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.

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. 

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.