Gifts for a new PhD student?
August 28, 2007 7:41 AM   Subscribe

My wife is going to be starting a (humanities) PhD in a few weeks' time. What gifts should I get her?

She'll be studying at Queen Mary's in London, and will be working on the American musicals of Kurt Weill. I would like to put together a package of gifts that she might find useful and entertaining.

Looking back at previous questions in the same area: we're both Londoners, so local information isn't necessary, and I can't give her inside info about the uni or the department. What things would be good to give someone about to start a (UK) PhD? Any books or tools that you found particularly useful?
posted by Jakob to Education (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A subscription to some sort of online backup program. And set it up for her so that it works automatically.
posted by grouse at 7:53 AM on August 28, 2007

Great idea Grouse! And a high-capacity flash drive.
posted by LarryC at 8:01 AM on August 28, 2007

Best answer: She's going to be a student so you have to buy her a Pot Noodle and a Fray Bentos meat pie in a tin.

Book: 'How to get a PhD' by Phillips and Pugh.

Some kind of back up system is a great idea, she may not appreciate it right off the bat but she surely will by the time she gets to the end. By the time I got to the end of mine I was saving the whole thing on at least 2 disks nightly, one of which came home in case the office burnt down.
posted by biffa at 8:03 AM on August 28, 2007

A good book on English usage like Partridge & Whitcut (if she doesn't already have it).

There are a whole bunch of books on how to do a PhD - I got one out of the library. I think they're much of a muchness, and not that useful, but her mileage might vary.

The thing that really helped me was getting to grips with a bibliographic software package ahead of time - getting your references in order early (and keeping them so) saves days of heartache at the end. I'm in the sciences so use Bibtex but I'm sure someone will suggest a decent humanities friendly package to do this.

With research I find it's so much a stop-start thing it can be hard for those outside to comprehend - yes, you do get up late some days and yes, you do sometimes spend all day on Mefi/Facebook/etc. but that's because you really have to ride it when it's going well and work all hours. I think perhaps more than any gift what would be good is for you to let her know that that's OK.

The final thing that really helped me was socialising with the lab and other postgrads, so you might want to make it clear that she's got a free pass to go out with the book-geeks, or that you'll stay in and babysit/do the cooking, or even some "You go out I'll do the housework" vouchers if you're that lovey-dovey.
posted by handee at 8:05 AM on August 28, 2007

Something that looks, smells and quacks like motivation. It'll come in handy when it comes to the writing up stage.
posted by vbfg at 8:24 AM on August 28, 2007

A gift certificate for a maid service to clean the house/apartment/whatever
posted by jtfowl0 at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2007

A huge manatee?!
posted by kenchie at 9:03 AM on August 28, 2007

A punching bag or one of those squishy balls that you can squeeze to relieve stress.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:28 AM on August 28, 2007

Best answer: Other things to realize, none of which were obvious to me.
  1. Your Ph.D. thesis is a masterpiece. That is to say, it is something you create to prove you are one of the club. Don't treat it like the capstone of your life or career. Treat it the way a journeyman violin maker would treat their first violin. Find out what is the minimum acceptable requirement, and satisfy exactly that. There will be time later in your live to win the Nobel Prize for Weill research, but this may not be it.
  2. Meet at least one (maybe exactly one) person who has been in your program for 10 or more years. Ask yourself if you want to be like them in 10 years. If not, then reread the end of the last comment. I was actually on the 15 year plan myself, and it was no fun at all.
  3. Someone said to me that the only thing he ever felt that he did that was sinful was the orgy of self deprecation he went through when he was working on his Ph.D. I felt something very similar while I was working on it. It felt great finishing it, but it was definitely no worth the years of agony.
  4. One person I know left four glaring but fixable errors in the first draft of his Ph.D. thesis, but they were errors so carefully chosen that each was in an area that one of his advisors would know about and catch. When they caught them, he thanked them profusely, and added the fix he already had prepared. This made the work partially theirs, so they were much less likely to bounce it when the defence came around.
Good luck.
posted by vilcxjo_BLANKA at 9:31 AM on August 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

I assume she already has a nice, comfortable, lightweight laptop, yes? But perhaps an upgrade is in order. A quality carrying case/shoulder bag for the laptop might be a good idea, too.

A lot of what she might use or need depends on her work habits. Does she like to work in a coffee shop sometimes, or is she going to be spending most of her time at home or in the library? Will she be traveling to different archives and such?

Think about where and how she'll be working, to figure out what she might find useful. A gift-certificate to the cafe next to the library? Maybe a thermos to bring some food to the study carrel? Is there a way you could give her some more privacy and quiet at home?

