PhD induction: Day Four

I’m actually really qurite proud of myself this evening.

To explain why, I need to talk about my background a bit. I think I’ve said before that I’m deaf, and as a deaf person, communication is something I can find very difficult, particularly in noisy environments (and especially if I’m without my interpreters). As such, in the past I’ve found that I’ve really struggled with networking. Even with sign language interpreters, I’ve still struggled. Lack of confidence in myself, lack of social graces. I’ve not grown up with interpreters; although I’ve been deaf as long as I can remember, I’ve not used interpreters on a regular basis until I went back into education in 2011.That lack of access, of communication, does hinder the development of social graces and networking skills in a person, and up until relatively recently it’s been something I’ve really struggled with. I’m better at it now, than I was then, but even as recently as two years ago, I was still really not able to mix well in professional, but social settings. Take two years ago, for example. Then, I attended the school’s social reception, with an interpreter. I stood mostly on the edges of the gathering, trying to summon up the energy to dive in and mingle. Some – staff members who knew me, for example – came and talked to me, and I responded but I know, looking back, that I let my fears get the better of me. I think I left after about 45 minutes. Determined to do ‘better next time’ but not really knowing how to, or how to improve my abilities.

This afternoon, the same event, I did better. Vastly better. It helps, of course, that after two years of a part time MA, and five year of studying at the University of Leicester, that I know a good proportion of the staff, with at least nodding acquaintance, and I also know many of the other PhD students, even before my own PhD started this week. I know that makes a huge difference. I’m still proud of the way that this time, I didn’t hang around on the edges. I dived in, talked to new staff members as well as the old, talked to people I knew, and people I didn’t. My interpreter helped immeasurably (they all know who they are: thank you from the bottom of my heart for this week) but reaching out, responding, keeping the conversation flowing, reacting well – that was all me, not her, ME. And although I’m exhausted, I realised tonight that I’m so much better at that kind of communication than I was, I enjoy it more than I did. Rather than being something to be endured with gritted teeth, these kind of academic social events have become something to look forward to, an opportunity to talk with my peers. One fellow student put it very well this afternoon when we were discussing what I talked about in yesterday’s blog, how I feel that the AHRC Midlands3Cities residential school changed me somehow and I wasn’t quite sure what it was. She suggested that it was the difference between a taught MA and a research degree: being treated as researchers for the first time. She may be right, I need to chew on that some more. But what she is absolutely right about is the importance of discussing anything and everything with one’s peers, not just work but experiences, to get used to the exchange of ideas, of conceptualising and expressing oneself on the fly, not just adequately, but well. It’s one thing to craft a wonderful piece of written work; there is time to do that, time to consider the advantage of this word over that. It is quite another to do the same verbally. Like the difference between a slow, considered painting, and something created quickly, in a matter of minutes, but not slapdash, careless, and with beauty in its own right, regardless of being created so fast.

My day has actually been non-stop talking. I met a friend for coffee this morning; we had a great chat, and saw off a ladybird that seemed to have a bit of a thing for her, off her jumper and hair…! Another friend for lunch; we had a great gossip and a catch up. The afternoon was a session on research via the internet. The increasing digitisation of primary sources is fantastic for historians, although there are drawbacks, and we needed to be aware of those – and where to look for different resources. It’s a field that changes a great deal in a short space of time, thanks to technological advances, so although I went through that session myself two years ago, I decided to sit through it again and I’m glad I did. The School Social was next; I had some cracking conversations, caught up with people I’d not spoken to in some months and I’m glad I went.

Tomorrow: The last day of induction week (although not the last induction event of the year; there is one more next week, and the final one is the week after), which sees a presentation on how to get an article published (which I am really looking forward to), a session on the online library search systems (which, again, has changed quite a bit recently so a refresher is needed) and finally, New History Lab.

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PhD induction: M3C Residential School Day 2

It’s quite amazing. I arrived home from the AHRC Midlands3Cities residential school in Birmingham just about 36 hours after I left, but I feel as though I’ve been away for weeks. The last two days have been so intense, intensive both in terms of the amount of information thrown at us, but also the …. changes that the school have created within us. It’s a difficult process to try to describe and I’m not at all sure that other people who attended are also feeling it (I’d be most interested to know if they were). But, I guess I feel a bit like I found myself. This is where I was meant to be. Since getting the news about winning M3C funding a few months ago, its felt slightly unreal, especially since there was so long to wait before it all began, with very little information about what the next three years would be like. Its felt dream-like, out of reach almost, and when PhD induction week started it seemed a bit hard to believe that it was now finally HERE. The last two days, however, have delivered a hefty, hefty dose of reality, validation and messages of success and ‘this is the beginning’ and all kinds of other lovely phrases, and it’s starting to really sink home, the magnitude of all this and what it means.

