PhD: three months+ down the line

I think one of the things that no one ever really mentions in a PhD is how long it takes to settle down and find your feet. Surprisingly so as well. It’s kind of expected at BA level – especially if you don’t really know your way around your new university or place. It takes time to know where to go for XYZ, even if you know the shop you want any given item, you still have to find it, find your way around. Even more so with classes, and so on. Then there’s the slow understanding of what it is that is expected of you at Uni, how to write essays, how to deliver the original contribution that they’re looking for. Over the course of three years you grow – even as a mature student who knows a bit more about life and themselves (i.e. not experiencing so much the kind of self-discovery process that 18-21 year olds go through at that time) still grows. I remember learning about Gramsci and hegemony and seeing the world and history in a different way, for example. You read, and the process of reading, of absorbing, changes you – for the better. It’s not just about what you’re reading and learning and writing, but HOW you do it – there are certain changes that I think (and I hope) are held in common by all university students, regardless of actual subjects studied, such as the ability and awareness of the importance of questioning what you read. So, yes… these changes are expected at an undergraduate level.

At Master’s level, especially if, like me, you stayed with your undergrad institution, there feels like less of this kind of development. You know your way round (both uni and city). You know the people. You know what it is that you’re doing. It’s shorter, of course. The pass mark may be higher, and more expected of you. The Master’s degree gave me more confidence in what I’m doing and more knowledge, of course, but I don’t feel that it fundamentally changed me in the same way that the BA did. Instead, it felt like it gave my BA an extra polish, if that makes sense. And while I don’t want to dismiss my Master’s degree, or the work that I put into it … having gone from BA to MA to PhD and graduating from my MA during my PhD it feels somewhat like the MA is more of a ‘blip’ in the journey towards the PhD. The BA graduation felt far more monumental, coming as it did in the summer, a month after the course ended, and before I really knew that I would be undertaking the MA. It felt more like drawing a line underneath it all. The MA graduation, as special as it was (more about that in a moment), didn’t feel the same in that sense and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking or feeling that way.

The PhD, however, feels more like the BA in terms of the potential to change me in a more fundamental way. Maybe it’s because it’s longer – three years, like the BA, as opposed to the 1 or 2 of the MA. It’s more than that though. There is constant questioning. Questioning my ideas, my thinking. My writing is being picked apart (and if you are someone considering a PhD and you hate having your writing dissected: I’d urge you to reconsider the PhD plans or learn to love the criticism). My supervisors are questioning the use of certain words, highlighting the way I write. It’s turning me into a better writer so its not an unwelcome process, I don’t begrudge it (in fact, I’ve asked them to continue it because I KNOW it will make me a better writer). I’m reading – and no matter how much I read, it feels like it’s never enough; the “to-read” pile is constantly getting higher and higher. This is good, not bad (although I cheerfully admit I’d feel happier if the “to-read” pile would go down, instead of up). It’s the process of doing exactly what the PhD should do, what it says on the tin: to turn me into an expert in my field. There’s a very strange change going on – I’m growing in confidence, but at the same time I’m not. Growing in confidence in my abilities, in my skills – for example, learning how to deliver presentations, talks and papers. But the constant questioning of my ideas is having the opposite effect, making me stop and think before I deliver an opinion. ‘Am I really SURE about this?’ This uncertainty is making me hesitate before delivering any opinion, anywhere, except the really subjective ones, like ‘I love chocolate’. Oddly, I feel okay with that, mostly. I do have the occasional attacks of imposter syndrome (which is extremely common in academia) but I suspect the reason I feel okay with it is because I know that it’s a) temporary and b) for good reasons. There’s a huge difference between this process and the kind of way that some people behave when they try to make themselves feel better by undermining someone else, and I know that this process will make me a better academic in the long run. This is, most certainly, A Good Thing, rather than the kind of negativity that makes one want to curl up and hide.

We’re frequently exhorted, as PhD students, to write. ‘WRITE!’, the cry goes up. No matter what, just to practice the process of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I’d echo that but I think what is just as important is the process of self-reflection, an awareness of the changes experienced over the three to four years of the PhD. I think one of the many elements that make for a successful PhD student is constant analysis, constant thinking and asking why. To give an example: on Friday, I graduated with my MA degree. It was a lovely ceremony, a lovely day – bright and cold – but throughout I was analysing, thinking and comparing the experience with that of 2.5 years earlier, in July 2014, when I graduated with my BA degree. The MA ceremony felt – to me – altogether more comfortable, more relaxed, but more serious as well. I had the same sign language interpreter for both ceremonies and I discussed this with her at the time. She agreed with me, that it felt both more serious and more relaxed, so it wasn’t purely a reflection of my own emotions on the day, but more to do with the general atmosphere within the graduation hall.

