Category Archives: Editorial

Surviving before, during and after your viva

I was inspired to write this after spying a tweet by Dr Nathan Ryder, the author of How to Fail Your Viva asking if anyone had written a blog about surviving their viva recently.
Having had a fresh look at the Viva Survivor site (which I highly recommend), it got me thinking about surviving my viva. Most viva guides focus on preparing for your viva. Most are useful and freely accessible. But, my most stressful, confused and unprepared times came during or after my viva and not before it, and this is precisely what there is the least advice about.

So, here are some things I’d like to share which I think might help before, during, and after your viva.


Find out what your University expects of your examiners:

At the University of Manchester there isn’t too much information readily available (although Mathematics provides an excellent page of information).
Personally I would have found it much more reassuring had I known that my examiners had a “Pre-Viva Report Form” to fill out before the viva and “Joint Report Form” to fill out after, both of which asked specific questions. Based on what I’ve found it’s up to individual supervisors how much they tell each student. So ask your supervisor about what they do when they are examining a thesis.

This is much like telling an undergraduate student to read and understand the mark-scheme before they submit an essay, but it is not something which I thought to do and I wish I had.

Make a list of “worry words”:
I actually started doing this near the beginning of my PhD. I am a quick but not very accurate typist and I frequently mistype words in a way that brains and spell-checkers don’t spot. Here are some of my most common ones…
Minster instead of Minister
ears instead of years
hem instead of them
moths instead of months

and the all-time, all-weather champion which everyone claims to have seen once in their lives…

pubic instead of public

This all does seem ridiculous, but in my final check before submission I found six moths and four Minsters that I’d never noticed on seven whole read-throughs, so… Ctrl F is your friend.



Not really what my thesis was about… No thanks to Word, myself or Grammarly here

P.S. Be very wary of the tempting “Find and Replace All” button. Stories abound of friends attempting to quickly ensure that their hem’s turned to them’s left them with tthemes and tthematics. Go carefully.

Accept that your thesis is not perfect:
I know you think it’s not perfect already. But accepting that it is not perfect, and that it CAN BE imperfect BUT STILL PASS, will make your life easier. I also know that although you perceive this advice as logical, you probably don’t think it applies to your thesis…



Accept that your thesis is not perfect (this bears repetition):
The last thing I expected was for anyone to challenge the basic historical facts (i.e. dates) in my work. After all, by the time you come to a viva, you supposedly know more about your topic than anyone else. Most probably you do. However typos and other embarrassing mistakes slip in to one draft, then aren’t checked in another, and eventually end up in the final thing. You’re a human there’ll be silly mistakes. Accept it.

Keep a sense of proportion:
My examiners focused on small errors, and I left the room at the end thinking that if I couldn’t even get dates right, then it wasn’t good news. Now I’m out of my viva head-space, I’ve realised that this was good news for two reasons:
1: it meant that I won’t look like an idiot when it’s put in the library and someone with access to Wikipedia reads it
2: it meant they hadn’t found something bigger and badder to complain about – like my central argument.

If they do pick at something bigger or badder, part of the viva process is to test how you respond. Do you admit an error, or do you defend your work? A lot of this depends on the context, and remember that you’ve probably only put 50% of your knowledge about and around the subject into the thesis. Take a deep breath. Take time to think. Remember that…

Your examiners don’t want to fail you:
The two (or three) people in that room didn’t read your thesis with the same critical eye as your supervisor. Your supervisor is trying to make you produce the best possible thesis. Your examiners are not trying to do that. They are trying to justify their assessment of your work.

They might have odd questions, but there’s usually a reason for it:
A “what if?” question in my viva really threw me, particularly as I knew the person asking it didn’t see much historical value to counterfactual questions.

However, all my examiners were looking for was evidence which would allow them to tick a box on the form to say that it was my own work and not someone else’s – my answer was proof that I’d done research in the area and could apply it.

Use the opportunity to find out what they enjoyed:
You’ve just spent many years writing a thing – ask them what they thought the best bits were. They’re an academic audience – if you plan to carry on writing for academic audiences, it’s a good captive and honest audience for finding out where your writing really shone.

Enjoy yourself:
I was lucky in my viva that I had someone working on topics very similar to mine. Sometimes in answers we’d get a bit off topic, and start picking each other’s brains. It was kind of fun. I know this sounds improbable to those of you who haven’t had a viva yet, but it was fun.
Even if your examiners aren’t experts in the specific field you’ve written about you can still enjoy speaking to people who have read your whole thesis and are interested in your research and your opinion without being paid (your supervisor) or obliged to be interested (blood relatives/partners/PhD friends/your supervisor). That’s something special. Enjoy that.