There’s a lot going round in my head, obviously and it will take time (And a fair few night’s sleep I suspect) to sort it out out better in my mind. I am so very very tired which is certainly not helping matters! I slept well enough last night (woke up at 5.30 am wondering why the window wasn’t where it should be), and this morning started with breakfast rolls and coffee. It was a more conventional day – a series of talks and presentations on a range of topics that we needed to know about. For example: Midlands3Cities run several funds that their students can apply to for things like funding trips to places that they need to go for research. There was a lot of explanation of the funds, what the differences were, how to win them, when to apply and so on. That took up most of the morning, then lunch was provided (a delicious beef lasagne followed by a lovely rhubarb and apple crumble). The afternoon session was about work placements. Midlands3Cities work with partner companies/institutions, and allow their students to work for/with them on a variety of projects or placements. They’re never for very long, six months at most, and our own research is extended by the same time, but it allows us – the students – to gain work experience in relevant fields to their research. So, for me, that could be working with a heritage organisation like the National Civil War Centre, or the National Archives, or even the diocesan archives. It’s not a compulsory thing to do, but it does add value to your qualification and help boost your career. This afternoon however, real companies/organisations were brought in who are setting up projects for the future that they want to try to find doctoral students to work with. We were organised into groups, and the facilitator explained their project and asked us what sort of skills and experience they thought students should have in order to work on the project. There were some really interesting-sounding projects and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on some of those, for potential opportunities in the next few months.

Dr. Nick Barratt (Chair of the M3C DTP Partner Advisory Group) then presented the closing plenary lecture. This was an in-depth, warts and all, reflection of his own, rather zig zag career, where he felt he went wrong, what made him change careers and jobs when he did, how opportunities seemed to come his way, how he was, essentially, very lucky. Or was he…? He himself called that interpretation into question and spent time discussing how what some might see as luck, others might see as the sucess of knowing the right people, and being available and willing to take risks at the right time. One thing he said that really made me think, really struck home was that we have to sell ourselves, be our own agent, because no one’s going to advocate for us. And he had a point. We do have to sell ourselves, not just by being ourselves and striving to excel to the best of our abilities, but by actively promoting ourselves whereever possible, and making the most of possibilities that come our way. There was so much to think about from this weekend. It WILL take time to percolate through my mind, I’m sure.

Tomorrow: back to earth, back to my home institution, Introduction to web-research & the school social.

PhD Induction: M3C Residential School Day 1

Today has been exhilarating and exhausting in turns. I’m currently having a much needed, quiet cup of tea in my hotel room, relaxing before the evening event.

We – one of my interpreters and I – caught the train from Leicester this morning. A very cramped and crowded train but we had fun chatting all the way. Met up with my second interpreter, and another AHRC Midlands3Cities student from Leicester at New Street station; went for coffee, then hightailed it over to the ICC. More coffee, then the welcome, introductions and then, after more coffee, the first of two Vox Coaching sessions. This, the first of two workshops, was led by two actors, who were, I have to say, extremely good. The first workshop walked us through a scenario where a researcher was struggling with his boss, a professor. The two men – Pete and Dominick – played their roles very well, got us, as a group, to ask questions of the two, via an imagined big brother-style diary room chair, and to offer them advice for resolving the issues. Finally, they replayed their scenario, and each time we saw something wrong, we buzzed them, stopped play, and for them to correct the issue. Lots of laughter and hilarity ensued. It was so much fun and a really inventive way to get us involved in thinking about expectations and managing our own supervisory relationships. It worked far better than if we’d been sat down and lectured to.

After a lovely lunch, we were back in with Vox Coaching, same two gentlemen, who walked us through ideas of assertiveness, of being aware of our own body language when meeting people, of just simply saying ‘YES!’ In our heads when passing people. We walked through how we present ourselves when we’re just answering the question ‘what do you do?’, which is – apparently – what royals like the Prince of Wales ask people when they’re working. We discussed different levels of ‘I have a right to speak’ness, from the ‘barely heard, I apologise for even breathing’ level, through to the bombastic ‘I HAVE DECIDED TO SPEAK ABOUT SOMETHING INTERESTING AND ALL YOU PEONS WILL LISTEN‘. No – this was not what was said, at least verbally. This was all done through body language. The actual words the actor used was the same in each example and was something like ‘I have recently been researching something interesting and I’d like to share it with you’. (Great acting. One of them succeeded in doing creepy in three different ways – deliberately so!)

