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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


The PhD student representative shares their personal view of studying in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. (Original text: Andrew Buskell. Last updated: Bobby Vos)

It is a daunting and difficult task to write a welcome note to incoming PhD students: not only are you, the new PhD students, from a range of backgrounds and disciplines – but the Department is itself similarly disparate and multifaceted!

While the links to the left of your screen – and on the HPS home page – should be consulted for the more technical ins-and-outs of Cambridge HPS, here I want to highlight a few points that might help you settle in as you start your PhD.

You are lucky enough to be in a department where there is a great deal of support.

No matter your educational background, whether you've progressed from Bachelor's to Master's without a break, or followed a more arabesque route, doing a PhD will present entirely novel experiences, and will be difficult in unexpected and tricky ways. PhDs can be lonely, frustrating, mysterious, existential-crisis-inducing affairs – but you are lucky enough to be in a department where there is a great deal of support from many different sources that you can draw upon to help you with issues, explore concepts, and hopefully enjoy your time in Cambridge.

First, and more than anything else, rest assured: HPS is a friendly and accommodating place. If you go to the events, you will be hard-pressed not to meet people and form friendships. The party at the beginning of the academic year is a great opportunity to meet everyone, from undergraduates through to professors. Throughout the year there are, quite simply, gads of social events where we meet informally as a department, including field trips (the Fungus Hunt and Cabinet of Natural History Field Trip being two annual gems), graduate socials, and visits to the pubs after seminars and reading groups. And when we're not out at events – or working – we often congregate up in the Coffee Room, or meet for some of the many events that happen around Cambridge every evening and weekend.

The people around you, however you meet them, are central to doing a PhD. We are quite lucky in HPS to have the option of acquiring desk space in the Department. There are two facilities that advertise vacancies at the beginning of term: within the Mond Building (just behind the HPS Department on the New Museums Site) and GITS (the Graduate IT Suite, on the first floor of the Phoenix Building). A desk within the Department can be a great way of meeting your fellow grad students, and can provide a structured environment to help you focus on your work. If you are not interested in a desk at the Department, the beginning of the academic year also brings with it advertisements for locker space – useful if you prefer to study in the Whipple Library and need a place to leave your things overnight.

The Department is also a very supportive and active place: we have a huge number of reading groups and seminar series for a department of our size; weekly departmental seminars; bi-weekly supervisor and job-seekers coffees; and a schedule of training seminars. The weekly departmental seminars are another social event you should consider attending whenever possible: with tea, biscuits, and a chance to mingle beforehand, the series offers one of the best opportunities to learn about the research projects of staff both within HPS, and in other related departments. Finally, the training seminars are always a good idea: even if you think you know everything there is to know about doing a PhD, Cambridge is a unique (and sometimes baffling!) institution, and so learning about library access, first year PhD requirements, and the skills needed to beat the mid-PhD slump are opportunities you should not pass up on.

There are also other programmes run in affiliated departments (such as History and Philosophy) that you can consider, as well as University-wide courses and support structures that you can take advantage of. The University Language Centre is a fantastic resource if you need to learn a new language during the course of your PhD, and the training courses are similarly stellar (though tend to fill up extremely fast!). Don't forget that, as graduate students, you are encouraged to attend the lectures in HPS (both Part IB and Part II), which can provide both a broader appreciation of the topics in your field and the course knowledge needed to supervise undergraduate students. More generally, while it is University policy that all lectures are open to staff and students – you should check with the managers of those lectures before showing up.

Probably the most important person you will meet in your time at HPS is your supervisor, who is there to guide your studies. However, beyond this point the generalisations end. Every supervisor has their own pace, style and structure of supervising. Meeting yours early on will give you an idea of how much, and how often, they expect work from you. The guide on 'supervision norms' suggests at least two meetings per term, but you may need more, and are encouraged to get in touch with your supervisor to discuss your supervision needs.

However, don't think that your supervisor is your sole source of academic support. Your advisor is another source of feedback and support, and you should be in touch with them frequently. Your peers too, are there to support you. Not only does HPS have a range of 'official' workshops and series where you can present your work, but you should also be circulating your work 'unofficially' to basically everyone you can cajole into reading it. All this having been said, try to keep in regular contact with your supervisor about your work, so that any problems can be identified as early as possible.

Near the end of your first year, you'll have to arrange and complete what in Cambridge-jargon is known as the 'registration exercise'. This is where you will submit a substantial piece of work, along with a plan for your dissertation research. It is a serious mile-stone and should be treated as such. But it is also an opportunity to receive feedback from and brainstorm with two assessors (typically, your advisor and another HPS staff member). Traditionally, the registration exercise has been known to cause new students some amount of stress. Rest assured, though, that in the vast majority of cases, diligent work throughout the year and a timely approach to preparing your various review documents is enough to make your first-year review a smooth, stress-free and perhaps even enjoyable experience!

For all your administrative needs you can contact Jane, Louisa, Toby, David and Aga in the office on the ground floor, who are supremely helpful in every way conceivable. Occasionally, you should buy them treats. Jack, Dawn and James in the Whipple Library, and Steve, Alison (Giles), Alison (Smith) and Morgan in the Whipple Museum are also extremely kind and hardworking people that you should introduce yourself to. Above all, remember to ask for support when you need it – in most cases someone in the Department will be able to help you, or at least know someone who can.

Finally, and not to toot my own horn, there is a PhD representative with whom you can get in contact. HPS tends to be a notoriously happy department, and my role tends to involve organising social events throughout the year, but I am your point of contact should you have a problem with the PhD programme or the Department (or school!) at large. We are also very concerned with how we can improve the experience of doing a PhD at HPS, so please strike up a conversation or approach me at any time with feedback or issues. Cambridge HPS is a great department for graduate study and if you take a little time to get to know the people and the place you will have a fantastic experience here.