You should stop worrying about your viva. Your viva is something you can do. You got a PhD place, and (possibly) PhD funding based on the fact that you know how to talk and write about your topic. You’ve given talks at conferences. Answered questions. Attempted to explain your research to friends and family members who don’t understand any of your subject specific vernacular. You have friends and family members who avoid you drunk because they really do know a lot about your research (and don’t want to know any more).

You can talk about your thesis.
You know your thesis.
So don’t worry about that.
Think instead about what comes after your viva.

Corrections… Or, Remember that they didn’t fail you:

No one who passed their PhD more than a year ago will remember or admit (I’m not sure which of these it is) that doing corrections is hard. However, a lot of my friends have passed their PhDs recently too, and a lot them admitted that they found it hard to motivate themselves to do corrections.

The PhD process is so full of “you’ve nearly finished” moments that I thought I’d be able to handle corrections easily. Until the very end panic of submission I’d tried to treat my PhD funding like it was a wage for a job, keeping 9-5 hours (OK, OK , 10-6 hours), taking time for lunch, and having weekends (sometimes), and I thought that I’d be able to take corrections into my stride with business-like ease.

However, nothing really prepared me for the fact that, having passed the viva, (even with corrections) you kind of feel like it’s finally over. Coming to terms with the fact that you have some amount of work to do can be hard, and I’d failed to prepare for this conflict of emotions in any way, shape, or form.

Keeping a sense of proportion is harder after the viva than before it.
I found it really hard to keep a sense of scale. I saw each correction as a little failure, an admission of guilt, and it was hard to accept that I’d got those specific things (in some cases, very) wrong. I decided that my corrections were a secret code for “make it good”, and not “do these forty specific things”.

Given all the time between submitting and having my viva, I had of course found many other things wrong with my thesis which weren’t in my report at all, so instead of just doing the corrections I hid in my room for ages “making my thesis better” (this is in quotes because I was essentially tearing it down and starting again).
I got close to the ridiculously long deadline without even touching the actual corrections because I had bigger fish to fry.

Don’t do that!

Instead it is absolutely vital to remember that you only need to make the corrections you have been TOLD to make! (Along with any glaring errors you spot along the way of spelling, grammar, or obvious ommission).

Get someone who isn’t you to read your corrections and then chat with you about what you’re going to do to make the changes.
Discuss with them how long you think it will take.
Be realistic.
Set a deadline and meet it (as much as anyone with such advanced academentia as you can).

Time for corrections is time to do what you’ve been asked to do and ONLY that. DO NOT use that time to make your thesis perfect because you need to…


Spot the difference? What I thought my corrections meant, v.s. what they actually meant

Accept that your thesis will never be perfect.

No thesis is perfect, but yours will probably still pass. If you want any proof of that, then just go to BL ETHOS, download a thesis, and see what else passes.

Even after all that time doing anything but the corrections I was meant to be doing, my final submission still has an error in the abstract.
One that means a sentence makes no sense (no I’m not going to tell you what it is).

No one noticed except one friend who still isn’t sure what my thesis is about, and you know what – the letter telling me that I was now a Doctor means that I DON’T CARE!

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Public meeting places and enclosed spaces: (very) current uses of Castlefield & the tradition of meeting on the Camp field in the nineteenth century

by Erin Beeston

Last Sunday, the People’s Assembly hosted a No to Austerity march through Manchester amongst a host of activities trending on twitter as #TakeBackMCR in response to the Conservative Party Conference held at Manchester Central (or G-Mex as many of us know it) in the former Central Railway Station. Reports on attendance in the press varied from the figure of 60,000 people in Manchester to approximately 100,000 at the upper estimate. The March route went through key Manchester city centre locations from Oxford Road, passed the Conservative Party Conference venue (and the metal fence constructed to segregate an unpopular government from Mancunians) and gathered in Castlefield. The Castlefield Arena space at the Bridgewater canal basin was used for speeches from a variety of political leaders to pop stars against public spending cuttings. Full list of speakers here