Although the two workshops were very different, they were extremely inventive in getting the material across to us, and I think, if I’m honest, that I shall probably still be absorbing lessons from them for quite some time. This was brilliant, interesting and inventive teaching, and there needs to be more of this – Not just within M3C, or in universities, but everywhere, as part of pedagogical practice, I think.

After that final Vox session, we broke for coffee, then worked on something called the VPP (Virtual Postgradate Platform). This is an M3C website where public information is available about all the M3C researchers. We control what goes up there, but generally, there’ll be something about our thesis, our sphere of research, maybe some info about papers we’ve given, or publications. Admin goes on behind the scenes, related to our research and the work that we need to periodically produce to pass each stage of our studies (we don’t just get a free ride for 2.5 years and then frantically rush to finish!). So lots of info about that and how we manage that. We then closed, had a group photo taken, and we scattered to our hotels.

[Later]

My face is actually aching now. I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much, or laughed so much in ages. Tonight was a sit down three course dinner, but what was brilliant about tonight was the level of conversation. All of us there tonight, I think (I hope) had good conversations, but tonight, in a lull, I looked around and everyone was passionately engaged in discussing ideas with their neighbour – Not just polite ‘yes yes’ chit chat, but active, interesting, fully engaged conversations that paid little respect to things like nationality, language, or disciplinary boundaries. For example: I’m a historian, not a linguist, but tonight I spent a substantial amount of time discussing linguistics of sign language with a German linguistic student, who knows German, English and Spanish, and a dancer studying identity through dance and Caribbean music, talking about her experiences of how languages were used in Senegal, and my sign language interpreter. I wad able to offer not only my experiences as a deaf person, but also my experiences with my Dutch in-laws, and how I’ve used – or not used – communication in both The Netherlands and Germany. It was a cracking conversation, but the German student apart, none of us were trained linguists – what mattered was experience, and sharing ideas regardless of disciplinary boundaries or language.

And while I freely admit to being absolutely shattered now (and really struggling to write this) I also feel energised, and enthused. I have a taste now of that the next three years are going to be like, the conversations I’m going to have, the ideas we’re going to achieve as a group, and there is something amazingly inspiring about that. I can’t wait!

I think no record of the evening can go by without mention of the two University of Birmingham students who presented performance pieces to us, one entitled ‘Never Rehearsed, Never Repeated’, involving squirt guns and lemon juice, and a final piece involving lots, and LOTS of sellotape. Wonderful performances that will most definitely stick in the mind for a long time to come!

Tomorrow: day two of the residential school, then back to Leicester (and earth!) for the rest of induction week.

PhD Induction Week: The Introductory Session

You know, it’s slightly ridiculous. I’ve been studying at the University of Leicester for almost five years now, and I still get that ‘first day of school’ anxious feeling the first morning of a new course. At least, till I get onto campus. That’s what I did this morning; dropped my partner at the station (at Leicester, the station is down the road from the Uni) and then went for coffee. And sat and worked for a couple of hours, making notes, and my anxious feeling disappeared.  I guess I’m more comfortable in my role as student than I thought…

Anyway, this week is chock full of all kinds of events at the University of Leicester – it’s also Fresher’s week, so we’re dodging undergraduates and people giving us flyers for things we don’t want (one advantage to being an older mature student: they tend to assume we’re staff and don’t bother us!). I’m hoping to blog my way through this week, to give a flavour of what a PhD induction week is like – through my eyes – but we’ll see how far I get with that one. It’s a heavy week for me in terms of lipreading, and I may just find its too much work on my eyes (if you want to know what it’s like, turn the sound off on the television and try lipreading/understanding a programme on that. Exactly. and I’ve got to do 12 hours of it tomorrow). So we’ll see.

