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.

little by little, brick by brick

After Friday’s rather angsty post about feeling unsettled and unsure about my work … I’m pleased to say that I now feel vastly better. I feel more in control, although little may have changed to the average onlooker! Over the weekend, I’ve:

  • Assessed various different notetaking tools, including Evernote, Onenote, Readcube, and Mendeley. I’ve not truly been happy with any of them, or rather, I’ve not been happy with how my current laptop set up is able to handle them (i.e. not very well, very slow – and thats with just a few PDFs loaded). That may change when and if I get my new computer, but I have to make the decision now for the next three years. I also feel that with these tools there’s a certain level of redundancy – I’d be typing bibliographic information into RefWorks, into a word document, and into this – its one layer of typing too many.
  • At the same time, I’ve also revised my understanding of what I think I should be achieving right now. This is partly prompted by an article of Pat Thomson’s over on Patter, the rather timely and well titled – ‘Can you do too much reading’. One very specific paragraph in there really spoke to me and made me realise that at this point, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about taking copious notes on all the secondary literature, that’s pointless, slow and cumbersome. Rather, it’s about reading widely, jotting down the occasional note if it’s really important, but otherwise, its about recording your reactions to the material. Do I agree with them? Do I think they’ve proved their point? Are they talking rubbish, left something out? Have I spotted a gap? What’s the theme? How does this work with my project, my ideas? The specific paragraph from Thomson’s article begins: ‘Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field.’ I feel it’s so critical I’ve copied it onto a post-it note that will eventually find a place on the wall above my desk which is where all the really critical stuff goes (and I’m very selective about what goes up there).

So, put those two together, and a suggestion from a friend on FB, means that instead I’m going all luddite and doing it with good old pen and paper. I’m going to be using a B5 notebook from Black and Red which is split into two columns, so that I can use the double-entry notetaking method (there’s a video here which is rather good on that method), and usefully, has the pages numbered, as well as a space for the date at the top. The time may come, later, for more indepth notetaking and for that I may resort to more technological methods, but we’ll see. I know one person who built an entire notetaking system for her PhD within MS Access, which I’m full of admiration for! But the handwritten books have another advantage: I can do them anywhere, as long as I have the book, a pen, and something to read, which helps with my current, rather on-the-go life.

I’ve also started something I’ve been putting off for a while, writing in my PhD journal. This is an A4 sized book, which feels massive and beautiful and clean (fellow stationery aficionados will understand this) and I’ve not wanted to write in it for fear of spoiling it, but I’ve hoiked myself up by the chinstraps this afternoon and bravely put pen to paper! This book is intended to manage the entire PhD: it has the nuts n bolts of information about the various deadlines I have to meet in the front, so I can check at a glance if I’m on course with something, as well as a research diary and a section of basic information about each and every parish in Herefordshire. I have a feeling this journal may well be worth its weight in gold by the time I finish the PhD, at least to me.

I’ve also sort of cleaned up my desk a little, although I suspect I may need to wait till the Christmas break to have a really good go at it. I did sort out some of the paperwork and coursework I’ve been sticking into a pile; sorted them into groups and filed them away in lever arch files so it all feels a bit better. That, coupled with sorting out my planning system a bit more means I feel much more in control of things ahead of the week to come. Lets hope I maintain it.

Next week I’ve more time to do the things I should be doing (reading and writing) and I hope I can make some serious inroads into the work that I should be doing. If I can do that, I think it will vastly improve my situation, and really contribute to building that foundation I was worrying about on Friday. It’s not much of a foundation yet. Maybe the foundation of the foundation. But it’s getting there, slowly!

building a foundation

Still struggling to find my feet a bit. Not in the sense of knowing what I’m supposed to do – that, I’m very clear on – but in the sense of feeling as though I’m doing everything but what I’m meant to be doing (reading) and just not having time to think very much at all. I just feel like I’m staggering from one deadline to another, one meeting and class to another. And the days are slipping by so fast, its frightening.

I must be doing something right though – my supervisory team have made it clear that they’re happy with what I’m doing so clearly this feeling of not quite being able to get my feet underneath me isn’t perceptible to those around me. I just don’t feel quite grounded. A bit like this:

bambi_on_the_ice

That, of course, is from Bambi (1942), but it is how I feel – as though at any moment I’m going to fall flat on my backside in a spectacular and hugely embarrassing fashion. And this morning, after an incredibly frustrating day yesterday (with just two bright spots in the whole day), I resolved that something has GOT to change.