I should say, for those who do not know much about academic graduations in the UK: Graduation ceremonies are different with each university. At the University of Leicester, the ceremonies are held at De Montfort Hall, which is a lovely concert hall dating from 2013. It doesn’t seat many people so graduation ceremonies are smaller than some universities, and as a result, shorter. My BA ceremony in 2014 was just 2 hours long; the MA was just over 1.5 – I know some universities have graduation ceremonies that go on much, much longer. There are also more of them – the university will hold two in a day – in January, graduation lasts for 2 days (mostly for postgraduate students) and in July, for a week or so (mostly for undergraduates). There are some cross-overs, however – we had some undergrads last week, and in 2014, I remember seeing people who are now friends graduate with their MAs and PhDs. I think it is the fact that last week’s ceremony was primarily made up of postgraduates, who had already experienced a graduation (if not specifically the Leicester one) and who were therefore a tad more relaxed about it – but also more serious at the same time. For undergraduates, graduation can be the end of one stage and the beginning of another – often leading to a career, to the beginning of one’s life, a sense of coming of age. There was less a sense of that with a post-grad graduation, I think (although I may change my mind about that when I graduate with my PhD!). I know I enjoyed Friday’s ceremony more, not because the university was doing anything particularly different, but because I was different, more relaxed. I’d learned from the 2014 experience what to do, what not to do. Wear a blouse so it’s possible to attach the hood to the buttons more easily. Wear comfortable boots, rather than heels so you’re not praying ‘don’t trip, don’t trip’, as you walk across the stage to shake the chancellor’s hand. Pick up the cape, hood and cap early, get the photographs done and out of the way early. Don’t wear a ponytail, as it’ll interfere with the cap. That kind of thing. Still, I’m glad I attended graduation – it underlines the Master’s. Done, dusted. Put the certificate on the wall. Order the photographs. Turn my attention back to where it should be… the PhD.

In just over a week (1st February) I have to hand in the mid-year review, which is something I have to do as a Midlands3cities-funded student. It involves writing an extended research proposal for my project, a 5,000 word sample piece of written work, and then I have to defend my progress thus far, a sort of mini-viva (the Viva Voce is the oral defence of the thesis, which I have to pass to gain my PhD, and is done after The Thesis is submitted). This is a good thing; practice in defending work done is good for the ultimate viva that I’ll have to do, but I am nervous about the whole thing. There are three possible outcomes: either I pass (and can continue my studies); I am sort of on probation (i.e., I have to redo the entire thing in June); or I fail, lose my funding and probably get kicked out of university as well. We (M3C-funded students) have been assured that outright failure is very rare, and my supervisor has also tried to reassure me. I’m still nervous though, and I doubt I’m the only one. I’ve already written both the pieces of work that M3C require; I have two 3,000 word pieces of work which I need to amalgamate into one 5,000 piece, which is very doable, although I have had feedback on both which I need to incorporate into this new work, so there is some additional work to do there. I have also written the extended research proposal which was handed in to be marked as part of a doctoral research training module that the University of Leicester offers to all new PhD students. As an M3C student I did not have to complete (or even pass) the assignment attached to the module, which was a similar extended research proposal, but the recommendation was; do it anyway, as the practice and feedback will come in useful for the mid-year review. So I followed the advice. I’m not particularly happy with my work on that, and having discussed it with my supervisor last week, I know where to take it and how to amend it. Hopefully the changes will improve it to a point where I feel happier with it. The mid year review will, in many ways, mark the conclusion of the first four months of my PhD and is the first big hurdle to pass, and I’m sure that that point will bring further self-reflection about the changes that the previous four months have wrought (which I may or may not share here).

So, three months down the line. Still trying to find my feet. Still trying to find a routine. I do feel that I overdid some things in the months before Christmas; I have dialled those things back substantially to allow me to focus more on what I should be doing. I’ve made decisions about the way that I will be working, and some of the short term aims that I need to achieve, which I will focus on once the mid-year review is complete. It is a different way of working to the BA and MA, and it takes time to develop that. The uncertainty of the first few months is, in some ways, a good thing. It’s a process that has to be gone through because it isn’t like when you move to a new city, and you’re struggling to find your way around; that is fairly easily rectified. This is more complex, and you learn from the process – its not something you can learn about from reading, but only from doing. I just wish more books/blogs that discuss PhDs mentioned this. That it’s okay to be uncertain, to wobble, to struggle with finding one’s feet. I do think though that I’ll come out of this unsure period as a much stronger student, more sure and able to forge ahead and make progress very quickly.

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One thought on “PhD: three months+ down the line

  1. Thank Liz. I am exactly where you are. Just completed my 5000 word piece for mid year review. I discovered I am a slow writer! I think it’s important to have down time and relaxation. Maybe I need this more as a VERY mature student.

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