Starting a PhD in a New Subject Discipline

Friends appeared baffled when I announced I was starting a PhD in the geography department. You see, my first degree and masters were in fashion. Everyone seems to find this extremely odd, to the point that I have often been made to feel like a fraud, but one year down the line it seems to be going rather well.

I’m not the only PhD student in the department to not have come from a geography background, although I am perhaps more of a surprising case from an outsider’s perspective. From my perspective however, the leap is not so great. I had two years of research experience between my undergrad and my PhD, and I went from looking at ethical fashion and consumer behaviour, to (loosely) being a retail geographer or most definitely being a social one.

Yes it’s been a steep learning curve but, rarely one to shy away from a challenge, I have loved the vast majority of it and genuinely learnt a LOT. I also feel particularly grateful to be here and get paid for it, as coming from the creative sector there is very little money going around for funded PhDs. Since starting I have attended as many lectures and seminars as possible, been to conferences, attended training sessions, presented at a conference and read copious reams of texts. I feel like I’ve gained a lot more confidence particularly in the last two or three months to enable me to articulate my thoughts and arguments, with more contextual knowledge to back it up. Keen to learn and just as keen to prove myself I’ve got to this point by doing a couple of pretty intuitive things, of which I will share now:

Don’t be afraid to ask.

If you don’t ask you don’t get. I have personally found it very helpful to sit in on some undergrad lectures and have requested advice (both via email and meetings) from academics in other departments (sociology in my case). Speaking to as many people as possible throws up new recommended readings, contacts, and personal experiences that could help you progress. The worst that can happen is that they ignore you (academics are very busy), but that’s never happened to me.

You only get out as much as you put in.

Work hard and make the most of the experience as doing a PhD gives you a unique opportunity to run your own work schedule. It’s meant to be a training period so use it as one because, let’s face it, you probably need it if you are tackling a new subject. Take as many courses as you reasonably can, get involved with a diverse range of seminars and events and network extensively. It will make the experience far more enjoyable and rewarding and enable you to hold your own in academic debates.

It isn’t unusual for academics to move across different subjects and faculties within their career anyway, so I would advise people not to be put off by PhD opportunities in new departments. Having said that, competition is fierce and perhaps I was just lucky. You are likely to be able to move around within the physical sciences or social sciences or humanities for example, but less likely to jump between them. The key with geography is that it is such a diverse subject anyway. Deep down, you should know whether you are genuinely suitable and capable of something or not. A fashion background has set me up well for freelance projects which can be a welcome respite from the heavy academic work. It also means that on completion of the PhD I have two different paths I could go down for a career, but I am aware that if I want an academic career in the social sciences I will have to work extremely hard to stand up against people with a more substantial academic background in the subject.

So, Doctor of Geography – has a touch more kudos than Doctor of Fashion don’t you think? In the meantime I will continue to cling onto my A* Geography GCSE.


One comment

  1. accidental chemist · · Reply

    Great to hear from someone whose making their way through a new subject (and suceeding!) at this level – I’d never studied pure Chemistry before and thought I was the only one daft enough to try a PhD in a new subject – Glad to hear otherwise!

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