PhD Responsibilities: Training and Development
Firstly, I appreciate this blog might be a little niche, but if there’s anyone out there that’s considering a PhD in history (or a PhD in anything), you may find this useful in making your decision. Apart from research, writing and employment, many universities have training programmes for PhD students to help them develop themselves. In this post, I’m going to discuss the sessions I attended, and assess how they’ve contributed towards my first year as a PhD student.
At my university, these training and development sessions are mandatory, and I had to take five courses in my first year. In subsequent years I won’t have to take as many, but thankfully they aren’t too time consuming. Most of the sessions I attended were two hours long, which I thought was a good amount of time allocated to explaining a particular topic. Speakers came from within the university for the most part, most from the library or the graduate school, although one of my sessions was run by the owner of The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate funding. Due to the pandemic, sessions were a mixture of online and face-to-face, but I made the decision to attend online sessions only, as that fit better with my timetable.
My favourite session was a course called “Preparing to Teach”, which gave a broad overview to the challenges of teaching at higher education level. This was split over two days, totalling around eight hours. This was the longest course I took, and it’s one of the most sought after at my university. The graduate school run the course three times a year, and I couldn’t get a place on the autumn 2021 course due to overwhelming numbers. The first day was spent in lectures, learning about how students learn and thinking about why we teach higher education. The second day of webinars was much more interactive, as I was split off into groups with other people to debate the challenges of teaching, before having to feedback to the group. My department lists this course as a requirement for PhDs being able to teach, so getting it done was definitely a priority.
The other four sessions I attended focused on online teaching, postgraduate funding, research questions and using library databases. I thought they were all at a good level, and it was nice to sit and make notes but also ask questions in the chat if I had any. Attendance is monitored through the online platform, and information is fed back to the graduate school, who then issues me a certificate of attendance, which I’ll need to graduate. All sessions are included within the cost of my degree, and I’m free to attend more than the minimum requirement if I want to. Will I? I’m not sure that I’ll be able to spare the time, but maybe.
My main gripe about these research sessions is that they’re often flooded with questions that take ages to answer, and the presenter is often on their own. Having to give the lecture and manage the chat is very difficult, and the endings of most of these sessions were really rushed as the speakers tried to get through the material. On the teaching course however, there were two presenters, with one speaking and one managing the chat. I thought this worked really well, and I got a lot of useful information from the questions. I think this is just a factor of online learning, but I’d be happy to attend more sessions online if they streamlined them a bit. Hanging around for half an hour or so to answer any questions at the end may enable the sessions to run a bit more smoothly and allow everyone else to leave when their questions are answered. Anyway, I hope they do choose to keep some of the sessions online in the future.
In terms of what I learnt, I’d like to say I came away with a fountain of knowledge, but it was more a case of learning where appropriate resources (or people) are based. This is definitely helpful, but I expected the sessions to impart me with lots of new information, but maybe that’s due to the way they were advertised. There were plenty of sessions to choose from, and I can already think of some that I’ll take next year, so I didn’t feel like I was scrabbling around for a topic that interested me.
Overall, training and development outside the hardcore academic substance of your PhD is important, so it’s worth checking whether the university that you’re interested in offers a programme like this, and what the requirements are. It’s not time wasted, but I’m looking forward to taking some more subject-specific sessions next year, instead of the more generic courses that are targeted at first-year PhD students. Speaking to a university’s graduate school will be the easiest way to find out what’s available, as many of the staff there will be involved in the running of these programmes. If you really hate being force-fed information like this, it might just be something you have to live with. Virtual learning is here to stay in one way or another, so it might just be a case of logging in and going with the flow.