Victorian Tips for Surviving a PhD

Eleanor Betts  is a PhD candidate in the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Victorian representations of children who killed.

Eleanor also writes a National Trust blog about the lives of servants in Ickworth House in 1935. You can follow her on Twitter @BettsEleanor

Not so long ago I was trawling through the dusty pages of a mountainous pile of books in the British Library and I came across this little gem. Printed in a compilation of nineteenth-century periodicals was an article headed, ‘Don’t You Do It, Boys’, from an 1855 edition of the Boy’s Own Magazine. It warned youthful readers against falling to common mistakes made in the process of academic advancement. With dark circles forming themselves as a not-so-attractive feature under very dry, tired eyes, and a back that yearned for freedom from hunching over my key-worn laptop the words of this article struck a chord. Looking beyond the heavy moralistic tone – this only to be expected in Victorian advice manuals written for children – I discovered some tips that I could apply in my every-day life. Now, of course I have not stuck to every one of these nuggets of advice like glue – I am only human after all – but I found them useful in developing a healthier way to approach my thesis. The circles under my eyes have dulled to an acceptable grey and my back no longer grumbles and complains as it once did. I feel happier – free from what I assumed were the trials and tribulations suffered by academics. Here are some points mentioned in the article – enjoy…

Image from Wikimedia Commons


Don’t believe in the midnight lamp and all that. It is a mistake of the over-eager student to do so. You will suffer for it, if you repeat this blunder. The organic laws are of God’s making, and will not be trifled with. Rather rise early than sit up late.


Don’t waste fragments of time, or neglect them. This is an old exhortation, but it must ring in all our ears till we are the better for it.


Don’t allow your books and papers, few or many, to get into confusion. The great mischief of doing this is, that if you happen to be a little indisposed for intellectual exertion when you sit down to your table, if you can’t find readily what you want to begin with, you are apt to make it an excuse for shirking the duty of the house. And dilatory tricks have a knack of self-repetition.


Don’t allow your devotion to books to interfere with family and social duties, to shut you out of such good company as is desirable for your age and position. Make it a sacred duty not to neglect old friends, not to “closet” yourself, not to cramp your affections by any conceitedness or recluseness in your habits. Partial culture is a bad thing. Give your nature a wide sweep of operations. Your character will suffer injury if you turn yourself into a bookworm, just as it demands expansion and lots of fresh air. Take plenty of the “milk of human kindness,” as it is offered to you; and you will be a better and wiser man for it hereafter.


Don’t be seduced by the suggestiveness of what you read into forming hasty opinions on philosophical, social, or political questions. Treasure up such observations as you may make in your reading, but avoid yielding to temptations to rash theorising, such as will beset you, for instance, in studying history and biography. You have plenty of time before you; and as to “making foolish haste to be wise,” don’t you do it, boys!