When I first returned to studying, six years ago, every time I hit a hurdle, I’d vow: ‘work smarter, not harder’. Logically, I knew that each time I found something difficult, while hard work might be the answer, that could not continue exponentially. There are only so many hours available in the day for studying, after all, even if you work full time at it – and studying every waking moment is neither desirable, healthy, or even productive. Hence; work smarter, not harder. Largely, that’s worked. It’s like I’ll periodically hit a cliff, work harder for a bit while I figure out how to get over the cliff, in other words, learn something new. I’d then find a new plateau, maybe work a little harder while I mastered the new skill and got to grips with wielding a new tool with more confidence and flexibility, but soon, I’d be back at my usual level of actual working hours and effort. I wouldn’t be working that many hours more than before I’d hit the cliff, I’d just be working differently. Smarter, not harder.

That’s what I think is happening now: I think I’m hitting another cliff.

In some ways, it’s about due. Again, logically, each time you step up to a new level of course (i.e. from diploma to BA, BA to MA, MA to PhD) you’re learning new skills, new ways of studying, there’s going to be a series of cliffs, right? That’s the learning curve. And since I’ve just started the PhD… well, a cliff is about due. Not that that’s much consolation, when you’re at the bottom of the cliff looking up – although right now, said cliff feels rather intimidating – Beachy Head sized!

And in feeling so very unbalanced, unsettled, I’ve realised at least part of what it is that is making me feel that way – I don’t have a foundation, a routine. I’m rushing from post to pillar, class to class, my study base is at home, where I have my own study, my own space, but I’m hardly there at the moment. And while I’m normally very organised, with a to-do list in my journal (done Bulletjournal style), it’s not helping me to feel in control and organised. My study, too, is a mess – piles of paper everywhere, books scattered around, no sense of organisation. I have no sense of routine – my daily grind has, in the last month, changed completely from what it has been for the last 18 months (7.30, take partner to station, get home at 8am, start work. 6pm stop work to go to station to collect partner. Now, with his change of job, it’s all over the place), and I am very definitely someone who needs a routine. Perhaps its no wonder that I feel so unstabilised. The base of the PhD, the foundation, just doesn’t feel like it’s there at the moment.

This sense of being out of control, on rocky, or slippery ground is illusionary, I’m sure. Although the upheaval around the structure of my days will continue for a few months yet, I can perhaps try to institute some kind of routine outside of the upheaval, which might help. Tidying my desk and sorting out some of the paper piles will definitely help! I have to make some decisions on the administrative methodology of how I’m going to work, and STICK to them (e.g. bibliographic software and annotated/notetaking software vs printed copies and journals for secondary material). I’ve established and kept to a paper filing system which somewhat mirrors my email and computer file structure, thankfully, so that doesn’t need sorting out. I’ve a quiet weekend this weekend. I think some time at my desk, some time tidying up, some time sorting things out will help a great deal. See if I can build a foundation, or something firmer from which to go for the next few weeks. See if I can feel – hopefully – just a tad more stable and settled.

balance

Just over two weeks have flown by since I last blogged, oh-so-confidently, that I thought things were beginning to settle down. Well.. they are. And they aren’t.

See, in all the advisory reading I did about embarking on a PhD, one idea chimed across the board – that the next three (or four) years would absolutely fly by, and that while 3 years sounds like absolutely ages and ages to research anything, in reality, it won’t feel that way. After waking up to find that two weeks have gone in the blink of an eye I very much fear I might wake up next Wednesday to find that the final submission deadline is upon me. Ulp. Continue reading

Teaching & career opportunities

One of the best things for me about being a PhD student (apart from the fun of research) is that you get to try your hand at teaching. ‘Proper’ teaching – that is – taking tutorials and seeing a group learn and develop over the course of a ten week module. I’ve done a little bit of teaching here and there with undergraduates over the last few years, working on the ‘Historical Research Methods’ module, where undergrads received workbooks to work through on the computer, and I (and others) were around for assistance as needed. But that’s it, so far. It was enough to whet my appetite, and to know that I want to do more!

