DPhil Diaries Twelve: A Week in the Life (Back to the Library!)

Hello! Welcome back to my blog! It really wasn't my intention to take such a break from posting, but over the summer months of semi-lockdown I've been feeling really unmotivated with writing of all kinds. Whenever I'm lacking direction or inspiration for writing my PhD thesis, I tend to lose motivation for any writing, the blog included.

That being said, I have been working on some research and ideas so from this week on I should be back to my usual schedule of weekly blog posts!

Anyway, onto today's blog...

Last weekend I returned from a lovely relaxing holiday to Italy and it instantly felt like someone had flicked a switch sending the season from Summer to Autumn. Gone were the sunny beach days and in their place were the white cloudy skies of Oxford. I'm really not someone who embraces Autumn in the way that so many people online seem to and I generally really dislike the way the days grow ever colder, darker and wetter between September and November. I love to be outdoors and so parting with the freedom and light of Summer is something I always dread.

However, the one thing that always makes the transition easier is that 'back to school' feeling. I love the little wave of motivation I get going into the new academic year, with the excitement of the fun that could be ahead and the enthusiasm of what I want to achieve in my work. This year that feels a little tempered. I am excited for the year ahead, the third of my PhD studies (and probably not my last, but that's a story for another day), but with the ongoing pandemic this year's not going to fit the usual mold.

Anyone who's familiar with the Oxford calendar will know that we don't actually start back with term for another month, yet with libraries reopening and plans being put into place across the university for the year ahead, it does feel like the fresh start of a new academic year. I also haven't completed a piece of work since April, so I really need to get myself into gear and do more work.

So here I am. Finding myself suddenly in Autumn, refreshed by two weeks away from what had become a rather unproductive routine over the last few months and excited to be back feeling motivated, yet simultaneously hating the abrupt way Summer seemed to end. I've decided to blog this week of transitioning back into the academic year, both as an extra bit of motivation for myself and to show you what the life of a history PhD student looks like.

I've been meaning to do a week in the life style post for a while, but lockdown had got in the way, like it did for most things in life. I know that before I started my DPhil I had no clue what the general shape of my weeks would be like. I knew I'd need to spend a lot of time reading and writing, but had no idea how I would self-motivate or structure my time (and to be honest, I still don't always). So if you're considering graduate research, I hope this helps shed a little light on the study process. Or if you're simply curious about my weeks: enjoy!


This was my first full day back from holiday so I treated myself to a bit of a lie in, before getting up to tackle the unpacking (it's still not finished, but I have started the laundry) and to get organised with uni stuff. Having been away, I feel like I've got a lot more brain space (mental bandwidth?) to tackle my work, so I'm attempting to capitalise on that.

After approximately five minutes sat at my desk, I decided I needed new stationery so cycled into town to get some. I really love stationery and it's one of the joys of each September buying some new things. I'm not, however, usually a fan of Paperchase, but they had a sale on and it wasn't too busy so I went there first and was pleasantly surprised to find lots of things I really liked. My favourite thing was this yellow floral planner (half price!), plus I also got a new folder to organise the tasks I'm currently working on and some pens (because you can never have too many pens). I also got a few storage boxes for my desk cupboard and wallets for my notes. I like to print off all of my work and refer back to paper notes, rather than just keeping it all on my laptop, so it does mean that I'm usually juggling several loose pieces of paper for the different things I'm working on at once.

Then I also bought some new floral face coverings from Gap as I'll soon be wearing them more frequently and I didn't want to worry about ones being in the wash. Weirdly, I'm kind of excited to wear these when I return to the library this week. Now there's a sentence I never imagined I'd be writing in 2020!

Back home, I did a bit of organising and then started writing up the notes from the journal articles I'd read on holiday. It's Sunday, so I didn't do anything too strenuous, but it was nice to feel like I  was getting started on things, all while watching the Tour de France. And yes, I know it's weird to spend your holiday time reading articles. But that brain space I wrote about above? I felt like I had a lot of that by about halfway through our trip so I downloaded a bunch of articles to read that were of more general WW1 interest, than necessarily directly related to my thesis.