The crowd gathered at the canal basin

The next day, on Monday 5 October, the People’s Post rally was held at Manchester Cathedral at 7pm hosted by the Communication Workers Union (CWU). I ordered my free ticket in advance, expecting a cosy pew in Manchester Cathedral. Arriving about 6.50pm, the Cathedral was full and a growing crowd were directed around the corner to the Cathedral Gardens to watch an outside delivery of the speeches. CWU Union officials spoke, keen to garner support to fight suggestions that the postal service should be privatised by the Conservatives – a Party eager to reduce public services wherever possible. An estimated 7000 people amassed outside, many drawn to the event by the presence of the Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Other speakers included the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and #Milifandom creator and activist, Abby Tomlinson. It occurred to me throughout the speeches how small an area the Gardens covered – perhaps others arrived and turned back for lack of space. I even spotted people clambering on buildings – sitting in windowsills to get views of the speakers, with others leaning out of nearby apartments to hear. Whilst the Cathedral Gardens were perhaps never designed for more than coffee breaks and sunbathing, I wondered where in Manchester public meetings could be held? Albert Square –outside the Town Hall – is space often employed for official festivals and filled with stallholders. The Piccadilly Gardens area is split in two by a concrete wall and surrounded by hazardous tramlines and bus routes. Perhaps Castlefield Arena, where the March finished on Sunday, really is the best place for large groups of people to gather, about 1 mile from the traditional centre of Manchester.

People waiting to hear from speakers at the People’s Post on 5 October 2015. As the Cathedral filled up, crowds packed into the triangular section of open space at Cathedral Gardens, between the Corn Exchange building and Urbis, where speakers then re-gave their speeches to the crowd outside.

Perhaps you are wondering, as I’ve posted this on the CHSTM PhD blog… what does this have to do with historical research? Well, the enclosure of open meeting places in Manchester and the displacement of people through the actions Manchester Corporation has emerged in my research into Liverpool Road Station and the Campfield area (now encompassed within the locality we call Castlefield). In history, we find clues to how and why there are few public meeting places in Manchester today.

1850 Ordinance Survey Map of Manchester (scale – 6 inches to 1 mile) shows the open meeting space of the Camp Field – from which the area took its name – either side of St Matthew’s Church.

The Camp Field along Liverpool Road was used as a public meeting place and site for fairs during the nineteenth century. From 1806, the Knott Mill Fair – a pleasure fair held every Easter, took place there. Knott Mill Fair attracted large crowds and was described as ‘the annual resort of the working classes’ [1]. The artist Frederick Shields described the sights of the fair: ‘My annual sketching festival, rich in character never seen but at those old fetes, where Wombwell’s Menagerie vied in attraction with the strolling players who strutted upon the platform in paste-board armour and conventional robber costumes’[2]. Shields also illustrated and painted the regular rag fair held on the Camp Field every Tuesday during the 1860s and 1870s; Factory Girls at the Old Clothes Fair, Knott Mill, Manchester (1875) is now in the collections of Manchester Art Gallery.

Meetings more akin to this week’s anti-austerity rallies were also held on the Field, particularly gatherings ahead of meetings in the radical Hall of Science during the 1840s. Following the closure of the Hall of Science, an open-air Chartist meeting was held on 20 October 1850 [3]. After the Chartist cause waned, the Camp Field continued to provide space for rallies. For example, in July 1869 a trade union meeting took place outside drawing crowds of about 2000 people [4].

Local traditions of both meeting and trading goods on the Camp Field came to an abrupt end after Manchester Corporations Markets Committee used the 1871 Fairs Act to abolish the Knott Mill Fair in 1876. As early as the 26 May 1876 (prior to official abolition) the Markets Committee discussed an ‘iron roof’ for the field. Later that year, the Committee commissioned architects to come up with two new Market Halls to construct on the Field either side of St Matthew’s Church [5]. The Lower and Upper Campfield Market Halls designed by Mangnall and Littlewoods survive. The Lower Hall is now part of the Museum of Science and Industry complex, housing ‘Air and Space’ exhibits.

The enclosure of open spaces and displacement of stall traders has been described by historian Patrick Joyce as the ‘severance’ of the market from the street, a break with the ‘old urban milieu’ [6]. It has been noted how profitable Knott Mill Fair was to the Corporation by Robert Poole, posing the question why did they want to stop it? In my own research, I have found that the indoor markets were not busy or popular in the 1880s. Was the motivation to enclose the Field as much about reducing outside meeting places for gatherings as it was for the creation of indoor market venues? I have also discovered that there was a plan as early as 1853 to enclose this Field with a market connected to Liverpool Road Station. This coincided with the opening of Manchester’s Free Public Library in the former Hall of Science. Librarians are well documented as being harassed by ‘nuisance’ behaviour outside the building, especially when the Knott Mill Fair was in town. The Corporation worked over several decades to establish a manageable, civic space in this largely working-class area 1 mile from the city centre.