The University of Leicester doesn’t allow first year PhD students to teach undergraduates in tutorials, so sadly I won’t get to do that this year but I’m hoping to get to teach on a module called ‘Barbarism and Civilisation: Medieval and Early Modern Europe‘ next year. We’ll see. But, what I did get to do yesterday, and which was fab, was to attend a workshop on teaching, where we got to talk extensively with other PhD students who are ahead of us and teaching, about their experiences, and their tips, techniques, and tactics.We talked through all kinds of things, I found out exactly what they (we) get when we sign up to teach on a module like that, we’re not just pushed in the direction of undergrads and told “go teach!” (thankfully!). Each tutorial has an assigned, core reading, specific objectives, linked essay titles and the module as a whole has overall aims, which we need to bear in mind when devising our lesson plans. It’s very much up to us how we get our students there. It’s clear that there’s a huge learning curve for us the first year we do it, but as we work, we can experiment with different teaching styles (I really liked the sound of the mad professor style one person the fabulous Jennie Brosnan described – I wish I’d had her as a teacher five years ago!) and we can experiment with different teaching activities, different room set ups. It’s very clear that teaching is, to a certain extent, an art that is learned through experience, and for that reason, this workshop is so important – because it wasn’t just a workshop where the learners listened to the more experienced and went away to try to put it into practice.

The second part of the workshop saw us paired up with one of these advanced students, who will mentor us through the next batch of teaching we do. For me, this will be the online moderation I’m doing between now and Christmas with the ‘Making History‘ module, which is a really fun module – I did it myself five years ago when I started my BA. As with the ‘Historical Research Methods’, it’s going to be very interesting to see the same module from the teaching side, rather than the student side.  There’s no requirement in this work to do anything like tutorials or to build lesson plans, but there will be the requirement to gently encourage, to motivate, to try to include people as much as possible – all of which should stand me in good stead when I go on to do the tutorial-type teaching. I can’t wait – and I’m so grateful to have my mentor onboard as well. I’ll be able to bounce thoughts off them as to how I’m doing, and hopefully they, and the process, will help me to grow into the kind of teacher I want to be.

Yesterday was self-reflective in another way; I got to go through a training analysis form with my supervisor. Here, we used the Researcher Development Framework to identify where I need additional training, and ended up with a training plan for the next year. We discussed a number of really exciting possibilities – and I really hope at least one of them actually happens, because it would give tremendous opportunities for my career, would help to raise possibilities for a career outside academia and would look fantastic on my CV. My supervisor raised the point that a huge number of newly minted doctors go on to careers outside academia, and I know from my reading elsewhere that even if ECRs (early career researchers) want to remain within academia, to work in universities as researchers and lecturers, there simply aren’t the positions available for them to do so. Entry level lecturer’s positions are like gold dust…. and the competition to win one is so intense. I thought the AHRC Midlands3Cities competition was intense, but this will be far worse. I know at least two people who are really struggling to get work after graduating. But having said that, I also met one person yesterday who got a permanent job as a lecturer in a university just a year after passing their viva. Much of it seems to be about being in the right place at the right time, with the right qualities, but with odds like these, it’d be daft not to consider how to make the most of opportunities for a career elsewhere. But we’ll see. I’ve at least three years to worry about that!

 

PhD Induction: the absolute last one… ever

… I hope!

Yesterday we had the final inductions, the College of Social Science, Arts and Humanities (CSSAH) induction, and the AHRC Midlands3Cities students were pulled out in the middle of that to have our own induction. By my count, that made induction number five, not counting mini ones like induction to the library, etc. Fortunately the people who make up the welcoming team seem aware of the fact that we’ve been more than thoroughly inducted and welcomed, and even made a joke of it yesterday. One brave soul, who has a foot in two different departments, admitted to enduring 7 inductions!

The CSSAH session was useful – they handed round a sheet that asked us to think about different positions with regard to managing the supervisory relationship between supervisor and researcher, and then to discuss with our nearest neighbour in twos. One useful thing that came out of that discussion was to consider numbering our drafts in the same way that software programme designers number theirs: for major changes, number them by 1, 2, 3 etc., for minor changes, number them by 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, etc [the amusing part was when we both turned to each other and said at the same time, ‘write that down’!]. I also thought about making meta notes: making a note of where things are, a sort of overview document of not only WHAT kind of documentation and files I have, but how they are stored, where, the sub-files, etc. Those who have never studied at this level may be thinking I’m ever so slightly nuts, but yes: That much paperwork DOES get generated and its important to keep ontop of it all, keep it sorted out.

We then went onto the M3C session, where we met the Leicester site directors, three students who have preceeded us in the programme and who gave us tips, and we talked through some of the requirements that M3C have of us. What was most useful for me was meeting the person who is responsible for approving my communication support expenditure; putting a face to a name is always good. While we’ll sit down for a more in-depth chat at the end of October, it was good to do some preliminary chatting and agreement on practices to get me through the next few weeks.

