10 Things I am Glad I did in my First Year of my Ph.D.

This is an installment in a series of posts about moving to the UK for a Ph.D., specifically at Durham University.  To read more posts like this, see our list here.

A note of introduction: Today is the last day of the academic year at Durham University.  Post-graduate research Ph.D. students don’t follow the same calendar as the undergraduate students, per se.  Our work goes on throughout the summer and term breaks.  The year finishes at the end of the full twelve months.  However, my situation is a little different.  I came to Durham to do my first year literature reviews and theological foundational work.  While I will remain a full-time student, I am transitioning to move back to my home in the USA.  There I will work as a full-time student for the next two-years of my Ph.D. program, researching in churches in the Southeastern US.   I have worked hard to satisfy my supervising professors with my progress and academic development.  So, in many ways, this is a mile marker than looks much like the end of my first year.

I thought I would share a few things that I am glad I did in my first year.  By no means is this an exhaustive list.  Nor did I get everything right; I made some mistakes.  But, for what it is worth, I am glad that:

  1. We wasted little time getting to know the area and the people. We were eager to get to know our neighbors at our doorstep and beyond.  We developed some wonderful friendships by doing so.
  2. I found a workflow early.  A mentor told me to think of the Ph.D. in days and weeks, not months and years.  I am still in the learning process, but this has been good advice.  Thinking of it only in big chunks of time may mean that you will lose the focus entirely.  Ask yourself what you need to do today and this week, then do it.
  3. I adjusted the workflow as needed.  I still held the same principles as above, but I adjusted the workflow as needed to fulfill those principles.
  4. I attended Department and College lectures, lunches, etc. It is easy to get lost in your work.  However, it is important to get out and spend time with your academic colleagues.  They have so much to teach you, even in casual conversations.  Get out of the study carrel and participate with others in your department and college.  Attend the lectures, seminars, etc. that seem only tangentially connected to your work.  They can be extremely helpful.
  5. We didn’t stay in the University bubble.  Like many university towns, it is easy to insulate yourself from the community.  We intentionally chose to seek out relationships with people outside the University.  Our friends taught me a great deal about England, myself, and about my work.  The people of Northeast England are warm and friendly.  We were enriched by our time together.
  6. We didn’t buy a car.  That may seem strange, but it is true.  Our reasons are not purely financial.  In the US, we drove about 15,000 miles a year in each of our two vehicles.  Walking everywhere taught us much.  We learned a great deal about ourselves, the community, and one another.  We met some wonderful people on our walks.  We had great talks with our kids.  My wife and I had great talks.  We slowed down.  We learned more about our community on our walks.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t have our challenges.  The bus station can be an interesting place at 10pm when you are more than eager to get home.  However, even these experiences were valuable lessons.
  7. I got good rain gear, including a good pair of waterproof hiking boots. It is Northeast England.   I don’t have a car.  I walk at least 3 miles a day. Does this really need more explanation?
  8. I pushed away from the desk now and then.  It is easy to work hard at your research project.  Most weeks I spent 40-50 hours reading and writing.  However, some very productive times were those when I pushed away from my desk.  Those in my study office made an agreement: we would all takes concurrent breaks.  The conversations about one another’s work and life were some of the most enriching times of my research.  Coffees with academics on campus often stimulated my thinking in new ways.  You can do a great deal of thinking while you aren’t in a book.
  9. I rested.  Even as a theology student, it is easy to forget the directive to rest.  When I was home with the family, I tried hard to be home with the family.  I didn’t work on schoolwork on Sundays.  I spent it with my wife and kids.  I am glad I did.  When Monday came, I was better prepared.
  10. We embraced this call on our lives.  Some people have called this phase for us an “adventure.”  I see it merely as following God’s leading.  That often takes us to new places to do new things in new ways. It is in those edges of new places and new things that God teaches us more about himself and his world.  Some may call that an adventure.  We have humbly sought to be obedient.  I can think of no better place to be.

As we now head into those new places for the next two years of school, I am excited to see what God will do in our entire family.   He has been faithful thus far and will always be so.



P.S. I am curious to hear from other Ph.D.’s: students or completed.  What worked for you?  What would you recommend?



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