I like to think that the Campfield/ Castlefield area has come full circle; after popular protests and pleasure fairs were displaced in 1876, we now have an open space a little further down Liverpool Road used for all manner of meetings, from mass rallies to popular music gigs.

Castlefield Urban Heritage Park leaflets c.1982-1990s. The development of the Urban Heritage Park conserved (and restored) outside spaces as well as historic canal and railway structures.

Castlefield Urban Heritage Park leaflets c.1982-1990s. The development of the Urban Heritage Park conserved (and restored) outside spaces as well as historic canal and railway structures.


  1. Manchester Guardian, 18 April 1838. For more on Knott Mill Fair see Robert Poole, ‘Wakes holidays and pleasure fairs in the Lancashire cotton districts c.1790-1890’, PhD diss., Lancaster University, 1986.
  2. Ernestine Mills, Life of Frederic Shields, p.90.
  3. The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds), 26 Oct 1850.
  4. ‘Trade Unions Demonstration in Manchester’, The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (Sheffield), 7 July 1869.
  5. Manchester Archive M901/28476: Manchester Markets Committee Proceedings October 1873-Nov 1876.
  6. Patrick Joyce, Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (Verso, London, 2003) p.85 in reference to Smithfield markets.

Will Scotland get a Spaceport?

Recently George Osborne announced that he would sanction Government finance for the construction of a spaceport, and the relevant department (Business Innovation and Skills) released eight potential sites for development:

They have also released a very futuristic concept drawing of the new spaceport (wherever it’s located), which I find quite upsetting because I know that it will not look this cool in real life (if it is ever built).


Unsurprisingly the fact that six out of the eight suggested locations are in Scotland hasn’t escaped notice as the Scottish independence referendum is getting closer. This tempting offer of a spaceport by 2018 (with the location to be decided after the referendum) has been added to a long list of decisions which both the Westminster and Holyrood Governments will sort out once the results are in, and in the meantime looks a tiny little bit like a bribe.
The SNP have dismissed it out of hand, instead highlighting that after independence a Scottish built, Scottish owned spaceport would bring in revenue for Scotland, and that Scottish companies would directly benefit from the facility.
There is even a proposal for a Scottish Spaceport, which rivals the BIS one for its futurism and ‘coolness’.



Whichever is built, wherever it’s built and however cool it will look when they build it the one thing my PhD has taught me so far is that the decision will only hinge on two things – politics and money – and not on feasibility, practicality, or scientific preference. The site listed on Stornoway has pretty much been ruled out already because Richard Branson has said it’s too far away.

The Guardian pointed out that these ideas for a spaceport aren’t new, and that Britain had been planning a home-based launching site in the 1960s.
In 1964, Britain began its own space launcher project to launch small scale scientific satellites. That three stage launcher, Black Arrow was meant to prove that Britain could build the best satellite components in the world, and unlike most other nations, it would pre-test them all in space before selling any of them. The already-established base at Woomera in the south Australian outback was serving as a test site for the Black Arrow, but a run-down of staff at the site meant Black Arrow would need to be launched from somewhere else in the 1970s.

A potential site in Norfolk was ruled out on political grounds, as Ministers felt that even a one in 5,000,000 chance of a missile strike on a North Sea rig would be too difficult to justify. Later assessments showed that the risk was actually far less than initially suggested, and perhaps the new plans for launches from the eastern coast of Scotland reflect this. However, looking at the map showing the sale of North Sea exploration licences in 1967 it is easy to see why people would be worried about the potential for disaster if something did go wrong.



Other sites under consideration were:

Aberporth in Wales: a WWII rocket range where smaller rockets had been tested (ruled out due to cost and worry about the shipping in the Irish Sea).
Highdown on the Isle of Wight: what could be more British than a rocket launched from The Needles? Worries here were largely about shipping, prevailing winds, and also a worry that France might reciprocate with a testing site of their own across the Channel.
Spadeadam in Cumbria: where static tests were carried on Black Arrow’s larger relative Blue Streak (ruled out due to an incredibly unlikely Ministerial concern about bits of rocket hitting Sellafield, the Isle of Man, or Northern Ireland).
North and South Uist: on the western coast of Scotland, which weren’t really bases for anything at the time, and seemed to be a hopeful attempt at increasing local employment (ruled out ostensibly due to distance, but largely because of the weather).