Today was the lightest day of the week, with the introduction to induction week. I got to say hello to a few of my fellow new PhD students, one of whom will be at the residential school in Birmingham tomorrow, which was nice. That was before a two hour session where a whole lot of information was thrown at us by the Postgraduate Tutor – most of it was the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a session like this. Where to find the student handbook. Where to find this, that the other.  Some of it I’ve heard before – in my MA induction – and some of it, well, okay, a lot of it was new. Every day now, I’m getting a better idea of what the PhD is going to demand of me, a shape of the work that I’m going to have to produce over the next few months. And that’s all good. But I’m also finding out some of the fun stuff. As our Postgrad Tutor explained, this first year is the most free we’re going to be for the rest of our academic lives. Its about reading – a LOT – and engaging in lots of conversations, opening our minds to the possibilities and learning our fields. Put that way, it all sounded really exciting. It was a lovely way to start the week – we’ll have to see if the rest of the week maintains this feeling. I do expect it to at least end that way, with the introductory New History Lab session. This is the history postgraduate community at Leicester and it’s fab, warm, welcoming and they do tea and fantastic cakes! I am firmly in favour of cakes. Cakes are food for the soul, as well as the body, in my book…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

First – tomorrow: A very long day. The train from Leicester to Birmingham first thing, and the M3C residential school all day, with a dinner in the evening. Should be fun!

PhD status: Imminent

It’s about to start, my PhD course. I’m officially registered now, but as of Monday, I will be a probationary PhD student. I have a week of induction to get through, then the project begins. I’m excited and nervous all wrapped up in one; there’s a lot of networking to get through next week and networking is not something I’m very good at. At the moment, at least. Things always improve with practice and I’m going to be getting a lot of practice!

This course is going to be very different to anything that I’ve done before. My two previous degrees were both taught degrees: that is, there were a series of modules with assigned credits, classes that I had to show up for, assignments to complete – to above specific marks – in order to pass. In other words, a taught student, whether BA or MA, is marching to someone else’s drum. The learning is predefined, even the assignments (dissertation apart) are predefined.

A PhD, as a research degree, is completely different. The PhD is about researching, not to tell your teacher how much you know, but to push the boundaries. To provide something new, original. This graphic from Matt Might describes it very well. To put it succinctly: I’m aiming to grow a pimple on the face of human knowledge. But there are no restrictions other than the ones you, yourself, place. There are milestones that you have to hit, certain things to achieve, yes, but otherwise, this time, I’m the drummer. I’m the one leading the way, determining what my project is, what I research, and what – and even when – I submit. It’s difficult for non-academics to understand, I think, the huge difference between the two – and the terrifying emptiness, almost, that seems to herald the next three years. This time two years ago, or last year? I was busy – putting class dates, assignment due dates, into my diary. This time around? Nothing. I have induction dates. I have a date in 2019 when my funding runs out. I have a date in 2020, when I HAVE to submit my thesis by. Beyond that… nothing. The pages of my diary currently gleam as cleanly as they do on January 1st.

Having said that, I’ve been doing some reading over the last few days – of University regulations, mostly – and I’ve gained a much better idea of what is expected of me as a result. I have to pass a probationary review in a year, which involves writing a probationary review report (only 5-10k words) and face a probational review panel. I will have monthly supervisory meetings, and at the end of the second year (and third, if I have not submitted by then), a progress review report (2.5k words) and panel. I am expected to undertake a certain amount of skills and career development training – exactly what, is left to the student. And that doesn’t account for any additional things that I need to do as a Midlands3Cities student. It’s clear that I am the one who has to take responsibility for driving my learning, not just in terms of showing up, not even in terms of organising meetings (which I will have to do) but in terms of leading the meeting, in terms of being the one doing most of the talking, in terms of making sure the project Gets Done.

I can’t wait!

Next week’s induction promises to be busy. I am lucky, at least, in that it’s on familiar ground; I know where to go and I won’t be one of those people peering at a map wondering where the *bleep* XYZ room is. Monday is the initial introductory session with the Postgraduate Tutor. Tuesday I head to Birmingham, to the ICC, for a two-day residential school with M3C that promises to be extremely exhausting and SO MUCH fun! Thursday I’m back at Leicester, for more training and a school social, then Friday for yet more training and New History Lab (expect to hear more about the fantastic Lab over the next few years). The following Wednesday sees the Graduate School Induction, and then the week after, the College of Social Science, Arts and Humanities Induction.

And then the project begins. I’ll have my first formal supervisory meeting, probably with all three of my supervisors, so we’re all on the same page, marching to the same drum, etc. (I’m thinking of bringing cake. 🙂 You can’t go wrong with a bit of cake, can you?). I expect to be told to go away, work on research questions, construct a timeline, begin a lit review, think about what training I need. Then report back in a month with where I am. It’s scary because it’s totally dependent on me to drive it. You have to have self-discipline in spades to do this, and it’s something that I’m going to have to learn to do (I’m not, I freely admit, very good at self-discipline. I am, on the other hand, TOTALLY excellent at procrastination). But I do have some powerful motivators for doing this and I think they’ll see me through. Help me to sit down at my desk and keep bashing at my keyboard even when it’s the absolute last thing I feel like doing.

