fact that you have courses your will have limited time to spend on your own research. However, it is not like the coursework load is that heavy, so it isn’t an excuse to do nothing. Moreover, most people have in fact run at least one study or started working on a data set. This only affects quantitative students, those using qualitative methods have a different progression rate due to the intensity of their method.
Once the courses are over, students start to intensify the time allotted to writing up their literature review and outlining in detail the methodology that will be used in the research done in the upcoming three years. This is what will be presented at the upgrade.
On the ESRC 1+3, however, you will have to write a dissertation on top of doing your courses. Luckily I had done a study myself in the first year. My research was a in real-life applied survey about the effect of payment method on expenditure and expenditure recall. I was able to run this at the end of November with the help of my research assistants. As a result I could repurpose the data and create a different research question to answer. I wrote 15.000 words about my new research question, using the already collected data from my first study and will hand that in as my dissertation. It wasn’t too much additional work.
Having run the study, even with help, during my coursework was intense. It was a lot of work and I have easily made 15-hour days to make sure it did actually work. But personally I thought it was great to be able to run a study so quickly. So I was tired, but over the moon.
Overall, I have had a very positive experience. Got on with my research. Supervisors and I are going strong, delving into the topic. Met some great people in the PhD itself to hang out with for the next three years. Been to some meetings and conferences, meeting more great people on professional and personal levels. I am very happy with my first year as a PhD student.
On the downside, the mandatory courses in the first year are not ideal, especially not the ESRC ones. I really don’t think teaching a data scientists at the PhD level how to do qualitative interviews is useful. But hey. Would it be enough reason to not do a PhD? It wouldn’t for me. I can now just put another master title on my cv, which you can’t do if you are just with the WBS, sorry guys.
And now I will continue to do my own research. For which I am very excited!