The inductions weren’t the only event we had yesterday. Class 2 of the Research Design and Practice module took place in the morning, with lots of heavy discussion on formulating research questions. The group work made me realise that I had taken slightly for granted that there would be one particular kind of primary source evidence in existence, and that I didn’t really know what to find in answer to the question that I was posing for part of my research. This is something that needs to be addressed, fairly quickly I think, and possibly brought up with my supervisors for discussion in November. Having said that, I’m not worried about this. Even if it turns out that the primary source evidence that I had assumed did exist, doesn’t, then it’s not an insurmountable problem: the absence of evidence/material is something every researcher has to learn how to deal with/handle sooner or later. It’s not the absolute disaster that it may otherwise appear on first sight – and in some respects, it’s something I’ve already had to deal with. My first ever article (written from the research I did for my undergraduate dissertation), on the battle at Cursneh Hill, grew partially out of a lacunae in the primary source evidence, as it forced me to look elsewhere to understand not only the gaps in the evidence, but also the impact of the event that I was seeing in evidence much, much later.

The end of induction certainly does not mean that the uni is now shooing us out into the world to toddle off and research alone like good little doctoral students. The Research Design and Practice class is running till the end of term (before Christmas), and I think there may be a subsequent module to run after Christmas to the Easter break; I have the beginning of a two-part course on history teaching and training starting tomorrow and a brief meeting with my primary supervisor to discuss training needs; and an event at Nottingham Uni next Tuesday which may give me the opportunity to try something I’ve long wanted to do. In between those, I’ve lots to research, as I said before, I have a historiographical review essay on C17th Herefordshire to write and an abstract for a conference. The abstract is coming together in my mind, and I’ve made a few brief notes on that, so I know how I’m going to approach it. I’ve a huge stack of articles that I’ve printed out to read for the historiographical review, so there’s lots to do! In some respects, Induction really doesn’t represent what a PhD is like for a student, in that there’s far more socialising, networking and talking than normally happens (I think, usually, that the life of a PhD student can be quite isolating). Which is why New History Lab is so important. Their next meeting is on Friday, and I’m baking…. I’ve promised to bring along a batch of the infamous cookies from my supervision, so Thursday evening I’ll be batch-baking those. I just hope I don’t end up with a soggy bottom or a Mary Berry glare of doom!!

PhD induction: Graduate School Induction

The last, but one, of the PhD induction events was today. At this point, it’s perhaps starting to drag a little, as one of my new friends said to me this afternoon. And there’s one more to go to! But for all that it was fun and I did get some information from it, so it wasn’t a total bust.

But I’m getting in advance of myself. I headed into uni early, after dropping off my partner at the station – parking at the Uni of Leicester is a nightmare at the moment (thanks to building works in the nearest car park) and getting there early to find parking is a must. While eating breakfast there I was thinking about the trip to the University of Nottingham campus yesterday and how you experience space without a map, and perceptions of space around us, how we move through it, experience it. Does space feel larger when you walk it as opposed to driving it, and when you only see part of the space? Do we overdefine spaces by boundaries in modern life, compared to our early modern or medieval predecessors who lived, largely, without maps? Is the way that we perceive and imagine space different to those early modern predecessors? I cannot help but think that we must do, because so much of our lives today are shaped by having a perceptual, overhead and map-like vision of the spaces that we move through. Who here hasn’t googled their house, understood a place that they were about to visit through google maps? Is it a common ability, now, to be able to remember what we see via digital maps, to relate where we are on the ground to an imagined mental map of the space around us? Even in a pre-digital age, I remember pouring over maps, learning to mapread, to understand the spaceand the world we live in, in relation to other spaces that we cannot yet necessarily experience because we haven’t been there. We live in a connected world – quite literally. We understand how Leicester is connected to Nottingham, the spaces that we have to move through to go from A to B. In today’s world, we can – through maps, through google, visualise the next bit of space that we can’t necessarily see, without having actually been there. In the medieval period, when people undertook pilgrimmages, maps could simply be a route, a series of places that one had to go through to go from A to B. So if I was in a small village outside Ludlow, going to pilgrimmage at Canterbury, to the Shrine of Thomas Becket, then my route map might be – small village-Ludlow-Hereford-Cheltenham-Oxford-London-Canterbury. But that’s not a direct route, not the shortest one, just the simplest one, in that there would be something like a road, a route, with signposts and people to direct you on your way. There was no need to percieve, to understand spaces in the same way that we do now. I think we’ve lost, almost, a sense of adventure, in our digital, mapped world. But then, medieval and early modern people would have totally understood and known, in a very deep and full way, their locality, their parish, the areas around them. Modern people would struggle to do this, I think. I’m a historian and I have no idea where, for example, on a very simple level, the parish boundaries are for my home. But 500 years ago people did need to know – the knowledge was imposed on them, they would ‘beat the bounds’, walk around the edge of their parishes, so that they knew, to the last inch, where their parish ended and someone else’s began. They knew where the boggy bits were in winter, where the best wild strawberries grew, where the worst wild apples were that were really only good for pigs. They understood where the safest crossing place was for a river. In short, their perception of the world, the knowledge that they considered important to know abour their locality, their imagined space, is totally different to ours. Does this mean that their world was more defined than ours? Or just defined differently? Interesting questions, all, and totally outside of my sphere of research. (and one of my former lecturers, if he was ever to read this, would probably slap his hand against his forehead and start muttering about why I didn’t think all about this during the MA….!)