Having ruled out all the UK based options, the Ministry of Technology officials looked abroad. However, neither the French built base at Kourou in French Guiana nor the American base at Wallops Field would do the job as they were foreign.

I’d like to point out that this wasn’t entirely due to a 60s-racist little Englander mind set (well, OK, maybe with the French one it was entirely due to a 60s-racist little Englander mind set); anyway, devaluation of the pound in 1967 meant that foreign currency transactions had to be of “vital necessity” to get Treasury approval (coincidentally the Treasury had been trying to cancel Black Arrow since 1964 and also defined what “vital” and “necessity” meant).

So, nothing in Britain would do, nothing in Europe would do, and nothing in the States would do, and a new launching site had to be decided upon quickly.

The Ministry of Technology plumped for the obvious choice.

A research station operated by McGill University (Montreal), but located in….. Barbados!


Yes, I know, it sounds just like the plot of an episode of Yes Prime Minister.

Really it was all happy coincidence. McGill were worried that their own funding was being cut so would accept payment in pounds, and offered to accept it at the kind of exchange rate that only true friends can offer. Even with all the extra travel involved, the Ministry of Technology managed to convince themselves, and the Treasury that:
‘To achieve the maximum benefit from the Black Arrow programme both technically and financially the Barbados range should selected as the ultimate range for Black Arrow launches.
(AVIA 111/5, R.H.W. Bullock to Mr. Boreham, 29 December 1967. (My emphasis added.))

Another happy coincidence was that the launch schedule meant that the officials, scientists and engineers involved would spend six months a year in Barbados. Can you guess which six months of the year? (No, I’m not going to tell you the answer.)

Unfortunately for everyone involved, a change of government, and an increase in Treasury fiscal control, meant that Black Arrow was cancelled in 1971 after successfully launching its first satellite, and Britain went on to use American launchers launched from American bases.

This is usually cast as a bad thing, and a brilliant example of the British making a technology work then wasting all the effort. However, the money saved was invested in ramping up satellite production, and it should be pointed out that Britain now makes about 1/3rd of the world’s satellites, so it’s not all bad news.

Will Britain get a spaceport this time?

Probably. The current government has decided that space is a good investment, and if the SABRE and Skylon projects get off the ground then a testing/launching site in this country makes a certain amount of sense.

Will it be in Scotland?

Well, whatever happens in the referendum it’s pretty likely that someone will build something there, and the proposed locations now are a lot less remote than those proposed in the 1960s (with the exception of Stornoway).

Make a guess as to which location they’ll choose!

I’d hate to do this, but I can probably tell you which ones they probably won’t choose.
As with all government documents the BIS information doesn’t say which might be best but there are pointers about which are worse.

  • Stornoway – too far away (and with VirginSpace saying that too there’s a “Business Case” for rejecting it)
  • Glasgow Prestwick – too close to Glasgow, as I was plotting this on the map I went back to the BIS infographic at the top and read the bit about being “away from densely populated areas” and “normal flight routes”. Prestwick isn’t either of those.

All the others are in with a fighting chance.
My gut instinct however, says that it will be Campbeltown, Lossiemouth and Kinloss which make the running, and which one of those wins will depend a lot on the priorities of the government at the time.
The defence cuts will bite especially hard in Kinloss and Lossiemouth, and there might be an “employment” case to be made there.

For me Campbeltown has the edge as it’s closer to Glasgow (but not too close) and its transport links to the “affluent south” where, let’s face it, most of the space tourists will come from.

As for Llanbedr and Newquay Cornwall, neither seems that likely to me.

I think it’s pretty safe to rule out Llanbedr. The transport links aren’t great, and it’s in Snowdonia National Park so would involve a lot of local opposition presumably (if the amount of opposition faced when they recently tried to reopen the airfield is anything to go by).

Newquay Cornwall makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s in the privileged south, and it would presumably make local concerns about the fact that most employment is seasonal (tourist-based) worse. UPDATE: having said all this, a quick look at the 2010 election result for the local constituency shows that the Conservatives are in with a chance of taking the seat from the Lib Dems, so maybe Newquay is in with a chance too.


So, provided all goes well, you could be blasted off to space in a British built space plane from a British/Scottish/rUK spaceport at some point in the 2020s (there’s a sentence most of us never thought we’d read). Wherever that would be depends entirely on the circumstances at the time, and an awful lot depends on the outcome of the independence referendum.


