A year-and-a-half after upping sticks from London to York to start a PhD, I’m now halfway (at least theoretically!) through my three-year programme. This moment seems like a good time to take stock, look back over the past 18 months, and see what has changed since I last wrote about my experiences at the 6 month mark. (Spoiler: A LOT has changed.)
Where to begin…
Let’s start with the PhD. Firstly, it’s been so much more than the thesis. SO MUCH MORE. Doors have been opened to me as a PhD student that I could never have dreamed of. I had my first experience of teaching undergraduates at the university this spring term (Jan-April 2014) on a High Medieval Literature module, and whilst there was some Arthurian content (hooray!), there were also texts that I wasn’t hugely familiar with (Orkeyinga Saga, for example). So whilst preparation for classes took a long time, and I was quite terrified before my first lesson (on the Chanson de Roland) it was hugely rewarding. I COULD answer lots of their questions. I realised I actually know some stuff. Which, as other PhD students will agree, is a feeling that doesn’t happen too often. That old chestnut ‘the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know’ certainly applies. And teaching is so exhilarating! It’s fun to be challenged, and to view texts in new, fresh ways through the eyes of your students. I was very lucky and had an absolutely wonderful class of third years who made teaching a pleasure. I’ve just been allocated teaching for the next academic year, and this time it’s first years – bring it on!
There have also been conferences. I’ve been to two or three a year since I started my PhD, and I have concluded that attending conferences is a fantastic way to make friends in your area of study. Conferences are so much more than speakers and panels – lots of my best ‘networking’ (I hate that word) has been done in the evenings, over a relaxed pint of ale, chatting to some of the brightest minds and loveliest people in my field. Plus speaking at conferences yourself is wonderful. Like teaching, it can be terrifying, and exhilarating, and ultimately – if you’re fortunate – rewarding. Receiving good feedback from respected academics on your paper and topic is one of those lovely moments of validation that come every now and then during a PhD. Having colleagues become close friends is another, and for me it’s the ideal way to work – in a network, or community, of supportive like-minds. Conferences are also a good way to stamp your mark on a certain area of scholarship and say ‘This is mine. I am the person to contact on this specific area. Please associate this area of study with me from now on.’ Marking your academic territory, as it were.
My thesis itself is slowly but surely finding its way into being. It isn’t the same now as when I started. And this is completely normal. The scope of my thesis has naturally evolved and refined and focused, but the biggest change (on paper) is that I’m no longer doing an ‘officially’ interdisciplinary PhD in Medieval Studies, but have shifted over to the Department of English and Related Studies, so that my PhD is now technically just in literature. My thesis is still inherently interdisciplinary due to the very nature of its very subject (Arthurian literature owned by women in the fifteenth century), but for me literature – the department, the approach, the people – just makes for a better fit than history. This is where being self-funded came in handy. I was able to move across to the English department with no muss, no fuss. Not everyone has that freedom, and I’m lucky to have been able to follow my instinct in this case, and now am as happy as can be in York’s very welcoming English department.
Progress on a thesis is difficult to gauge, and I’m never quite sure what the honest answer is when people ask how it’s going. (As a side note, I’m not one of those people who resents being asked about their research, so feel free!). My thesis is structured into four chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion), and I’m currently finishing off the second chapter. So I guess I’m sort of on track at the halfway mark. However, having said that, I re-read my first chapter last week and realised it needs to be completely re-written. It’s awful! I can really see the development of my scholarly voice from one chapter to the next. But that in itself is progress, so I suppose it’s a good thing really.
Money. One of the things that kept me awake for the first time ever during the last eighteen months was money. I lay awake wondering how I’d get enough of it to pay for fees, rent, food, and still have enough left to do at least some of the other fun things I want to do. But it turns out there’s always money to be made if you’re enterprising and put yourself out there, and if you’re really lucky (or savvy!), you can combine money-making with academic CV-building.
