My Years as a Philosophy PhD Student - Part One

From flats, to learning, volunteering and making friends, George reminisces on his first year as a PhD student at Sheffield.

An office door covered in Halloween decorations

My Years as a PhD Student, Part One…

As I write this, I am about a month away from submitting my thesis (shudder!) There will then be a month or two for me to prepare for my Viva. This is the ‘final exam’ stage of the PhD, where two lecturers (one from within my department and one from a philosophy department in another university) read my thesis, and ask me thoughtful, probing, and hopefully, answerable questions. If what I say makes sense and the thesis seems to stack up, I will be made a doctor of philosophy. It is exactly as exciting and nerve-wracking as it sounds. With this in mind, it seems like a natural point at which to review my time as a PhD student at Sheffield. This, then, is my ‘PhD journey’, year by year. We’ll start with year one; you can look forward to hearing about years two, three and four in future posts…

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Year 1: The Pandemic, Virtual Friends, My First Grad Talk etc... 

My First Pandemic

Oh yeah, so remember the pandemic? I started my PhD during that. And while embarking on a doctorate is always daunting, the surrounding circumstances of lockdowns and social distancing made for some unique challenges. 

My PhD began in October of 2020. At this time I had been living with my parents in London for a year. This had been the plan before the pandemic started - I finished my Masters in Philosophy at The University of Southampton in 2019 and felt I needed an extra year to put my PhD proposal together to maximise my chances of getting funding. It was also the plan to become a tutor and save some money. That didn’t quite work out: as you might have guessed, covid meant that all the exams got cancelled so suddenly no one was in the market for a tutor anymore…oh well! 

Anyway, by the time my PhD started I was anxious to get going. I had been bored out of my mind not being able to see my friends or do much of anything (you might remember what that was like); and I had already started doing some preliminary research in preparation for the thesis. Yes, I was that bored! We were still in lockdown in the UK when my PhD began. I met my primary supervisor Ryan Byerly online, the two of us not meeting in person until my second year. 

My First Flat…

Six months into the PhD, I bought a flat in Sheffield having never lived there before and only visiting to do flat-viewings. That’s right, I became one of an increasingly rare-breed: a home-owner who is not retired! I even bought my first hoover…

My enthusiasm for this (very fortunate) state of affairs was tempered only by the fact that I was now living alone, on the edge of a city I had never lived in before, in which I did not know anyone, during the time of a deadly virus. Also, the flat was in a state of fairly dire disrepair and I was suddenly responsible for fixing it. Think less Grand Designs, more Homes Under The Hammer. It was…interesting.

As you might have inferred, it was a pretty lonely and isolating time. I was too far away from the city to get there on foot and doing my best to avoid taking public transport. I got to know my local park and nearest Aldi horribly well. I now know and appreciate many different areas in and around Sheffield city centre, but at the time, my experience of the place was inevitably pretty one note. I can remember vividly the sensation of finishing a day’s writing in one room and knowing that the only destination afterwards was watching TV in the other room. I count myself very lucky to have had more than one room during this time. I’m in my final year now but I honestly don’t think I ever did as much work throughout my PhD as I did in that first year. It’s amazing how much research you can get done when there is literally nothing else to do.


Intellectually, that first year was pretty fascinating. I remember a lecturer at The University of York, where I did my undergrad, once described the first year of a Philosophy PhD as ‘deep play’. This definitely rang true for me. I read everything I could about the philosophy of intellectual humility, a cornerstone of my project; I spent some significant energy trying to understand something called ‘factor analysis’ and whether the results of one empirical study analysing different measures of intellectual humility was a threat to my account (spoiler: I basically decided it wasn’t, which was very convenient). And I had some scintillating conversations with my supervisor (Ryan Byerly) over zoom that challenged my thinking and made me develop my ideas rigorously. I remember sitting in my local park trying to explain some of what I had learned to a friend over the phone - it was only then that I realised quite how much information I had taken on in my busy hours of solitary reading. 


Other things helped break up the monotony of pandemic life. I volunteered with the charity Student Minds to help create a podcast about men’s mental health. This project brought together students from around the UK who identified as male to discuss issues related to wellbeing and masculinity. This seemed apropos at a time when all of us were stuck inside, and many of us noticed a considerable dip in our mental wellbeing, me included. We worked with staff from the charity to book guests, record and edit episodes, host conversations and interviews, and promote the show on social media. I also brought out my guitar-playing skills to record some background music for the intros. This was incredibly rewarding, and I particularly enjoyed talking to philosopher Jake Jackson about his research on depression and testimonial injustice. Overall, it was a very helpful distraction from fearing every surface in my flat. If I do eventually put out a podcast as part of my current role as department blogger (which is the plan), I’ll be using a lot of the skills I learned on this project.

My First Sheffield Friend!

