Starting the PhD – getting to grips with “the university”



The PhD is a big undertaking. Your association with the university is going to last for some time. So it’s as well to know some basics at the start.

The first thing to understand is that a university is a complex organisation. It has grown like Topsy. It isn’t rational; some bits of it will work better than others. It is, like all bureaucracies, indifferent to you in significant ways – the university deals with all doctoral students in much the same way. That bureaucratic indifference is both a strength and a weakness, because procedural rules are designed to prevent people demanding and getting special treatment. Adherence to standardised rules and forms and process is the way in which bureaucracies do their work. Of course, some people do require something different from their university, and there are separate processes, sometimes pretty idiosyncratic, that are put into place so that something other than the standard process can occur.

As in all organisations, university procedures can be a bit klutzy and often not very friendly. Sometimes, finding out how to get something which ought, on the face of it, to be relatively simple can leave you feeling like Alice wandering around in a daze, variously trying out “Drink me” and “Eat me” strategies, bumping into people who seem to be about to be helpful but then, like the Cheshire Cat, just disappear. This is not a a conspiracy. It isn’t a plot to get you in particular. This is all quite normal. It’s not that your university is malicious or singularly odd or particularly Kafka-esque. It’s just an imperfect organisation. (This is not to suggest that the organisation can’t and ought not improve, see 9. It’s simply to say that you have to know the nature of the thing that you’re dealing with.)


So,  given this, it really is essential that at the start you find out how to get along in the particular organisation that is your university. You have probably had an induction at the start of the PhD and it may have covered all of the things that you need to know. There is probably a handbook of some description. But just in case it didn’t cover everything, here are a few things that it’s good to sort out early:

(1) Is there is one person who can answer a lot of your institutional questions? This is probably not your supervisor  – they are likely to be just as confused as you are about aspects of the university organisation – but someone in your postgraduate office. Find out who they are, introduce yourself, have a brief social conversation before you need their help.
(2) What are your entitlements? Can you get conference funding? How much? How often? Do you have to give a paper? How much can you spend on interlibrary loans?  And how are these actioned – are there vouchers that you have to present to the library or is it an online system of some kind? How much printing and photocopying are you allowed and who do you go to if you need more? Where can you park and how much is it? Can you get cheap transport tickets?
(3) Where and who is the IT support, and what are the procedures to get access to it/them? There are often gatekeepers who you need to go through to get someone to look at your computer. They are very good people to know, as are the IT people themselves. How do you get printing done and what happens when there is a problem with the printer? How do you get the bibliographic and analytic software installed on your computer? Is there someone on your floor or in your office who knows how to unjam the printer and get extra paper?
(4) Who is your subject librarian and when and how they can be asked for help? Most university libraries do have someone who covers your specialist area but you may need to book a time to see them.
(5) What are the rules about leave and who do you have to go to if you feel you need some time away or if you have external demands that you need a break to deal with? Some forms of leave may be seen not as an entitlement but as “special treatment” and the process may even feel demeaning. You may need to find someone that you can share those feelings with, and in some cases you might want to try to get the processes changed (see 9 below).
(6) What forms are you likely to need? Modern universities run on forms as cars run on fuel. It’s important to know where all of the forms are stored online, who has to sign them off and where they have to go.
(7) How does your university communicate with you? Many universities only put information on an intranet while others use email lists and university email addresses. Some use facebook and social media as well. If you have another email that you want to keep, make sure you set up some kind of interface with whatever system your university uses so you don’t miss out on key dates and information


(8) What specialist support is on offer?Many universities offer English language classes. Additional language classes are also often available for students who need to work beyond translated texts and translators.  You need to know how to access these and what your entitlements actually are. You may be entitled to other kinds of specialist support too, in which case get to know the relevant people in your school/department and university right at the start. Universities generally do have counseling and medical services and it’s good to find out about these just in case.

Then there are other less immediately important, but nevertheless helpful and interesting things to get onto:

(9) Are there regular events where postgrads can meet each other and plan activities together? Is there a postgrad representative or two in your department/school/faculty who can carry concerns to decision-makers? Is there a way in which postgrads are regularly consulted about the organisation, what is it, and how could you participate if you wanted to? Is there an annual conference and who is on the committee, how does it get selected and by whom?
(10) Have you been allocated to a research centre, what does it do, what and how how does it provide for postgrads?
(11) What opportunities are there to participate in seminars and lectures across the university? One of the benefits of being in a university is that you have access to a range of interesting and sometimes stellar people and events. Find out now how these are publicised, particularly those outside of your immediate school/department.
(12) Is there a grad school and what does it do? Many universities have grad schools with programmes of worthwhile events. Get a look at the offerings now and make your choice early, because its often first come, first served – but talk first to those in the years above you to find out which courses are worth doing. Does anyone do shut up and write or bot camp events? What is offered online?
(13) What informal postgrad  activities are there? Are there social events for postgrads – who knows about these in your school/department and will give you some entrée to them? Is there a PhDPub event or something similar? Find out about sports, clubs etc. – these aren’t just for undergraduates.
(14) Are there likely to be offers of internships and bits of teaching? How do you get them? What are the rules – these are often seen as competitive rewards, rather than entitlements. Who are the postgrads in years above you who seem to know about these things?

I’m sure there are other things I’ve forgotten – if you can see some glaring omissions, please add in the comments.