Book-tower territory

You may have wandered into that sacred section of a library before, and seen a pleasant-looking desk by the window. You may have observed that this particular desk would be a good place to read whatever book you may have been carrying, or you may just have wanted to kill some time at said location.
However, when you approach the desk you begin to see an invasion of books. Not rough, hap-hazard mountains, but sleek, neat, deliberate, towers of books marking the territory of the person who has scrawled a hand-written note on some half-torn sheet from a notebook: do not move.
You wonder how many of those books could be useful to someone else as they sit there, one on top of the other, their exposed spines fading in the sunlight. It is sad. It always has been sad. Can someone really need all those books?
Maybe you know where this is going…a confession, an admission. I have become part of that species that marks their territory with book towers. Before me now, I see books that I haven’t even got round to reading yet, neatly(ish) stacked, ready and waiting for my curious eyes to glance at them and to weigh their worth. Do I feel ashamed? No. Enlightened? Somewhat. And, indeed, relieved.
I’m getting through a number of books a day and due to a recent over-ambitious shopping trip (where the vegetables on both handlebars and weighing my bag down started to have a noticeable effect on the bounce of my bicycle tyres), I am extremely glad not to have to travel back and forth with books (and indeed, so is my back).
Instead, I wander into the library, past the book-towers of fellow researchers, find a book, peruse it, take it out, not stuffing it in an already at-capacity rucksack of apples, but leaving it 
with its friends,
in its tower,
on my desk. 

Daunting induction and comforting revelation

So I had an official ‘welcome’ to the uni last week. Although I know my way around the campus and the city, having done my BA and MA here, it was reassuring to have a structured event to attend. I was looking forward to meeting other postgrads in the same situation as me. I was looking forward to a free lunch (heck yes to free stuff). And I was looking forward to some sense of security – some guidance that I was on the right track.

The day was jam packed and the teeny seminar room was also jam packed – with students. It turned out to be a very stuffy setting for a multitude of powerpoints (feedback comment #1).  I joke, but I was sat there as usual jotting down notes: it was a ‘useful’ day. Of course some bits were more useful than others, but on the whole I appreciated the information and the expectations set out. As the day went on though, with session after session of things to ‘bear in mind’, of guidelines, of opportunities to take…I felt slightly daunted. Am I really up to the task? How did I end up here? Does what I’m doing really matter?

Indeed, as I was chatting to other students in the ice-breaker session, I felt extremely inadequate. As people were explaining their research projects and their experience, I just wanted to keep probing and finding out more in order to prevent them from asking me the terrifying question, ‘so what about you? what are you doing?’

I’m in the humanities and when I explained my research proposal to a friend’s mum, a practically-minded doctor, she asked me, ‘So, is it useful?’ To which the haunting answer was shamefully, in her eyes at least, ‘no’. 

Surrounded by other postgrads from Engineering, Medicine, and Pharmacy, I considered my research, which at the moment consists of very random reading. I thought about the path which is before me, leading directly into the theoretical. And for the first time since starting, I felt like my PhD isn’t worth it. My research won’t cure a disease, you see.  

But over the long-awaited free lunch (which turned out to be a little disappointing due to my dietary requirements – it’s a good thing I like salad…), as I confessed my sentiments of inadequacy, someone wonderful reminded me that any research is good as it contributes to knowledge. I thought about this. I don’t think she was just saying it to make me feel better. No, any research contributes to the expansion of minds, to the engaging of opinion, to the enabling of further learning.

So I continue on, yes a little daunted, but reading, thinking, writing, and fighting (even in my own mind) for the significance of seemingly unimportant research. 

‘To do’ or not ‘to do’

I wandered lonely as a cloud….

My PhD began with a bit of an anti-climax to be honest. My husband came home from work and asked how my ‘first day’ had gone. I shrugged. ‘I read some stuff’, I said (very articulate as always). He then asked me what I’d read…How could I explain? I’d gone to the library, typed in a couple of keywords, taken out whatever was on the shelves, filled my – by now – ridiculously heavy rucksack, and proceeded to spend the rest of the day wading through the books and journals I’d managed to seize. 

I was a bit lost. 

Then, breakthrough. I had a meeting with my supervisor. It was daunting – I need to do a 3 month plan and a 6 month plan, both in terms of professional development and actual research – but it was so encouraging. I now have a ‘to do’ list. Phew.

First things first – chase it up

It may seem obvious to you, but I only found this out yesterday. If you’re doing a PhD, make sure the uni knows that you are…

I did an MA at the same institution where I’m about to start my doctorate (it’s Friday and I’m supposed to start on Monday) so I went by the department to collect my dissertation feedback. Whilst I was there I mentioned that I hadn’t received any ‘welcome’ or ‘introductory’ packages. I wondered how I was supposed to start my PhD – given that I’m beginning in January, and not in the midst of the freshers wave that is September/October.

Needless to say, I’ve spend the past 24 hours chasing people up, writing emails, making phonecalls, and now the university officially recognises me as beginning a PhD.  I even managed to get hold of a student card before security closed for lunch!

Whether or not I get those all important ‘welcome’ documents before I begin will be a different story. But for now, it is clear that a bit of chasing up is often necessary in order to begin that which you may assume you’ve already begun.