Getting Started in Arts Research

Imagine you could go back to the first few months of your research. What would you say to your younger self? What advice would you give? Is there anything that you wished you knew when you were starting your research in the College of Arts?

Daniel Gonzalez Fuster via Flicker
Daniel Gonzalez Fuster ( CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flicker


Starting research can be an exciting time: a chance to dive into new experiences and opportunities but it can also feel overwhelming. Even though we are provided with a wealth of information to get us started, the sheer amount we have to process can be the thing that ends up confusing us more! As someone who is near the end of their research, I thought I could put my experience to good use and offer some helpful advice to those just starting out. And since everyone’s experiences are different, I thought I would ask some recent PGR graduates what they wish they had known when they started.

First of all, don’t panic if you can’t remember everything from your induction. The College of Arts Graduate School Moodle site has everything you need. It has the PGR code of practice available all year, paperwork for supervisors’ meetings, guidance on compulsory training for new researchers, and links to events taking place across the college. For more detailed information – like the dates of your  Annual Performance Review (APR) – check the Moodle for your specific school.

One of the things that definitely stands out from the feedback I received (and from my own experience) is that too often researchers worry about ‘what is normal’ or what they feel they ‘should’ be doing. The important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to approach your research, what really matters is finding out how things work for you. Not for your office neighbour, or for the person a year ahead of you, but for you. This is one of the great things about being a researcher in the Arts. You have the freedom to try new ways of working and to find out what is most effective and enjoyable for you.

Everyone has their own working pattern and it is okay to work in a way that suits you. For some people it can be really helpful to have a structured week with regular hours, approaching their research like a 9am – 5pm job. However, you might prefer working later into the evening and just doing admin tasks to start the day before you spark into life. Don’t feel like you have to justify your working pattern. If you are on track and getting things done, then it doesn’t matter what path you take to get there.

It is really easy to compare yourself to others in your office, your department and at events. You might worry that some people seem to be progressing faster than you, or that others have attended more conferences, or successfully published articles. Try to remember that everyone’s research is individual to them. You can’t measure your success by others’ achievements.

When you first start your research it is easy to feel like you aren’t achieving much. In fact, the opposite is true. Doing admin, reading secondary literature, compiling data – this all counts as work. Some researchers won’t have any tangible output for months, so don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t sitting at your desk writing all day, every day.

Fredrik Rubensson via Flickr
Fredrik Rubensson (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

That said, make sure to keep notes on everything you do write. Don’t throw away your rough drafts and musings even at an early stage. Not everything will end up in your final thesis, but it is nice to keep your ideas with you as you progress. This can also be really helpful when you reach the later stages of your research – it’s a real boost to see how far you have come!

Keep a bibliography of everything you read right from the get-go. Truly, it is crushing to realise you have already read an article or chapter once you are half of the way in. And when taking notes, remember to write down the full bibliographic information. That means publisher, year of publication and page numbers. It seems obvious, I know, but it is easy to develop bad habits that you’ll come to regret later!

Try to get some breathing space and step back from your research. Whether this means turning off your phone alerts once you are home, or taking an afternoon walk or gym class, find something that helps you to unwind when you are feeling stressed or anxious. It can also be really helpful to take part in something not directly related to your research, so that you are forced to switch off for a bit. Taking on some Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) hours each semester can be really good for this since sometimes you will lead seminars on topics only distantly connected to your own research. Or getting involved in programmes like eSharp or The Hunterian Associates Programme, can be great since they keep developing your skills but outside the bubble of your own research.

Finally, the most important advice is to remember that not all the advice out there will work for you. If you read something and think “that’s not for me, I prefer to do things a different way”, then fantastic! Let us know what your own helpful techniques and tips are. Share your thoughts in the comments below or over on Twitter (@UofG_PGRblog) – you might have a nugget of wisdom that could really help a fellow researcher.


Post Author: Jade Scott

Jade has recently submitted her PhD in English Language and is preparing for her viva. Her thesis examines the exile experience and agency of a sixteenth-century noblewoman, Lady Anne Percy, through her surviving letters. She also works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the department of English Language and Linguistics.

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