I told myself this was the first day of the new year and I needed to get on with things, and for the large part I had a productive day!

I spent the whole day at home but actually spent my time pretty well, reading the final few articles of secondary readings I need for the new thesis chapter I'm working on and locating the notes in my files of the relevant ones I'd previously read. It felt good to be getting back into the headspace of thinking about work. My current chapter is looking at ecumenism during the First World War and the themes of religious change and work between the different British denominations. A lot of this is outside of what I've previously studied, which makes it quite interesting to read and try to get my head around. I still don't feel like I'm fully there with it, so will spend a bit more time trying to understand the main trends and arguments later in the week.

I also continued the book I'd been reading before holiday which is David Omissi's Indian Voices of the Great War. This is a compilation of Indian soldiers' letters written during the First World War. Some of them can be pretty entertaining, like the soldier who complained that French prostitutes 'do not put their legs over the shoulders' during sex, unlike those back home. Others are far more harrowing or emotional. My main interest in these are the letters that touch on religion, particularly in helping me gain a perspective of non-Christian soldiers, as these make up the vast majority of what I read. So far it's interesting, but I've not come across anything groundbreaking for my work.

Aside from work, today was pretty relaxing. I felt a bit sad that it's not sunny and that I needed to wear a sweatshirt and socks (minor struggles, I know), but I also tried to remind myself of things I do like about Autumn, mostly by watching Gilmore Girls. I've seen every episode of this show countless times, yet it remains one of my favourite comforting series and it really does Autumnal cosy-ness better than any other too.


Today was a second full day at home, but I had an exciting delivery coming! While getting started on writing up some more article notes, my new computer monitor and keyboard were delivered. In trying to get myself more organised this weekend I decided to order a second screen that I could connect to my laptop to give me more space for when I need different files of notes, writing and online readings open at once. It also means that I no longer have to hunch over my laptop which had been making it uncomfortable to sit at my desk for long periods of time.

I think at this point I'm probably just bribing myself with new technology to try and get work done, but for today at least it worked! I spent the whole day sat at my desk, mostly writing up a journal article draft I started a few weeks ago and making changes to it. Having the second screen was really helpful in being able to spread out my work, with the added benefit that I could watch the cycling at the same time too.

The article I'm writing is half-based on my PhD research on the YMCA and half-based on the similar organisation of Talbot House. A lot of it is articulating thoughts and themes I've recognised over the last few years of working in this area, but haven't properly structured before. I feel pretty excited by it, even if it does still need a lot more work before it'll be anywhere near ready. Of the initial 2,500 words I typed up, I then added in 50 review bubbles of quotations I need to add, or paragraphs I need to restructure. It's going to take time, but at the moment I'm pretty happy with it.

After dinner (leftover spag bol from yesterday), I went for a short run. I run a lot, especially over the last couple of months, but this evening I just wanted an easy one so I headed into town and ran around the city centre. It was really nice and relaxing; one of those runs where I don't think about how fast I'm going but instead think through everything else in life. This is when I do some of my best thinking and I usually return from a run having clarified things in my head. Can't say it was anything profound this evening though; I just realised there's a few emails I need to send!


It's library day today! As per the current (ridiculous) Bodleian system, I booked my spot in the library a fortnight ago so it felt like I had to make the best of it today. When you arrive at the library you are allocated a seat and today I had a four-person desk to myself to spread my work out over. I started my work by reading through my notes of all of the secondary sources I need to include in my thesis chapter and writing out the main points from each of them on one piece of paper. This is really useful for refreshing my mind of things I've read over the last number of months and also enables me to make connections between the different historians' arguments.