After breakfast – both physical food and thinking – this morning was spent in the library. I had intended to start the bibliographic search for the positioning essay that I have to do, and I did start that, after sending rather a lot of emails (trying to sort out too much at the moment I think). In history lit reviews – at least, the ones focused on British or Irish history – one of the best places to start is BBIH, the Bibliography of British and Irish History, which is a massive database of all publications on British or Irish history, regardless of whether it’s a book or an article. Its got a powerful search tool, and to begin with I just typed in ‘Herefordshire’ and the beginning and end dates of my search period. The results were interesting and have suggested some books and articles that I need to follow up on. But what was really startling was the first result – my own name! It’s very disconcerting, seeing your name and work pop up like that when you’re not expecting it – it quite threw me for a moment. And then I did the inevitable screen grab and sent it to my mum. (Doesn’t everyone do that?)

After noting down a few books, chasing a publisher, and suggesting a book to the library for the ‘more books!’ campaign, it was time to grab a quick lunch and then head off to the Graduate School Induction. This started with a brief introductory talk from the Graduate Dean, then was followed by another brief talk on managing the student-supervisor relationship. After that we broke into groups and discussed our three biggest concerns/worries, that we had to write onto post-it notes. I got to meet some more new people, including one very nice physics student that I had a lovely chat with afterwards. My three biggest concerns were:

  1. the question of whether I should bother my supervisor with something minor (we get told so much about ‘look in the handbook! the answer’s in the handbook!’ and tales of students asking where they can find things that they’ve been told so many times before in class. All that does have an impact and I’m one of these people that prefers to be self-reliant rather than bother someone else. If anything I probably carry that too far in the wrong direction and struggle on alone when I shouldn’t.
  2. Organisation. Not of admin, or my time, but of my resources, making sure that I’ve checked every single place that I should be checking for something, checked every single available possible resource. I shamelessly borrowed this from something a friend said, they were worried about organisation in a slightly different way but in discussing it in the break, I realised that they were tapping into something that had been nagging away in the back of my brain (thank you to the friend – yes, you know who you are!).
  3. Not being good enough. I struggle with imposter syndrome and, yes, I worry that one day, I won’t be good enough. I’ve invested so much into this, emotionally, that I think if that day ever came, it might just break me. I’m really not sure how I would handle that and I think it’s something I do need to consider, not because I’m anticipating being not good enough any time soon,but because, inevitably, at some point, I will stop. Even if I continue to learn, continue to write, one day my brain will stop or just be unable to the kind of mental processing that I need it to do and I may have to live with the consequences of that.

Boy. That last one was dark! I didn’t think about it that way when I was writing it on the post-it note, but yes, that last one is definitely a big worry and probably one that many people share as well. No answers to that one but the rest of the induction was filled with advice – advice for mental health, wellbeing, information on the student’s union, various training courses that are available to us. So much to consider, to think about. It’s almost overwhelming.

The next – and absolute last (I think) – PhD induction session is on Monday, which is the College of Social Science, Arts and Humanities induction. It should be interesting, and comes straight after a class on Research Design and Practice, so another very long day. Tomorrow is lunch with a friend, fitted around more historiographical lit review research, from home this time. I did my MA dissertation at the same time as this friend did theirs, so the lunch tomorrow is in the nature of a ‘hooray, we made it!’ celebration lunch! Should be fun and I’m really looking forward to a good catch up. Not going to blog tomorow – well, not unless I have any major breakthroughs in the lit review!