My professional experience as a web editor has come in super handy. I was keen to start editing websites that spoke more to my personal interests, so when a voluntary position presented itself to work on the International Arthurian Society’s new website, I didn’t hesitate. And it’s been brilliant! I was already a member of the Society, and this has been a great way to get to know the other members, and for them to have an awareness of who I am, too. It has also led to lots of other opportunities in terms of paid web editing work for other interesting academic websites, and I’ve been working as the sort of ‘on call’ web editor for both the English department and Centre for Medieval Studies at the university, as well as working for the library on some of their online stuff. The great thing about this is that I can do it mostly in my own time, from my own laptop, wherever I am – ideal when you’re a student.
The crossing over of my professional and academic interests also inspired me to incorporate a Digital Humanities aspect to my thesis. This killed many birds with one stone – enabling me to develop my web skills; get the most out of my thesis; keep myself interested (very important when you’re studying something for three years!); but it will also hopefully help in terms of employability at the end of it all. It never hurts to have more than one string to your bow!
With the help of the fantastic Tom Smith (Collaborative Software Specialist at the University of York) I set up create a crowdsourcing website to produce an online transcription and translation of the never-before-edited Chanson d’Ogier (the text discussed in my first chapter) from its original manuscript context in BL Royal MS 15 E VI. Medievalists from all over the world can contribute a translation and/or transcription, and it is my hope that eventually we’ll end up with a full online edition and translation, freely accessible to all, so that more people can become aware of (and hopefully study) this fascinating text. Here’s the link to the website:
Please do contribute to the site and share the link widely, because many hands make light work!
The one thing I have had to do is start saying no. I have been so incredibly lucky with the opportunities that have come along in the past year and a half. Besides teaching, web editing, and speaking at conferences, I’ve also been a bibliographer for Encomia: The Bibliographical Bulletin of the International Courtly Literature Society and had book reviews published in peer-reviewed journals. Luckily for me, lovely things like this have been part and parcel of my PhD experience. However, I’ve realised that at this point, halfway through, it’s important for me to focus on the thesis above all else, and difficult as it is, I’ve had to start saying no to some things.
Aside from PhD stuff, my personal life has seen more highs and lows than ever before. Last September my relationship of seven years came to an end. It was not mutual, and I was very sad and felt very lost for a long time afterwards. It affected my PhD. Try as I might, for about a month after it happened I just couldn’t read anything. I mean, I could read, but something happened to the words before they reached my brain, and I just couldn’t process them. This made research difficult. The other effect it had was to compound the huge voyage of self-discovery I was already on, to find out who this person is in her late twenties, suddenly single and with no stable career. Everything had changed, basically, and I had to try to make sense of it all. I won’t say it’s been easy, but a year on and I’m battle-scarred, but with a new-found empathy for other survivors of life’s unexpected twists and turns. Life can be brutal at times, but it can also be conquered – all you need is fortitude, just the right amount of your chosen vice (whiskey for me), country music, and a fantastic support network. One thing I’ve learned is that you need to be kind to yourself. If you can’t work, then don’t force it. Taking time out for your emotional and mental health is more important, always. The research will still be there when you’re ready.
I’ll skip over the occasionally hilarious, frequently cringeworthy, and often downright depressing aspects of dating in your late twenties – that’s another blog post entirely. Instead I’ll skip to the bit where I’ve met someone amazing (another survivor!), and we’re happy together. One effect of the events of last year is that I don’t feel I can state, with any certainty, what the future holds – but I do know that right now, in this moment, I’m happy. All is well (touch wood!), and I’m very surprised by, and grateful for that.
So. There you have it. That’s what being halfway through a PhD looks like – for me, at least. The past 18 months has been such a rollercoaster. There have been highs. There have been lows. There have been moments where I’m really not sure whether I’m coming or going, or who I really am anymore, but I’m sure of one thing: I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’m still so incredibly glad to be on this amazing adventure.