With respect to bibliographic software, I used to use Endnote, but now use the excellent free firefox extension, Zotero. Since I'm in the habit of working in public places on occasion, I'd also recommend another free program: Aire Freshener, which puts recorded loops of natural and urban sounds on your laptop that you can listen to while you work, in order to drown out distractions.

Good luck to you both!
posted by washburn at 10:04 AM on August 28, 2007

Best answer: A bookgem book holder so that she can read and take notes on her laptop at the same time. It changed my life!
posted by umbú at 11:25 AM on August 28, 2007

vilcxjo_BLANKA makes some very good points, though you should be careful how you present any insights like this to your wife, especially towards the end of the PhD, touchy isn't the word. I'll add a fifth:

5. Your PhD won't benefit from having the big man in your field as your examiner. The ideal examiner is your supervisor's best mate with a rubber stamp marked 'PASS'.
posted by biffa at 11:48 AM on August 28, 2007

I think you ought to get her some books/movies/magazine subs./other leisure time fodder that you know she can enjoy effortlessly. Sort of to remind her, in what little free time she'll have, "hey, remember how consuming media can be fun and relaxing?"
posted by gauchodaspampas at 12:53 PM on August 28, 2007

Gift certificates for a massage. Some people will evern do house calls with portable massage tables.
posted by BoscosMom at 1:08 PM on August 28, 2007

There are two kinds of gift you could get her: relaxing distractions or helpful work items. Your question suggests you're looking for the latter, so I'll avoid suggestions like movie rentals or nice dinners out. But I'd also avoid buying anything too work-specific (i.e. no books on her research topic, no writing manuals), because it will quickly cease to seem like a pleasurable gift and begin to feel like part of the all-encompassing burden of the work. (A nice exception to this rule, though, might be a keepsake or rarity connected to her work, like a framed page of a manuscript Weill score, or an original-cast photo, or something like that.) So I'd look more for goods and services that will help with the work of the research and writing while still seeming separable from the work itself – this could be anything from a good pen and paper for note-taking, or a nice new desk combined with a cleared-out room or area in the house for writing, all the way to renting an office elsewhere or providing her a week or a month at a writing retreat.
posted by RogerB at 2:09 PM on August 28, 2007

Assuming she has a laptop, get a custom paint job / laser etch for it -- maybe even with her initials (the cheap version might be doing good old toothbrush splatter over a stencil). That should cut down the chances that it will walk off on its own if she accidentally lets it out of her sight in the library or wherever. Both a Kensington-type lock and a laptop alarm would be good additions, though not exciting gifts in themselves.

To carry her laptop or just her papers, she needs a nondescript backpack -- one that no-one would expect to be concealing anything valuable.

A cheap but useful present would be sheets of pre-printed stickers saying "Important research materials, please return to:..."

A more exciting present would be a large-capacity USB pen drive, on a nice neck chain of she would wear it.

But your ongoing support will be the valuable gift.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:18 PM on August 28, 2007

vilcxjo_BLANKA: On your first point, my PhD supervisor always used to say "You don't get more PhD for doing more PhD"... In other words, do what you need to do and get out of it! It doesn't mean the end of your research, just a chance to get the Dr in front of your name and move on to other stuff.

On, and for the OP, I agree with others that a PhD takes your whole life! I was always thinking about my research, whether I was at home, at work or somewhere in between. So, my suggestion would be give her something to let her get away and forget about the work. I found I had to get out of the city, but your mileage may vary, you know her better than we do!
posted by ranglin at 4:51 PM on August 28, 2007

Do something that will get her in the habit of regular exercise. Gym membership and a promise to go with her once or twice a week, eg. Physical activity is, IME, a very good predictor of who finishes happy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:56 PM on August 28, 2007

Looking around my grad student desk right now:
Good lock for her laptop
Hotpot or coffeepot w/supply of gourmet caffeinated beverages
Really nice insulated mug with a screwtop lid
Small toys or her desk/carrel/cubicle
Calendar with pictures of a place she likes
Noise-canceling headphones
posted by hydropsyche at 7:40 AM on August 29, 2007

A Nespresso coffee machine (trust me on this one).

A cleaning lady paid up until the end of it.

A very large supply of pens and general stationary - she might already have loads, but nothing signals a school start as new stationary!

A really nice leather book bag.

Sometimes it's not what's useful (she can think of those things herself), but what she wouldn't buy for herself and is nicer to get as a present!

Good luck to her!
posted by Andorinha at 3:56 AM on August 30, 2007

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