Louis Strange, who has just completed his PhD in Linguistics at Queen Mary and carried out a research project on postgraduate engagement for QMSU, offers some tips for postgraduates trying to navigate the summer months.
During this period, classes have all but dried up. Academic staff will usually have switched into “research mode” and may be busy in labs, writing, at conferences or on fieldwork trips, meaning contact hours can be few and far between. In term-time, it can sometimes feel like you’re struggling to attend classes or reading groups, keep up with assignments and have time left over for anything else… Only to then emerge into the bright sunshine of the summer to find an expanse of unstructured time where you have to fend for yourself! What you can expect over the summer can obviously depend on many factors – whether you’re a Master’s or PhD student, what faculty you’re in and whether you have a dissertation to write or not. But many students can find this an isolating time when you’re stuck at a desk writing. It doesn’t have to be, though!
Get into a rhythm; go outside.
First of all, take a look at this list of useful tips for getting the most out of your study time, written by Bilge Kacmaz, outgoing QMSU Vice-President for Science & Engineering. There’s useful advice for keeping yourself motivated – and awake! – while studying which will help you get the most out of that part of your day.
In addition to Bilge’s useful suggestions, I’d add a couple more (based on my own experience). First of all, try and get into a rhythm. You don’t need to maintain the rigid discipline of a 9-5, but you’ll probably find that keeping regular working hours will help you ease into studying, reading and writing more easily after a couple of weeks. Don’t beat yourself up if you hit a wall and can’t get past that particular sentence or paragraph here and there – just chalk it down as one of those days and start again tomorrow. Thinking of this as a rhythm rather than a strict schedule will help maintain that balance between getting through a decent amount of work each day, on the one hand, and on the other allowing yourself some slack if you decide that your brain just won’t work anymore and you close your laptop at 4:30pm, rather than the 5pm finish you’d planned for your day.
Second, try to get out and about as much as possible (and as much unpredictable London summer-time weather allows). As Bilge’s article mentions, exercise is great during intense periods of studying. However, you don’t necessarily need to be doing a 10k every morning if that’s not your thing. Two of the best aspects to London in the summer, as far as I’m concerned, are the parks and the pools. London has a wealth of green spaces to relax in on a sunny day, as well as great outdoor swimming pools (or “lidos”) for those days when you fancy a dip. The lidos in London Fields (north-east London), Parliament Hill (north-west), Crouch End (north), Brockwell Park (south-west) and Tooting (further south) are all worth checking out. Be careful, as some of the pools aren’t heated, meaning you might be in for a shock if you don’t check beforehand.
Get people together.
Compared to the busy term-time schedule, where you’ll often bump into people on campus or be able to go for a coffee with someone after a class or reading-group, postgrads can often find socialising doesn't happen as much during the summer. Students are still busy, of course – sometimes busier than during term-time – but you should try and make time to meet up with others on your course or in your department, school or institute. Making the effort will not only help you let off steam and commiserate with others over the issues they might be facing – and they’ll definitely be coming up against some of the same problems you are – but it allows you to have a well-needed change of pace and setting which can act as a brief escape from having your head stuck in endless books (or PDFs).
If you’re a course rep or subject rep, also bear in mind that many postgraduate students might have moved to London either from elsewhere in the U.K. or from abroad, meaning that postgrads are disproportionately more likely to suffer from social isolation if they haven’t been able to build up social networks yet. Try and organise an event – this can be just meeting up for coffee with a group of people from the course, a pub-quiz night, or going to the cinema together (Genesis over in Whitechapel often has good deals, and a decent bar/lounge to hang out in before or after a film). It’s not your responsibility to do this, but it will definitely be appreciated by others on your course – especially if they’ve not had time to come along to events or engage as much during term-time.
Of course, you don’t have to be a subject rep to kick things off – if you have an idea for an activity or event, put it out there to others. QMSU’s research looking at what postgraduate students want and need emphatically demonstrated that postgrads were crying out for more events, so don’t be afraid to suggest one for fear that no-one will want to join. They’ll more than likely jump at the chance.
Go to conferences and training workshops.
Often you’ll find that the summer is when conference season begins in earnest. If you’re a PhD student in the later years of your research, you’ll probably already be aware of this. For you, the summer can be a great time to (judiciously) use any research funding allocated for conference attendance that you might have, by attending either national or international conferences. This was one of my favourite parts of doing my PhD, although my ability to attend conferences was severely affected by Covid-19 – many conferences are just getting back to normal now, more than two years into the pandemic. So I’d encourage you to take advantage of the conferences while you can!
Conferences are great opportunities to listen to and learn from more senior academics, as well as meeting them in-person. Like me, you might find the mere mention of “n*tworking” leaves a bad taste in your mouth, or you might just find the prospect of meeting a whole host of new people – particularly well-respected, senior academics whose work you’ve spent your time reading – quite anxiety-inducing. But conferences are the best place to find out what’s going on in the field – where to publish that article you’ve been working on, who to collaborate with on that new project, where there might be a job coming up in a couple of years’ time when you’ll be finished.
For those at an earlier stage, you might find the idea of attending conferences even more daunting. However, first-year PhDs will find that they can be a great place to get preliminary feedback on your work or – especially if you’re a Master’s student finishing up your dissertation and thinking about next steps in your academic journey – somewhere you might even get chatting to a prospective PhD supervisor. People usually go out of their way to be welcoming, too, especially if they know you’re at an early stage in your academic career.
More than anything, conferences can be a great way to travel and see places you’ve never seen before. As a postgraduate, money is almost always tight, so if you can find funding to travel to a conference, it can provide opportunities to spend a couple of days in a city you might never get to see otherwise. It’s one of the perks of the job.
Training workshops are, likewise, often held in the summer. Take advantage of these if you can, especially the more substantial ones. For example, you might travel to another city for a week-long statistics course, which will be extremely useful in the long-term and will probably give you the chance to meet others in your field or using similar methods. Acquiring new skills or improving the ones you have is important, but so too is getting to know others in your field. These kinds of courses can be great ways to do both.