Post by Stuart.

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Think ‘…? ‘, the warning signs of academentia…


What is academentia?

Why have you never heard of it?

Why is there not a fund for it and its dreadful consequences (beyond the USS pension scheme)?

What are the warning signs, and can you combat it?

Is it even real? (Urban dictionary says yes, and there’s a band called Academentia, and we need an excuse for all the things we forget – so yes, it’s real).


Symptoms and Aetiology Include
(this is by no means an exclusive list as we’ve forgotten most of it – we welcome suggestions for further symptoms/cures!)

– Do you forget important things that normal people remember?

– Friends birthdays?
– Where you have left anything of importance (keys/wallet/phone/glasses/social life)?
– What your point was in this sentence/conversation/argument/debate/bullet-pointed-list-on-your-blog.

-Do you find doing normal things to be very hard, but doing abnormal things to be easy?

– Does a train booking website lead you to tears, when you find the National Archives Catalogue a thrill and delight?
– Does  paying an electricity bill online take more time than paying by cheque in the post/by carrier pigeon?
– Do you find it very difficult to read any non-fiction text (for instance this post) without footnotes or other references? (Butler: 2014: p. 4.)

– Have you read this website?

-If you’ve now decided that Poirot is relevant to your research when you “work from home”, that’s not good news.

-Do you find it impossible to make simple decisions without referring to a committee of peers?

– This includes things like food shopping, how best to store 5,000 photographs, booking any kind of conveyance, and whether to beg, steal or borrow books.

– Do you find it difficult to believe that things exist unless they’re written down?

– Usually on a post-it note languishing under your desk.
– To be honest, even if it’s in plain view that’s no guarantee that you’ll remember to look at it.~
– Do you save everything on your computer a minimum of two times?

– Are you a really bad friend to your (especially non-academic) friends?

– This includes: forgetting birthdays, taking weeks to respond to emails, seeing them less than once a year (unless they live near an archive), forgetting to thank them for letting you live on their sofa (because you’re visiting an archive), seeing them for only two hours in a day (because the archive is open late on Thursdays), kicking them off their own sofa so you can sleep (because you’ve spent 9 hours in an archive), conversing with them only in terms of what you’ve most recently found in the archive you’ve just returned from (because you can’t remember anything else you’ve ever done)…. This list is illustrative, not definitive.

-Do you find it impossible to survive without caffeine?

-Warning signs include: thinking three or more shots of espresso in one cup is appropriate, purchasing a coffee machine for the office, and buying coffee beans/tea in bulk because it’s more cost-effective (and having done a cost analysis to prove this).

– Do you imitate those who you write about?

– This includes over-hyphenation of words (such as to-day, and may-be), the excessive use of commas and semi-colons; capitalisation of Nouns (taken from German language study), and the excessive use of italics for words which have been in common usage for at least the past decade.
– Do you listen to the music/watch the films they would have done?

– Can you easily spend a day/tens of (hundreds of) pounds in a stationery shop?

– You might be able to convince yourself that they’re gifts for other people – but we know the truth.

– Do you find any ‘historical’ drama (etc.) annoying for small things?

– Like the food they eat, and the fact that you can see people’s contact lenses (thanks for ruining Merlin HDTV)?

– Do you find filling out basic forms really difficult?

– Things like expenses forms?
– But are you able to make (and enjoy making) really beautiful/complex forms?
– Do you then wonder why no one fills them out?

– Are you able to coherently discuss only one topic when drunk?

– If this is your research topic, then we’re afraid that it’s terminal.




Post by Jia-Ou, Hannah , and Stuart with valuable input from the rest of the office.

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Why historians shouldn’t be allowed on holiday

First things first, I’m not trying to discourage PhDs from holidays. They’re vital to staying (relatively) sane, balanced, engaged with your project, and staving off burnout.

However, after a recent holiday I realised that whilst I’m allowed on holiday, my inner historian shouldn’t be.

The holiday largely consisted of cheese, wine, and marvelling at the fact that Parisian town planners, when faced with a bit of empty ground insert breasts wherever possible.

Apart from obligatory excursions to places of mass execution, and up the most well-known phallic monument in the world, we had a relaxing time wandering with no particular aim except trying as many different kinds of cheese as possible.

It was after a visit to La Grande Arche at La Défense (inspired by the cover and contents of Encore Tricolore 2 – which implied that cool people hung out there skateboarding/breakdancing and admiring the view from the viewing platform in the roof) that the trouble began.