There was one more book I needed to read before I could start writing, but as it's kept in the Bodleian I hadn't been able to get to it over lockdown. This was Horton Davies' Worship and Theology in England. It's pretty old (it was published in 1965) but it's really thorough and interesting, and included some points on the context of ecumenism that I needed to go at the beginning of my chapter. I flicked back and forth between reading a few pages of this and writing the first section of my chapter. I have a really short attention span, so I find that switching back and forth between reading and writing helps me keep working for longer.

I popped out for lunch in the middle of the day to Brown's, a cafe in the Covered Market. I love this place, it's completely unpretentious but serves good value, tasty food and has a nice 'locals' atmosphere. I decided to go for the cooked breakfast and a coffee, which was great, and had a nice spot by the window where I could people watch.

Then it was back to the library and I really got into my stride with writing, putting together the first of five or so sections in this chapter. The part I was working on is about the ecumenical context either side of the First World War. Of the two halves of my work - war and religious history - I find the religious stuff much more difficult as I'm less familiar with it, but once it starts to come together, it's super interesting. Today was one of those days. I've been struggling with how to structure an argument about ecumenism for a while, yet once I went over everything today it all seemed to come clear and I dashed out 800 words.

At 3 o'clock I headed home from the library as I had a college meeting. I'm currently president of my MCR (middle common room, aka the grad community in college), so had an online meeting about plans for the coming term. I really hate virtual meetings, but the one benefit of today's was that I could watch the Tour de France at the same time (apologies to those I was meeting with). There are still so many uncertainties about the Covid rules for term so we still can't make concrete plans, but at least we're in regular contact with college staff about everything that may or may not be possible. 

This evening's excitement was my Sainsbury's delivery! I say that sarcastically, but I do get more excited than I should about my food arriving. A minor scandal this week was that they were entirely sold out of dairy-free chocolate, but I guess I'll cope.


It was back to the library again today. I was in the Radcliffe Camera (Oxford's famous round building) today. This is the home of the history faculty library so it's where a lot of my books are. While we've been able for a while to borrow books on a click-and-collect service, it's nice to be back in there and able to peruse the shelves. Some of the most interesting books I've discovered from them being filed next to other ones I've looked at.

I couldn't focus quite as well today so I spent my morning session flicking back and forth between two books. One is Steven Maughan's Mighty England, Do Good about Church of England missionary work in the 60 years leading up to the First World War. It's quite dense and long so it's taking me a while to get through. The other book is Victorian Nonconformity, by David Bebbington which is much shorter so I was able to read through all of that. Both of these are more background reading to flesh out the historical context of my work.

For lunch I went to a cafe again as I wanted to try out a new place called 222 on Broad Street. It looked really nice, but it was very much a simplified Starbucks with the same inflated prices so I don't think I'll go back. I did get a pumpkin spice latte though, because I am still trying to convince myself there's something exciting about Autumn. It wasn't that great.

Back in the library I moved on to doing some of my chapter writing. It went a bit slower than yesterday, yet I'm pretty happy with the 500 words I wrote. I think I've found something interesting to say about the Church of England's Lambeth Conference of 1920 so I'm another step forward on that.

I did, however, slowly come to a realisation that the loose chapter plan I wrote isn't actually going to work in practice. The different sections I thought I'd write don't actually make that much sense now I've got started on it, so I'm going to have to give that some thought and rework things a bit.

Once I could no longer focus sat in the library I popped home for a bit before going for a really fun evening in college. As I'm on the MCR committee I was invited to one of the college's 'test' events to help them pilot Covid-safe dining ahead of term time. It was brilliant fun and so nice to be back in college, where I used to go most days. We had a Pembroke-classic menu of tomato and red pepper soup, steak (which was excellent) and brownie, and it was almost like we'd never been away. It also wasn't anywhere near as awkward as I thought to be sat 2+ metres from each other.

One of my friends and I were sat at a table with two fellows from different faculties and it was really nice to be back having those cross-subject conversations about our work and different experiences. The variety of people you meet is one of the great benefits of the college system so it was good to have a slice of that back, as it really can't be replicated online.

