DPhil Diaries Four: The First Term

As I write now, it's already the third week of the second term of my PhD. It's entirely true that time moves at triple speed in Oxford and it's crazy that it's already almost four months since I moved in.

That being said, I feel like a lot happened during my first term and I thought it was worthwhile to reflect on it as I speed into another busy few months. If for no other reason, I think it will be interesting to look back on in a couple of years' time when I'm putting all of this research together and I hopefully by then know what I'm doing.

The past few months have been a big whirlwind of settling in to a new city, meeting new people and getting used to the traditions and routines of Oxford. The photo to the left is from Matriculation, a specifically Oxbridge tradition which I found myself describing to home friends as a ceremony akin to graduation but for formally inducting us into the university.

The first notable thing about PhD studies is that I have no fixed timetable. Being a history student, I was already used to having a very flexible schedule (some terms I'd had only 6 contact hours per week), but with nothing compulsory at PhD level, it really changes the structure of a week. I am someone who needs deadlines and routine in order to work efficiently so this is something that has definitely taken me a while to get my head around.

Instead of regular classes there are a number of themed seminar series, with lectures being given by both Oxford and visiting academics. These cover a broad range of topics, rather than following a linear syllabus, meaning that each seminar is something entirely different and interesting. I endeavour each week to get to the modern British history, history of warfare, and global and imperial history ones which over my first term covered topics as varied as the Silk Roads, Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict, and medieval peace in France. On the whole these don't tend to be too related to my research, but they are nonetheless really interesting to hear others' work, to meet fellow students, and to help me think somewhat outside the box.

In the theology faculty I have also been attending the New Testament seminar. This is equal parts really challenging and really interesting. As I haven't studied theology at university level before, I sometimes find this quite a difficult class to keep up with, and it's never helped by people asking questions in Greek! However, these seminars have been really valuable for bringing new perspectives to how I approach my work and are fascinating - once I can figure out what is going on! It's also quite nice to study something which is such a challenge as it really forces me to concentrate and think through things I don't understand.

To get started on my PhD research I have written two essays during my first term. The first was an overview of the YMCA's weekly newspaper 'The YM: British Empire Weekly', which it published between 1915 and 1917. The research for this felt like jumping in at the deep end: there was so much to cover within such a short time frame as I read almost 150 newspapers in two weeks, but it was a really valuable piece of work to write and the articles were really interesting. It also forced me to get very familiar with the Bodleian Library and to figure out my favourite places to work in (top floor, north-east corner). The essay off the back of all the reading ended up being more than 7,000 words, even with a lot cut out, so it was definitely a worthwhile project!

My second piece of work was a contextual essay, based in secondary research about Christianity in Britain in the pre-war years. This was far more of a straightforward essay like those I wrote at undergraduate/MA, discussing the declining trends in church attendance and increasing ecumenical co-operation leading into 1914.

I'm really happy to have written more than 12,000 words of essays during my first term and feel very much as though I'm already making progress. One of the things I've noticed about the PhD so far is that everyone moves at their own pace. It's really difficult to define or compare whether you are "on track" or keeping up with the rest of the cohort. For me, I have really conveniently located archives. I can order all the books I need to the Bodleian (a real treat) and only have to travel to Birmingham or London for most of my other sources. I've also had the headstart of basing my research on what I did for my MA so I very much already know the groundwork. That has definitely helped me this past term in getting to grips with the PhD work.

Life outside the studying has also been really good fun. From college dinners and banquets, to debates and concerts, there's about 100 things on a week in Oxford. I've also joined the cross country club and am running better than I ever have, which is brilliant fun. While time certainly speeds by, the university environment also encourages you to get the most out of your time with such rich pickings of things on. I don't yet feel that I've made the most of it as there's so many more things I could be doing and going to, but this term has really been about working out my routine settling in to this crazy but rewarding university.

And just like that, I'm already 1/9th of the way through my time here. It gets a bit terrifying when written down like that! You can read more about the content of my research here, as well as catching up on this DPhil Diaries series from the beginning here.


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