The First Year of a PhD in Newcastle University Business School

An automated email from student services arrived in my inbox recently reminding me to register for the second year of my PhD.  So after nearly a year of doing a PhD, I thought it was an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve been doing and what life as a PhD student has been like so far.  I started my PhD in October last year, researching professional women’s participation in public sector trade unions.

This time last year I was working out my notice in my old job, eager to start my PhD, wondering what it would all be like and whether I would actually be able to do it.  The second question I’m still wondering about but at least I can share some answers to the first.

The First Few Months

Anyone who has ever changed jobs (or started a job!) will know that one of the first things you realise when you find yourself in a new organisational setting is that people speak their own special language.  Starting my PhD was no different.  Getting used to the fact that everyone “conceptualised” things was one thing, but it was also a relief to work out that when people referred to a “TA” they were talking about teaching assistants not the Territorial Army.  Luckily, immersion is one of the best ways to learn a new language so after a few weeks things were becoming clearer on the communication side.  However, the PhD itself was still a murky beast.   The first few months provided the opportunity to get into some of the reading that you need to do but the lack of outputs and short term deadlines did feel unsettling at first. Luckily though, supervisors are there to provide guidance and reassurance (and occasionally to dump a load more reading on your desk!) so while feeling like I wasn’t making much progress I was actually developing that frequently mentioned “conceptual framework” for my research.

Days spent reading might sound like a fairly solitary and lonely activity and before starting my PhD I was often warned about how lonely an experience it can be.  However, NUBS and the University offer plenty of opportunities not to be lonely!  NUBS offers a series of seminars for PhD students, offering the chance to meet some members of staff outside your supervisory team, learn about some of the research that’s going on in the school and network with your fellow PhD students.  Further to this, all PhD students in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences are offered research training and can study for a Postgraduate Certificate in Research Training.  The training itself is interesting and also provides those strangely craved for deadlines, but it also offers opportunities to meet and socialise with PhD students outside of your department – including at the Christmas party (plenty of wine, always good for networking!).

So having spent some time settling in over the first few months, here are some of the highlights from the rest of the year.


Just to make it immediately clear, I HATE giving presentations, it really does make me nervous.  However, on the advice of my supervisor, I had to bite the bullet.

I presented my research at both Newcastle’s own doctoral conference and at Leeds Univeristy Business School’s.  And both were excellent opportunities to discuss my research with interested and informed audience members.

The conference highlight for me was, however, the BUIRA conference held in Strathclyde.  I had had an abstract accepted for presentation there and while delighted, I was also very nervous.  The conference itself provided the opportunity to hear a number of interesting presentations on work people were doing that closely related to mine.  In addition, the conference dinners meant that there was plenty of time to meet people and get to know colleagues working in the same area.  The evening disco also had excellent music, but unfortunately, Stewart Johnstone, of NUBS, could not be persuaded to get his dancing shoes on!  I gave my own presentation on the Saturday morning.  The paper I was presenting considered the ways in which unionised managers understand their working identities and whether there is conflict between their roles as both managers and union members.  Although presenting the paper was nerve racking, it was a good experience to be able to share my work with more experienced academics and get useful feedback.


The formal progression process that the university requires PhD students to go through seemed pretty daunting at the start of the year.  Towards the end of the year you have a progression panel – three academics (not your supervisors) have the pleasure of reading some of your work and then being given a presentation on it.  Which written down now doesn’t seem like too much work….however, once again that familiar feeling of nerves returned in the run up to the panel.  One of the strange things that I have found over this first year of PhDness is that things seem to move quickly so by the time I was to actually have my progression panel, I thought the document I had submitted already seemed out of date and full of typos (another learning point – leave some time between writing something and rereading it, otherwise you just read what you think it should say not what it actually says!).

So, the day of my progression panel arrived and it was hot and sunny.  The panel itself didn’t get off to the greatest start – the door to the room it was scheduled in was locked and no one knew where the key was, the projector didn’t work and my efforts to contain my nerves were faltering!  However, despite all of that, I got through it and I have to say my overwhelming feeling on the process was that it was incredibly useful and motivational.  The feedback was helpful and has meant that I have been able to see more clearly what my thesis might come to look like, which is strangely exciting.  Now I just need to get on with it!

So, in summary, my first year as a HRMWE PhD student has passed quickly, with lots of nerve racking moments that turned out to be positive.  I’m looking forward to starting the interviews for my research, which are planned to start in October – exciting times!