I’m not sure, at this point, what form the blog will take over the next few months. I want to try to keep writing here; not just to share my thoughts on what I’m reading/discovering, but also to keep a track of my progress. That sort of reflective thinking, understanding where you’ve come from as well as where you’ve got to go, and where you are now, is crucial, I think, in keeping mentally healthy. (Of course, there’s more to keeping mentally healthy than just this but hey, this PhD ain’t about mental health…!) I do know one other thing though.

It’s going to be a hell of a ride. 🙂

Coming?

 

What they don’t tell you about MA dissertations…

MA dissertations are different to BA dissertations. … well, that one might win the ‘obvious statement’ of the century, but I’m quite serious now. Apart from the different demands, the higher level of work, the greater word count, it also takes up more of your time. It doesn’t suck one down quite as much as I imagine a PhD thesis might (I’ll tell you if that’s the case in three years!) but there are side effects to the months of effort that you put in, the final weeks of frantic writing. And these are the ones that you might not find on an official blurb about your Master’s dissertation… strictly tongue in cheek, of course!

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The flip side of a dissertation

*blinks* …. oh hello…. there you are!
Sorry I’ve been gone a while. Been buried, had the big dissertation to do. I just got done with it. Yes, just. An hour ago, to be exact. It’s all printed out, sitting on my desk next to me, and I can’t help but keep stealing glances at it. I wrote THIS? all this? 20,000 words, printed out, 65 pages, takes on a life that it just doesn’t have when its just a word file and there’s only one page on the screen at once. Page 65 of 65 in the corner doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as a stack of nice freshly printed paper with  your words on it. And it’s a big stack. A whole cm high.

Its not actually that much. The PhD thesis will be four times this amount. I find that really hard to imagine at this point. I keep looking at the pile and trying to imagine having written 80,000 words. And certainly anyone who’s ever written a book will be going 20k? and be trying very hard not to smile behind their hands. Not in a condescending way, but they’ll smile nonetheless. And I have no doubt that in three years, maybe slightly more, I’ll be stealing glances at a much higher stack and wondering what that look like, all bound in hardcopy. And so on with each new piece of work. The size isn’t the point. The journey is the point.

Other than the sheer wonder at actually having written this thing (please pause, while I admire my stack again) … I’m not actually sure how i feel about this. A bit sad, perhaps. Very tired, definitely. Not in the sense of OMG-I-could-sleep-for-a-week, but in the sense of just being mentally worn out. And I suppose, a bit scared. Its beginning to hit me, just what a monumental undertaking I’ve signed up to do. I’m trying very hard not to think about that. Its a bit like running a marathon I guess (not that I’ve ever done one of those!). if you think about all those miles in one go and just how far it is, you never get off the couch in the first place, never mind putting on your shoes. But if you think in terms of baby steps, in terms of just putting on the shoes and showing up, they seem more doable. Show up, run 10 steps. then another ten, and another. and before you know it, you’re wrapping those shiny blankets round you and cursing the blisters. So it is with this. Write this paragraph, then the next, just one more today, then another day. and so on.

Other than the …wow… I wrote this?… feeling, how do I think it is? I’m proud of it. I think its a good piece of work. I think it’s better than my undergrad dissertation, if I’m honest. The markers might disagree, but that’s out of my hands. Might see if I can work some of it up in to article(s). One eye on the ol’CV/REF and all that. Definitely worth doing.

A number of newly minted doctors have written about the post-viva come-down, of having obsessed over, achieved and worked so hard towards the goal and suddenly, theres nothing there, and the psychological need to prepare for that gaping absence. I think there’s a bit of that going on. On the one hand, I’m looking forward to having my life back. I’ve missed blogging, I’ve definitely missed having flexibility to do things mid-day like go for a walk. Rationally, I know that working at the intensity I have been doing for the last few weeks is going to lead to burnout very rapidly, but at the same time, there’s a purity in that dedication. Tomorrow, though, I have to pick up the reins of life. I have articles to review, a talk to write (for next week), and then I get close to a two week break before my PhD begins. I’m not sure how much of a break I’ll take though. I’ll take it easy, sure, but I’m excited about the PhD, and honestly, eager to crack on with it.

So, I guess, time to say goodbye to the MA, and say hello to the PhD.

Excuse me… I have a stack I need to admire once more. 🙂