After standing around for a bit and noticing the general emptiness, lack of skateboarding/breakdancing people (and also incredibly strong winds), we noticed a tiny sign on the entrance to the lifts. The viewing platform has been shut for some time, after a mysterious sounding “non-injurious accident” in 2010. (Supposedly civil servants can still gain access through the branch of the Ministry for Ecology and Sustainable Development offices there, but given the short duration of the trip renouncing British Citizenship and taking entrance exams wasn’t wholly possible.)


It was then that my inner historian made the whole thing really tedious. I convinced my partner that we should probably attempt to walk off some of the cheese before having more, which sounded logical, but had ulterior motives.
Some of my research looks at the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) which had its headquarters near La Défense, and after booking the tickets I looked up where that was and how to get there. At the time I thought there was no way that I would use the holiday as a cheap way of going on a find-the-right-50’s-office-block tour of northern Paris, because no one in the world except me wants to do that.

How wrong I was.

In the rain, being just “two streets away, I think” turned what was meant to be a 20 minute walk to a bar near L’Arc du Triomphe into a much longer “it must be near here because that’s the hotel which Ministry of Aviation officials stayed in when they visited” affair.

Saying those words, in Paris, in heavy rain (read: sleet), having promised your partner that a lunch in a nice warm bar would be happening 20 minutes ago on one of the few holidays they get away from their real job does not endear you to anyone.

Looking back on it, it wasn’t fun or even worth it. I have a photo of an uninspiring office block that bears little resemblance to the headquarters of the scientific organisation it used to house. Had it had been me being dragged around Paris on such a pointless excursion in that weather, I would have committed first degree murder.

Lesson learnt. I won’t be planning any more trips to places involved in my PhD as supposedly brief asides in otherwise pleasant holidays. I’m not saying – don’t go on holiday to places which your PhD covers (for me that would rule out most of Western Europe, the UK, the US and Australia), but I am saying beware your inner historian on holiday; they make things really dull.

Oh, you want to see the photo do you?


I told you it wasn’t worth it.

Posted by Stuart 

The Rookie T.A.

When it was first confirmed that I would be doing a PhD, I had not thought about teaching at all. I had decided that it was something to look into for the second or the third year – when I know a bit more about the subject area and what gaps there are in the current line-up of modules – and did not worry about it so much.

Nine months later, I have mixed feelings about the fact that I will not be undertaking any pedagogic activities next year, due to a fairly extensive fieldwork schedule. (And not because of ineptitude. One hopes.)

Not long after I had been approved by the grant committee, I received an email asking if I would consider a position as teaching assistant on the introductory module of the Chinese Studies bachelor’s degree. I would be helping to plan and run the Study Skills Sessions – supplementary classes in study skills (referencing, writing essays, constructing arguments, critical engagement with literature, and so on) – and marking half of all the assignments. The hours were not that many, and I thought that a bit of extra cash would not come amiss, so I said yes…

This is what I have learned since:

  • Even if you are teaching/assisting a supplementary module on the side of a main module, audit the main module. You will learn not only the about the subject, but also about how students engage (or do not engage) with each topic in the classroom environment. It should go without saying that you will also feel much steadier when marking essays on said topics, even if your main marking criteria are mostly based on critical engagement and argument construction rather than content.
  • Address the students and they will talk to you. Perhaps I had brought some of my bad habits from secondary school lesson planning with me. Back then, they were mostly based on communicating the key ideas on the curriculum to the students, and I was inclined to present them all in a mini-lecture before doling out the activities. Allowing for questions and interacting with students at regular intervals keeps the class varied and more interesting. And stop students from falling asleep.
  • You will care too much, part one. I certainly found that I wanted to know how I was doing, with regards to teaching methods and effective communication. For this, you can either wait until student feedback surveys are enforced; try to decipher what the students think from their behaviour, or; let it go. I suggest you let it go for now.
  • Marking is a massive pain in the backside. Between good essays that drop marks due to late submission, the massively varying standard of English, the essays displaying a blazingly obvious political disposition, and who knows what else, marking can be an infuriating process.
  • There is a considerable possibility that you will not be the “type” of marker you think are. I thought I would lean towards being nice in my comments, and be generous with the marks. I did and am not.
  • You will care too much, part two. I found myself writing mini English grammar tutorials in the comments. This was time consuming, and I did not get paid enough to do that.
  • You will be incredibly happy when you stamp a shiny 70+ % mark on a piece of work. Even though it has no impact whatsoever on your own project.
  • Be prepared and brace yourself when it’s time for post-return-of-marks essay surgery. For the students, these were optional, and the students who do turn up are invariably those who really care about their mark. This is not to say that those who did not turn up do not care about their mark, only that the ones who do turn up, do. And they will have many questions both on the comments, and how they can improve.
  • You learn about your own styles and preferences too. Write them down for future reference. (“Talk too fast”, “semi-colon abuse”, “more interested in politics than previously thought”, etc.)
  • When you find yourself wanting to, say, write little grammar-tutorials in the comments, remember that, in the end, your main line of work is as a doctoral researcher, and your teaching duties should not interfere with your project.

