Happy New Year to one and all! I hope that 2013 is treating you all well so far, and if not, that you manage to whip it into submission soon.
As it’s a new year I’ve decided to do something different. Despite appearances I haven’t time-travelled ahead by four years – I’m not writing this post from the doctoral future. Rather, I’ve invited fellow Arthurian scholar Mary Michele Poellinger to write a post from the other end of the PhD adventure – just as she’s completing her thesis at the University of Leeds. Read on to see what she has to say about persistent self-doubt, the initial meeting with a supervisor and publishing for the first time.
Why did I decide to do this?
What if I can’t do the work?
What if I don’t know what I want to write my thesis on?
What am I doing here? Do I really belong?
Was this the wrong choice?
As they begin their journey, every prospective PhD student asks themselves some or all of these questions – at their first supervisory meeting, during their practice viva, at conferences and, yes, even in their write-up year. The doubts and interrogations are slow to subside, and I am always keen to assure new postgrads that this is not only natural, but also somewhat helpful. In questioning your abilities, you continue to challenge yourself. You must, of course, eventually submit to the support of friends and colleagues and allow self-belief to carry you forward, but asking yourself these probing questions is not a sign that you are not cut out to be an academic. On the contrary, it proves that you are an astute critical thinker, and will prove helpful in the years ahead.
When Bex told me the news of her upcoming PhD venture, one of the first questions she asked was how to prepare for that first supervisory meeting, to which I responded that there really wasn’t anything that she needed to do. Any prospective students approaching that meeting can rest assured that all they need to bring is their thoughts (unless indicated otherwise by your supervisor). I had no real idea what I wanted my thesis to be about when I went to my first meeting, apart from something in the field of Arthurian literature. I remember sitting down nervously at my supervisor’s table, too frightened to speak out of turn, fearful that she was measuring my intelligence as she watched and questioned me. In reality, she was guiding me through the unknown territory of my first faltering steps as a postgraduate research student. She sent me off to explore numerous books and articles, all in the hope that I would eventually find the spark that would lead me down the path of my thesis – and I did. Don’t be surprised, however, if this takes awhile; it took six months before I began to get a clear idea of what I wanted to write about; even after my upgrade, the shape of my thesis continued to change. It is only now, as I edit my writing into something resembling presentable chapters, that my manifesto has begun to solidify.
Even as I do this, the outside world of academia attempts to thwart my onward procession. There is conferencing, teaching and paper grading to distract you, all of which may seem incredibly daunting at first. Large and widely respected conferences such as the Leeds Medieval Congress, hosted by my own university, may seem intimidating, but are a great way to start your conferencing career; in addition to providing ample opportunities to present, they offer a diverse selection of panels, helpful for both networking and learning. If your university gives teaching to postgraduate students, I highly encourage you to accept. I could write an entire blog on this subject, but I will limit my comments and simply say that, regardless of your career path after your PhD (and the inevitable time that tutoring will take out of your thesis research), the experience will set new challenges for yourself and your ideas.
In addition, at some time in the postgraduate student’s career – if they haven’t already – they will have to write an article. I am aware that my own situation is slightly privileged by a mix of luck and fate; the editor of a book on Robert Thornton’s manuscripts happened to attend one of my conference papers on the very same subject, and I was asked to submit an article to the volume, thus sidestepping the long gruelling process of continuously sending a piece of work to scholarly journals in hope of being published. Regardless, as Bex asked me to mention it, I will share any information from my experience that I think may be useful. Perhaps some of your articles will spring out of an avenue you have only partially explored, but many of you will be writing up research which you have already done (and perhaps written) for your thesis, and you must use your previous work without copying what you’ve already done. Although certainly more challenging than I originally thought this would be, you must make your knowledge work for you. Having already done the research (and perhaps write-up), the key is to take advantage of your previously formulated ideas when organising the layout of your article – there are fewer surprising turns. It is also important to remember who your audience is, and to aim the tone of your article towards them; keep in mind that it won’t be surrounded by the thorough context of the rest of your thesis work. Finally, keep track of the main focus of your article; always make sure that your reader can still see the desired goal. It is easy to get sidetracked when you are accustomed to the large spaces of thesis writing, and I constantly struggled to control the scale of my article.
It is fitting that I am finally writing this blog on a plane, just days before the New Year, even though Bex asked me in November and reminded me twice of her preferred mid-December submission date. Being a PhD student means trying to maintain the constant juggle of demands – like editing an article over the holidays so you can submit it at the end of the month and finish the third draft of chapter three in mid-January – and not always successfully. Doing a PhD means a life of stress, failures, victories, confusion and illumination, but ultimately doing the work is as rewarding as the end product. You have answered the question ‘Can I do this?’ with ‘Yes, I can’.
– Mary Michele Poellinger
Mary is writing her thesis on violence and genre in Middle English Arthurian literature at the University of Leeds. She’s also interested in religious lyrics, manuscript studies, Celtic literatures, Edward III, the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Wars of the Roses and masculine identities in medieval literature. Mary’s article on religious violence in the alliterative ‘Morte Arthure’ is being published by York Medieval Press this year in Studies on Robert Thornton and the Thornton Manuscripts, edited by Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston. You can follow Mary on Twitter: @MaryBQ