Isolation or the Occasion for Joy

In a postgraduate context, you can choose either to throw yourself into the PGR community, sometimes losing focus on your own work as you consider others progress or you choose to isolate yourself and get on with your own work at the expense of social interaction and expansion of your own knowledge.

I certainly haven’t ‘thrown’ myself into postgrad events and groups, but I do love my office. I love constant contact with people and, through the way that each of those typing away in the same room as me is at a different stage of their PhD, I love the reminder that I am starting something which has an end point.

But more than this, working with and amongst others means that you can feed into other people’s research and invest in them. One of my Chinese colleagues often asks me simply to decipher her supervisor’s handwriting. More than this, with my British heritage, my academic past, and my current stage in life, I can contribute effectively to other researcher’s lives and work. I watched a British film with a fellow researcher in order to point out to her the specifically british elements of its production – place names, swear words etc.

This is huge. If you’re reading this and you’re a researcher, I’d plead with you to not just focus on your own work, but to look at those around you, to attend conferences, and to actively engage with how your personal viewpoint can help someone else see something they might not have seen otherwise.

What a joy, to be invited into the work and research of friends and colleagues.

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My First Conference

So I wasn’t feeling well last week (hence the lack of post…I apologise), but managed to get along to my first conference as a PhD student. I was armed with packs of tissues, bottles of water, and enough paracetamol to last the week. I was expectant, excited, and nervous. What if I didn’t understand anything? What if it was a waste of a day? Why can’t I go back to bed? were the questions spinning round my mind as I walked towards the registration desk.

Lo and behold, a name-tag appeared with my name on it – good sign that my online registration had actually worked – and I was given a bad of goodies. When I say goodies I mean: the programme of the day, a list of abstracts, a list of contact details for the other delegates, a notepad and a pen! To be honest, the prospect of a free pen is a great incentive for any Brit to attend an event, but adding a free notepad in there too…well this stationary-loving student was hooked and ready for the day.

Lots of small talk ensued straightaway. Talking to everyone about their research, I realised I hadn’t actually got round to doing what I told you all to do in my post  “defining your doctorate”, and so I blundered through a couple of explanations before getting it down to a succint but curiosity-rousing one-liner. After a cup of tea and more small talk, the bell rang, we were summoned to the keynote, and the day began.

To be honest with you, there was nothing on the programme related to my study. Even when papers had ‘translating’ in their title, they were using the word for the sake of a catchy title rather than indulging my research interests. However, this being said, I found the whole day extremely interesting. Having never been to a conference but being involved in the organisation of one in May, I learned a lot – just from observation – about the running of the day. Having never presented at a conference but being in the middle of preparing a paper to present in June, I learned a lot about the practicalities of giving a paper (note to self: DO NOT USE POWERPOINT EVER… OR COMPUTERS….OR ANY TECHNOLOGY). Furthermore, I felt as though my knowledge of so many different topics was widened just by my being sat for 20 minutes listening to someone who loves what they’re talking about.

I was glad to be out. Of course. My nose was streaming, my head was pounding, my muscles were aching. But I really enjoyed the day and am looking forward to the next conference! 

Birthday meat

So Saturday night was a birthday party. The birthday girl was someone I’d met in January, and who studies in my PGR office most days. She’s Romanian and her English is astonishing (-ly good). Dinner was at a meze (mezza?) place, and so save a lot of fuss (and food-envy), we ordered platters to share. What ensued was basically an evening of meat – sooooo much food was on those platters that we had to challenge each other to finish them!

Why am I telling you about meat, about dinners out, about platters and challenges?

Because on the table were people from Italy, Spain, Chile, Hong Kong, Malta, Taiwan…and I’ve forgotten a couple! I love that I was able to go out with new friends; that these friends are from all over the world; that through my PhD, I get to see a little of these incredible countries, their cultures, and their people. Moreover, I have the privilege (there’s that word again) of enjoying the night’s conversation in my mother tongue, while everyone else spoke a second or third language.  

It was a lovely social side to my research and I hope that as my project progresses, friendships will grow too.

Privilege and Dust

Last week I had the privilege of reading some extraordinary writing.

My PhD involves literature from the 1800s, and so I often find myself in the obscure parts of the library whenever I visit. But last Thursday I went to the ‘special collections’ section – that little-known and little-seen area located in the basement of my uni library.

As I descended the stairs, the smell of books got stronger. The dust started to make me sneeze. I put my bag in one of the lockers provided at the door, realised I didn’t have £1 to lock it and so, trusting that thieves wouldn’t think to go to the ‘special collections’ section, I continued into the room. Before I got there though, I saw a sign informing me that only paper, pencils and laptops were allowed. I haven’t carried a pencil in my bag since I was 11, and I’m more of a note-scribbler than a typer, so I proceeded into the rare books section armed with only a notebook.

After a touch of confusion with the man in charge (who let me borrow a pencil), I found out how to find the books – fill in a piece of paper for each book, he disappears, and then reappears with the requested books. I sat down at the table to begin my day of reading.

Hours later, with tears still streaming down my face, I left with the feeling of privilege.

All day I had been reading diaries and letters of people who were in an uncertain context, who were working because of conviction and integrity, and who were brutally honest with their writing. I had been reading words and pages that I doubt many have read. I had been reading glimpses of someone’s world, a world they’d scrawling in notebooks, not necessarily thinking that some emotional PhD student would one day be weeping over them. I read a wife’s description of her husband’s final hours on a boat to Mauritius. I read a lonely man’s lament after his wife died in Sierra Leone. I read a traveler’s sighs as he pondered over the potential futility of his work.

I have been reading for weeks, but only dry words and emotionless records. On Thurday I felt like I was reading people, lives. I read something almost tangible.

Perhaps it’s just the dust, perhaps it’s just the fact that the books are yellowed and fragile, but that day felt like my PhD might actually touch something precious.  

What a privilege. Bring on more reading.