I ended the evening by going for an after-dinner drink at the pub with a couple of friends. It was so refreshing to just have fun with them and catch up on their lives as we all start to return to our work. For all the normality of it, at the moment it does feel a huge privilege to be able to have those interactions.


I had a somewhat slower morning today, in part because of last night, but also as I didn't have any plans for the day. There's work things I need to do, but no particular structure to the day.

Eventually I dragged myself to my desk, spent too long reading through Twitter, and then got started on some reading. One of the library's brilliant resources during lockdown has been the hathitrust e-library, which allows us to access thousands of digitised books held by other libraries. The subscription for this service runs out at the end of the month and there's still more items from it on my reading list than there should be so I got cracking on Jeffrey Cox's The English Churches in a Secular Society. This is more contextual reading, and a lot of it is probably irrelevant to my work, but his case study of focusing on the borough of Lambeth between 1870 and 1930 is an engaging way to approach larger trends.

Then this afternoon I moved onto restructuring my chapter. I know broadly what I want to say, but figuring out the best order for it to go in is a bit of a challenge. I think I've got there with it for now, and after rewriting the chapter subtitles I then spent a bit of time moving around the paragraphs I've written so far to make them fit better.

It wasn't a great day of work though. After a pretty good week I was lacking drive to get much done and I didn't get anywhere at all with writing. I plugged away at various bits of reading but largely wrote today off as a sluggish Friday. The other four days have been pretty good so I don't really mind, especially as I have had weeks where I feel like this every day.

On the other hand, I did have a great dinner. I roasted a ham (enough for today and some easy meals over the weekend) and had it with white sauce (weirdly, one of my very favourite foods) and gnocchi, as I prefer that over potatoes. Then I just had a relaxing evening in, mostly spent watching YouTube, before going to be listening to an old episode of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue. This is some of my favourite comedy and I'm really glad BBC Sounds have started re-releasing some of the old ones.

Today overall felt a bit flat, but that's ok. I'm looking forward to a nice weekend.


After a slight lie in this morning, I walked up to Summertown in north Oxford for a bit of a Saturday morning mooch around the nice charity shops. There wasn't too many exciting things about, but I couldn't resist two books in Oxfam. One is Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Written in History: Letters that Changed the World that should make for a bit of easy history reading at some point. The other is an old Ordnance Survey book of Battlefields of Britain. This is a very dorky purchase, but I'm quite excited by it. The book explains what happened in more than 100 battles across the UK and overlays battle positions onto modern (ish - it dates from 1987) maps. 

While I was out I also got a cappuccino at Colombia Coffee, which has really nice outdoor seating onto the street. Summertown has a cute small town vibe, even though it's in the city, and it was lovely to sit there and start reading a new book as well as watching the world go by.

I then came home to spend most of the afternoon reading, while watching the Tour de France. I love having the cycling on in the background while I read or study as it stops me getting bored from just doing one thing at a time.

The book I was reading was one I'm reviewing for Salient Points, the new journal of the Great War Group. I won't give too much away about it, but I'm excited to be contributing reviews of new releases to the journal. Definitely check out the website if you're interested in a new society about First World War history and it's quarterly magazine - I'm just a small cog in a very big and exciting wheel.

Continuing with the theme of an ideal relaxed weekend, this evening I went to a friend's house for a board games evening. In pre-pandemic life we used to spend a lot of time playing games in our college common room so it was nice to have some chill fun along with wine and a delicious Japanese takeaway. In the end, we spent far more time chatting than playing games which was still great. We did, however, celebrate a return to our previously endless games of Mario Kart, so it was a bit like old times. I'm still firmly middle-of-the-road, but my pink Yoshi did put in a few good races.

The whole evening was super chill but an ideal way to finish off a pretty good week. In a perfect world, I would have run a few more times, but I can't win them all and there's always next week.

If you're still reading this, well done! I realise this has ended up being a pretty long blog about a not particularly exciting week, but I hope I've been able to show a little bit of what PhD-life is like for me at the moment.


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