FINALLY starting to settle down… I think…

The last month has been an absolute whirlwind. It seems difficult to comprehend that just a month ago, I was sorting out PhD registration, email, and lazily doing housework.  Induction week was 4 weeks ago on Monday. It seems like a lifetime ago, it really does. And it was beginning to feel like things would never ever settle down into any kind of routine, that I would be doomed to rush from pillar to post, frantically trying to keep up with my email and organise things.

Inevitably, however, they have settled down, a bit. And I was reminded (thanks to Facebook’s nifty ‘On this day’ feature) that five years ago I felt much the same, only then, I was trying to settle into a new house, a new city, as well as a new degree programme. Then, I was trying to get my study sorted out, shelves up, boxes unpacked. We moved again between the BA and the MA – at least this degree course didn’t involve unpacking in Induction week, as it did with the other two!

So in that sense, this time around is a little easier. A little (okay, a lot) more difficult too. More to learn. More intense language. I’m still not entirely sure I know what ‘ontology’ means (not helped by the vaguish dictionary definitions that seem to use the word in a different way to my tutors. Go look it up – go on, I’ll wait), and one of my supervisors drove me to use a dictionary today to look up a word he used. This is a good thing; it’s pushing me to learn, it’s another level I have to step up to.

I spent yesterday in the library; doing notes for that historiographical essay that I have to do for 1st November. Noticing a few patterns, one fairly major one that I’m sure will get a nice ranty paragraph in the essay (and then promptly get taken out again. Ranty paragraphs have no place in academic literature. Unless they make a really excellent, finely focus point. Then … maybe they do.) The essay question I was set comes in two parts and while I can answer the first part okay, the second is a bit more problematic. I may have to give more thought to that one. I do think, however, that spending the day in the library was responsible for making me feel a bit more settled. Feels more normal, more like the student life I’m used to… sort of. I used to find it difficult to work in the library – I’d go in, scan what I needed, or grab the books that I needed, then go home again and work from there in peace and quiet – I seem to struggle to actually WORK in the library. I’m not so sure that practice is working for me any more. The temptation to do anything BUT work is always present and I think I do better with a mix of home and working elsewhere. And yesterday I was able to put my head down and work. I think at least some of the reason for that is that I’m not at a computer (usually) in the library, so there’s a remove from email and facebook and all that online ‘urgent’ stuff which is distracting me a lot at the moment. Yes, it still comes through to my smartphone, but it’s not like at the computer when things bleep or flash or whatever to tell me that there’s this super duper important message on SHOE REDUCTIONS!!! (or whatever) that just pinged into my inbox (!). So I’ve decided to spend at least two days a week working on campus for a while. We’ll see how that goes. Once I start gathering primary sources from the archives that may change.

I attended two little sessions this week as well. Both just 30 minutes long, they were introductions to… sessions. The first was an introduction to reference management – i.e. Endnote, Refworks, Zotero, Mendeley… etc. For the uninitated, one of the things you have to do in academic writing is reference – where that fab quote comes from, where your stats originated. At PhD level, the lit review is a key component – which means reading around your topic widely, so that you become an expert in your field. The average PhD thesis’s bibliography is pages and pages long of references to books and articles that they read or used during their period of study, and management of these references is crucial. What if someone gives you an article in year three, just before you submit, and you’re not sure if you’ve read it before? If you’ve looked at it and discarded it as being not relevant, then it won’t be in the bibliography – and you may end up putting yourself in the position of repeating work. But you can save yourself an awful lot of work by keeping good referencing records, including the decision you made about a text, and why you made it. And of course these software apps do other things too, jolly useful things they are. Or can be, at least. (It’s software, people. That means its going to go wrong. And be teeth-gnashingly frustrating. That’s inevitable.)

The second half hour was on research data management. I don’t think thirty minutes was enough – or at least, it was enough to give us exactly what it said on the tin – an introduction. But it was definitely useful. It got me thinking about all sorts of things, and was a continuation, if you like, of the thoughts I had about meta-notes. Data Management Planning (DMP) is very definetly A Thing, pretty much a compulsory plan that has to be constructed as part of any grant application, and one that I had better get used to doing. The DMP for each project will be very different; it’s very unlikely that I will ever have to consider the physical storage of biological samples, for example, but a STEM project might. Increasingly funding bodies want their researchers to keep their research materials so that if someone else wants to come along and repeat their research, then they can do so, with the exact same materials. There’s good reasons for that; it saves money on recollecting data (and can you imagine how annoyed people would be if you went and asked them ‘sorry, I’m repeating this experiment, can I open your veins again?’… yeah, right!) and it makes it more likely that a direct comparison can be made if it does get repeated. From a historical perspective, it’s particularly exciting; it reduces the chances that a primary source sort of moulders in a damp drawer of a filing cabinet in unsecure conditions that ultimately ends up destroying it (this is part of the reason that archives were established, after all). But just because I’m not likely to hold much in the way of actual primary source material, doesn’t mean I get to ignore the DMP; oh no. It’s not that simple! DMP is about more than that – it considers things like backup, for example. The tutor in the session told us of the guy who left his backpack in the pub one night, and put out frantic posters around university, pleading for the return of the laptop inside it that held five years of research data… Ouch! An urban legend, perhaps. But I know I never want to be that person, or even the person tossing my laptop out the window cos it’s just bricked and I’ve got no backup. Fortunately I have a partner who is an IT guy and he won’t let me do anything quite so silly as THAT. But still, I do think it is good to write these things down into a plan and have it all there in black and white.

One other thing I’m thinking about doing. I’ve watched some vlogs by a number of different people, including the inspirational Ellie Mackin, and I’m seriously considering having a shot at doing my own. We’ll see. I think vlogs are important – people do sometimes respond better to audio-visual material better than written material – and as historians, at least part of our remit is outreach. That can be done the traditional way (via talks, papers, etc.) but social media and video-logging is increasingly becoming a part of that. While I’ve written before about the advisability of using social media if you want to become an academic, I think its a decision that every person has to make for themselves – some will never want to do it, and for others, it feels as natural as breathing. For me, it clearly is a strength, but whether that strength will transition into the audio-visual realm, I’m not so sure. What do people think? Feel free to leave responses below.

Self-preservation and blogging

Anyone who reads academic blogs frequently enough will know that there can be issues with academic blogging. From employers not wanting to employ people with any kind of online presence linked to their names (a tad unrealistic these days I think), through to individuals posting things that their employers take as ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’, it might seem as though academic blogging is something best avoided. And yet, it can still be a powerful tool – not just for the writer in practising writing and disseminating information, but also in terms of generating conversations and making connections with people also studying in their fields. This is the internet as its best, as an enabler, what people envisioned and hoped for when they developed this strange new world. It is perhaps no wonder that many PhD students are encouraged to blog. Continue reading