While getting to know fellow PhD students in the Philosophy Department was pretty difficult (not being in Sheffield at first, and then not being able to go into the department), I did strike up an online friendship with Rosa Vince. Rosa was in the final year of their PhD at the time; I initially contacted them after they introduced themselves on the Postgrad Philosophy Facebook Group (if you join the department as a postgrad, I strongly encourage you to join this too). They are now a close friend; I suppose I should give you a sense of what they’re like… 

Rosa Vince’s research focuses on porn, and makes the compelling case that this should be of interest for philosophical (and not just recreational) reasons. Rosa is a goth and is much cooler than me. When it comes to their outfits, I’m never disappointed; when it comes to their ability to look after the ailing snake plant I gave them to brighten up their office…well there I’m not disappointed, I’m just angry. That being said, Rosa is an exceedingly helpful person (if you are not a snake plant) and reliably responds to much of my behaviour by saying ‘aww, you’re so wholesome!’ - said in a tone so sincere, I never even question whether it might be a tad patronising. Rosa has been an endlessly supportive presence throughout my time at Sheffield and I count them as a dear friend (Image below: Rosa's dying snake plant). 

Plant dying on a table

At the time we first met, I was still living with my parents and eager to make whatever friends I could, however I could, from my childhood bedroom. Being interested in their work on the relationship between objectification and harmfulness in pornography, I reached out to them to chat. We had a few zooms and have now been IRL friends for about three years. Since I’ve known them, they have completed their PhD, become a Doctor, and got a job working as a lecturer in the Philosophy Department. Last year I took great joy in adorning their office door with all the halloween decorations I could find in charity shops throughout October (as a goth, they were particularly appreciative).   

An office door covered in Halloween decorations

Yes, I am also responsible for the Mean Girls meme. In case you can’t read it, it says ‘GET IN LOSER, WE’RE GOING PHILOSOPHISING’. Instead of Regina George’s face, there is Rosa’s. It gives me great pleasure to know that this is the first thing Rosa’s many students see when they go to one of Rosa’s office hours.

My First Grad Talk

Other milestones for my first year: I gave my first talk at the graduate seminar! This is a weekly meeting of postgrads (masters students are always welcome!) in which two PhD students present their work. There is a very friendly Q&A and then we typically go to the Uni Arms pub nearby. 

My talk back then was titled ‘Intellectual Humility: A Family Resemblance Account’. Drawn from the first chapter of my thesis, I argued that the virtue of intellectual humility (that is, humility about what you know) should be conceived as a family resemblance concept. Put simply, this means it is not defined by a single feature, which is seen as necessary and sufficient for the virtue, as is common for other, competing accounts. Rather, I suggested we view it as something defined by multiple features, none of which is strictly necessary, but all of which count in favour of calling someone intellectually humble. I managed to give the talk without tripping over my words too much, the Q&A was not nearly as scary as I had feared, and I did it all while seamlessly matching the colour scheme of my powerpoint to my outfit. All in all, a proud day! 

My talk was online so there was no hope of the standard pub trip afterwards, but I still got some very helpful questions. Plus, there is nothing like actually giving a talk to help get you over those initial nerves. I now have a reputation as a prolific talk-giver at the grad seminar; taking advantage of this opportunity has really helped hone my public speaking skills and prep for conferences. I now make sure to pepper my talk with at least one meme in order to retain engagement.

Organising My First Conference

Finally, I should probably mention my involvement in the Understanding Value Conference. This is run every year by the Philosophy Department and is organised almost entirely by PhD students. I volunteered for it in my first year and had the pleasure of working with James Turner and Rod Howlett, fellow PhD students who, being in their second year, were a little less clueless than I regarding what organising a conference actually involves. The short answer is: a lot.

Conferences are typically structured around short talks by PhD and early graduate researchers and ‘keynotes’ (usually, longer talks) by well-established lecturers in the field. The thing about organising a conference is that you have to invite all of those people. This means reviewing dozens of abstracts (short descriptions of talks) from PhD students to narrow it down to the best selection. This, I will say, is good experience when it comes to applying for conferences: you have a much better chance of having your abstracts selected when you already know what the kind of things the reviewing committee are looking for. You also have to work within the busy schedules of whichever keynote speakers you invite. Oh, and you have to get funding from various funding bodies, which you will then use to book accommodation and travel for your various speakers. This, again, is good experience, particularly as successfully applying for money to run academic projects is a highly sought after skill within academia. Again, though, a lot of work.

Happily, it is immensely rewarding when it all comes together. In my case, we had the added benefit of the conference being solely online. This was common during the pandemic; it meant that we didn’t have to worry about booking anyone a place to stay and the only funding we needed was for a Zoom account. I’m grateful to have been involved and I would encourage any future PhD students to consider volunteering too (again, so long as you can put a decent chunk of time aside). I can now also say that I have had the honour of talking at this same conference the following year. It felt very much like a home-coming. Shout out to my good friends Ben Jenkins, Rae Fielding and Tareeq Jalloh for your excellent organising!

In summary…

I think that just about does it for year one. If you are approaching the start of your PhD and worried at how daunting it might be, let me say three things: firstly, it will be daunting, but you will get through it. You will get smarter and more knowledgeable and you won’t even realise it’s happening. As a wise Rosa Vince once said to me when I first started ‘it might seem like other people have read more or know more than you do. But it’s all just time’. And they were right. Secondly, no-one has a clue what to do when they first start. I remember meeting fellow first year philosophy PhD students in an online meeting hosted by the department. One student said he’d recently become a father, and was getting used to not getting enough sleep and not knowing what the hell he was doing. The organiser joked ‘well, welcome to being a parent and, also, to being a PhD student!’. It’s all just a process of trial and error and, fortunately, you have the freedom to experiment to see what works for you. Finally, you won’t have to do it in a pandemic. Take it from me - that helps.

George Surtees.

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