However, even if you do not learn anything else, you will be flung around campus so much due to last-minute room changes, that you’ll be the best oriented person in your group by the end of the year.

Post by Jia-Ou Song
Jia-Ou also has her own blog. For further ponderings, click here!

Office Politics

Today, we somehow got to discussing office politics.

Not office politics as in the back-stabbing subterfuge that any group of people who are a “team” will be familiar with, but office politics as in the political viewpoints of the people in that “team”.

Partially reflecting my deep seated desire to quantify and record things,  and partially reflecting the fact that it was the first really nice day in a while (the kind where everyone gets bitten by the Procrastination Bug) I decided it would be “fun for everyone” if they took a look at the Political Compass website and took the test on it, to see how left/right wing they were and how socially liberal/authoritarian they were.


As you can see, we should definitely be bloc voting Green at the next election, and some of us seem to be quite likely to be the ones storming barricades and putting people against the wall when the revolution comes.

One of the group then suggested we assess our Autistic Quotient. Whilst doing the test we noted that some of the questions seemed to have an unfair bias against CHSTM PhD students, (like: “I am fascinated by dates” or “I would rather go to a library than to a party” and , “I like to collect information”) so we thought those results would be quite interesting.

Turns out that in spite of this, we’re only slightly more autistic than subjects in the control group for the original study (with a mean score of 23.3). With scores ranging between 17 and 32 though, the mean is a bit vague – you can see for yourself where you come compared to the original subjects and read the full article (which is actually very interesting) here.

To round off what was rapidly becoming an exercise in proving why I’d got the highest score on the Autistic Quotient, I decided it would be a good idea to see what kind of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators we favoured (largely because they were recently rubbished by French Graphologists in this BBC article).

Given the vastly different personalities in our office, it was surprising to discover that we had: 2 ENFJs, 2 INFJs and only one ‘deviant’ from the NFJ ‘norm’, an ISTJ.

For those of you not familiar with the ridiculousness which are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators
ENFJ stands for Extroverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging and their personalities are usually characterised as The Teacher
INFJ stands for Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging and their personalities are usually characterised as The Counsellor
ISTJ stands for Introverted Sensing Thinking Judging and their personalities are usually characterised as The Inspector

However ridiculous these tests might be, and particularly the test that we took, we thought that compared to some of the other categories available such as The Commander we’d done quite well.

So, what kind of person do you need to be in order to be a successful CHSTM PhD student?

Well, you need to be socially liberally, economically left-wing, slightly more autistic than an “average Joe”, and vaguely introverted (the ENFJ people still like peace and quiet apparently).

Obviously we need an n of more than 5 for this to be statistically significant, but we’re artsy-fartsy so really I shouldn’t be talking about n like I know what it means (but then again, I didn’t do A-Level Biology for nothing).

If anyone reading this does the tests please let me know and I’ll update the stats, who knows maybe one day n will grow up enough to be statistically significant.

One of our recent graduates @ImogenClarke has just informed me of her results. She increases the diversity of our personalities somewhat (being INTJ Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging: supposedly she is now our over-lord (over-lady?) The Mastermind)
Given that the graph is a painted up version of Excel and I can’t be bothered to edit the whole thing just for one score, I’ll stick it down here in numbers, and if we get some more stats (or I get really bored) then I’ll re-do the graph and the mean – or if enough recent graduates take the test we’ll have one mean for current students and another for ex-students.
Left/Right: -8.50
Libertarianism/Anarchism: -7.79


One of our current students has caught up and done the politics compass test. As you can see the additional data point hasn’t done much for our politics except making one of us even more close to being the political average.

Post by Stuart Butler (with the kind assistance of other CHSTM PhDs and the Procrastination Bug).