Eve Ewington

ESRC-Funded Seminar Series Announced

The HRMWE subject group at Newcastle University Business School is pleased to announce that several of our group members, in collaboration with researchers from Monash University and the University of Strathclyde, have succeeded in securing funding from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) to host a series of six seminars.

The title of the series is ‘Regulation of Work and Employment: Towards a Multidisciplinary, Multilevel Framework.’ The first seminar will take place early in 2014 at Newcastle University, where two more seminars in this series will be held in 2015. Other seminars will be held at the University of Strathclyde (2x), and at Monash University Prato Centre in Italy (1x).



Work and employment remain a central concern to people’s livelihoods, wellbeing and identities. It is not always obvious however, how the terms, nature and quality of work and employment are determined. This series will aim to address the complexities and dynamics of the forces that give rise to patterns of regulation at all regulatory levels.

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers with different backgrounds and interested the field of work and employment regulations, this series will contribute to developing an understanding of the issues faced in this field. In doing so, it will inform policies, strategies and practices of government, business and unions.

HRMWE researcher Dr. Jenny Rodriguez is the principal investigator and coordinator of the series, with support from co-investigators Dr. Tracy Scurry, Dr. Stewart Johnstone, Professor Stephen Hughes, Professor Greg Bamber (Monash University, AU) and Professor Robert Paul Stewart (University of Strathclyde).

The current outline of the seminar series can be found below. Please note that the dates are subject to change; exact dates will be announced at a later stage, as will keynote speakers and presenters.





Competing Approaches to the Regulation of Work and Employment

Newcastle University

Jan/Feb 2014

Workplace Regulation: HRM and IR Issues

University of Strathclyde

April/May 2014

International Regulation

Monash University Prato Centre

Sept 2014

Regulation and the Individual Experience of Work

Newcastle University

Feb/March 2015

Regulation and the Firm

Newcastle University

June/July 2015

The Future of Regulation

University of Strathclyde

Sept 2015

‘Have British Workers Lost Their Voice?’

06/08/2013; By dr Stewart Johnstone, lecturer in Human Resource Management and researcher at the Human Resource Management, Work and Employment (HRMWE) subject group at Newcastle University Business School.

“My research is broadly concerned with the management of work and people, and past research has examined a range of HR and employment relations issues.   However, one of my core interests is the notion of employee voice.  Put simply, employee voice is concerned with workers having a say and input into organisational decision-making.  For employers, interest in employee voice might be driven by a belief that it makes good business sense to capture the ideas and knowledge which resides within the heads of everyone working within their organisation.  For employees, having an opportunity to express opinions and ideas can potentially make work more interesting and satisfying, as well as providing a chance to improve the overall experience of work.  A central assumption is that both employers and employees stand to benefit from giving workers a voice.”

“Traditionally, employee voice was synonymous with trade unions negotiating terms and conditions of employment, and perhaps given this focus, the default relationships between unions and management were assumed to be hostile.  However, over the last ten years, I have conducted extensive research exploring the concept of ‘partnership’ between employers and trade unions, where employers and unions commit to work together and engage in dialogue regarding a wide range of issues for the overall benefit of the business.  Much of this has involved case studies of employment relations in the UK financial service sector.  The central idea of partnership is that both sides work together to increase the size of the overall pie as well as fighting over the size of their slices.  However, many organisations, especially in the private sector, no longer recognise trade unions and as such  some of my research has also explored other options for collective employee representation such as in-house ‘staff councils’ and ‘employee forums’.  While in many European nations consultation with employees over workplace and business issues is a normal part of workplace life, the UK has often seemed to lag behind in this regard leading to concerns that British workers have lost their voice.  I have written a range of articles on these themes, I am currently editing a book ‘Finding a Voice: Employee Representation in the New Workplace’ which will be published by Oxford University Press next year (2014).”

“Current research, funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, continues this line of enquiry by exploring the dynamics of workplace relations in tough economic times, with a particular focus on issues of employee voice and employee engagement in light of the global financial crisis.  I’m particularly interested in finding out more about how periods of crisis affect workforce relations: can crisis actually bring an organisation closer together, or does it inevitably have a negative impact on employee engagement and voice?”

Stewart is Lecturer in HRM at Newcastle University Business School.  Prior to this he was on the faculty in the School of Business and Economics at Loughborough University. His research and teaching interests traverse human resource management and employment relations. Recent projects have examined various issues concerned with the management of work and people.