So what are you doing?: defining your doctorate

The ultimate question. Simple, on the face of it. A natural query. In fact, I heard it a lot this weekend as we had a big family gathering with aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins (or first cousins once removed, whatever the definition is).

How are you? Fine, thanks!
What are you up to at the moment? I’ve just started a PhD actually…
Oh right!….So what are you doing? *Silence, hesitation, racking my brains for a starting point*

How do you explain a potential three years of research, which happens to be in a very specific field which you’re only just beginning to understand after reading half the library’s books on the matter? How do you put your entire research proposal – with all its concepts and assumed knowledge – into a simple answer for someone who knows nothing about the subject?

I haven’t specified until now, but my PhD is in Translation Studies. If your response to that was, ‘Huh? You can do a PhD in that?’, then that sounds pretty much like every other response I’ve had. This answer obviously isn’t adequate to the ‘what are you doing’ conundrum. I need something tangible, understandable for the common man.  

I therefore go a bit more specific, I give them something recognisable: ‘I’m doing a PhD in Translation Studies and French Literature’. This seems to satisfy most. ‘Oooo, French, that’s complicated’. This makes me laugh – they still know nothing about my project, but they are quite relieved to know that at least it involves something tricky like a foreign language. Sometimes, however, they press me. ‘What specifically are you doing then?’ – they have recognised that ‘Translation Studies and French literature’ is a very broad subject matter and actually want to know more.

So here comes my little spiel. I’ve got it down to a sentence now, a reasonably short sentence that actually tells people what I’m doing without chucking them in the deep end of translation theory and french colonial criticism. Conciseness is a beautiful thing, and it helps me focus on my project. If writing a conference paper, or an article, or a thesis, I’ve had the incredibly simple but useful advice that you need to be able to summarise your argument in one sentence. If you can’t, you don’t understand your own argument. I think this is the same with the question that others pose.

Therefore, as someone asks you rather bluntly what you’re focussing your time and effort on, what you are interested in, what your next three years are going to look like, you get to refine your project even as you answer. You get to tell yourself again what your goal is, what your conclusion will involve. Take that opportunity. Refine the sentence to tell them, but also to keep yourself on track of your work.

I think what’s hard about this particular question is that often the hearer doesn’t want to hear the full answer. They want to voice an interest, they want to figure out what you do all day (yep, I read, I constantly have to tell people that at the moment most of my day is spent reading!!!). They want to be interested. But they’re not going to fully understand the spiel that you spout, let alone the actual project itself!

Of course you won’t be able to tell them every miraculous detail that fascinates you about your project, but you can give them something to latch on to, perhaps something to arouse curiosity, and something to answer the question.

‘So what are you doing?’

What’s your sentence?  

Nod nod nodding – supervision meetings

Last week I had my first official supervision meeting for my PhD. I started my research in January and, before now, have only had a couple of ‘check-ins’ where I’ve made sure I’m doing what my main supervisor thinks I should be doing…

However, official supervisions have started and are a different beast altogether. Gone are the pleasant conversations and nice half-hours of idea-tennis. Gone are the relaxed one-to-ones between the chilled out ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ student and the ‘don’t worry about it’ supervisor.

In their place I found myself sat on the edge of my seat for an hour, rapidly writing pretty much whatever came out of my supervisors mouths (I have two), and nodding along eagerly, whether or not I actually understood what they were saying.

There is a danger with this nodding. At the time it seems to buy you credibility. The nodding makes you feel a peer, makes you feel like you can do what they do. Nodding makes you feel invincible.

But when you come away from the meeting – with your research plan covered in pen marks and scrawlings, the margins full of names of books by authors you can’t pronounce, let alone spell – the nodding turns to a fast shaking of the head. You have to summarise the meeting and document it. You have to write minutes.

I don’t know what the system is in other unis, but in mine, you have to give an overview of the discussions had and the action plan at the end of the meeting. You have to then submit this to your supervisors so that they can see you’ve understood their instructions (!), and then submit it to the university as evidence of your supervisory meetings.

The waiting game begins therefore, as I have submitted my minutes to my supervisors. Will they see through the zealous nodding, or have I been able to understand enough of the meeting that I can actually blag my way through this process?…Only time will tell.

We’re gonna need some boundaries

What a week. It’s been manic. I’m sure you have those weeks too; where you feel like the one thing you ought to be doing has just been pushed under the carpet as the world closes in around you, demanding your time and energy. This week – shhhh don’t tell my supervisors – it’s felt like my PhD wasn’t just a secondary element to my week, but maybe a senary or septenary element. Whatever you call it, it was not a priority.

You see, the beauty of doing a PhD is that your time is flexible. You can use the day however you want. That friend who’s only around for an hour this afternoon before they fly abroad for two months, you can meet! The doctor who’s only free for an obscure ten minutes on a Thursday before lunch, you can see! You can do work in the evening. You can do tutoring or teaching in the afternoon. You can sleep later in the morning (I’ve been ill over the past few days, so this in particular is a lovely luxury).

However, as well as being an advantage, this flexibility of time is a complete pain. Everything (ok, ‘everything’ may be a bit melodramatic but it’s good for emphasis) that needs to be sorted out lands on your plate precisely because you’re flexible! This week, for example, our car broke down about half a mile away from our home which meant that our breakdown didn’t cover it!! I eventually had to be towed to the nearest garage which was terrifying – have you ever been in your car steering while you were being towed? Furthermore, we’re buying our first house and wowee there are a lot of things to do once an offer is accepted…I don’t even know what half of it is for… Plus, to top it off, I had toothache which is worrying when your husband has had a couple of ‘episodes’ at the dentist recently and felt a bit flu-ey too (a lot of self pity being dished out as you can tell)!

Mid-week, I actually voiced the words, ‘When can I do work?!’ in my postgraduate office.

On a new Monday, as I write this and reflect on a crazy couple of days and a frustrating lack of work, I don’t think the problem is entirely the PhD. I come in the office in the morning and leave in the evening. I supposedly treat it like a job, not taking much home with me. Perhaps I should treat my time working in the same way – somehow sacred and set apart from my life. Obviously there will be times when my phone will ring and I will have to answer it. And there will be times when I need to take a couple of hours to stand outside my car with a takeaway cup of tea whilst a mechanic shuffles around under the bonnet. But perhaps I need some boundaries. Perhaps I just need to put the phone on silent from time to time.  


Books and books about books

This will be a short one today folks as lots of things are going on chez moi.

Take this fable as a nugget of advice, a priceless piece of guidance in the abyss of postgraduate research tips.

I was travelling home from London a few weeks ago and was gearing myself up to read a good chunk of a novel on the way (Megabuses do afterall provide journeys long enough for more than a couple of chapters). It goes without saying that this novel was for my research. As I got past the laborious introduction, written by some ‘critical thinker’, I soon realised that what I had in my hand, and therefore for the rest of the journey, was not the book I wanted to read, but a book about the book. I struggled on with it, finding parts genuinely interesting (thankfully), and attempting to figure out the plot of the novel from its criticism without much success.

Lesson learned. Make sure to get the book. Not the book about the book.