The starter kit

Originally posted 6th Jan 2014

Writing targets, publications and presenting my research were all the centre of the discussion at my last Supervisory meeting of the year. Pretty daunting – especially since they’re all scheduled for the first quarter of 2014. So here are a few suggestions on how to get through the first major milestones of your PhD.

1. No matter what, keep writing. 
Seriously. This has been one of the hardest things. The last position you want to be in is with several deadlines looming round the corner and zilch on paper. I’d been in this mindset where everything I was writing pretty much had to be in the higher echelons of the academic standard. Let go of this presumption immediately. Even if it’s guff – which most of it will be at first – it’s something to build on.

2. Recycle.
It’s a 3-in-1 bargain for me. My writing targets will include parts of the introduction (historiography, lit review and methodology) and also for my first chapter. All of this is great stuff to include in my first presentation and my first attempt at getting published. For the humanities at least, you are expected to introduce your PhD to the world – or the circle of academics that may be interested enough to come along to the seminar series. So with one lot of work, I can get a heap of goodies out of it. Hurrah.

Which brings me onto another point…

3. Be part of the postgrad community.

Most universities have a postgraduate research seminar series. Attend them. They’re an invaluable education tool, and will tell you everything you need to know about good and bad presentation skills. The more diverse the better, as you’re not going in with that lovely and warm security blanket of previously acquired knowledge. Though if there is a series specifically for your discipline (say medical history for example), latch on. The more the merrier. I have three series that I attend, myself. Yes they are great for meeting other research students, but lets be honest, sometimes that’s hard to do, especially when you’re new to this whole networking-and-putting-yourself-out-there malarky. But it is worth it. Just keep at it.

4. Share, and don’t take it personally.
Over the nest three years, we’re going to develop a counter argument to any possible criticism our VIVA could throw at us. At least, we will if we share our work. Doesn’t matter if it’s your baby and you want to keep it all to yourself, you have to get critical feedback to make it better. I’m in a pretty lucky position here. I trust my supervisors enough that I know I won’t want to crawl into bed and die after submitting something, and I’m in a shared office space with two other students (one a fellow first year, the other just finishing) who I feel quite able to share ideas and work with. These guys are also of a completely different discipline, so it’s really useful to get an ‘outsider’ perspective on your writing. That way they can tell you if your falling out of ‘specialist language’ and into jargon. On that note, you could also give samples to families and friends to read.

5. Patience, when it comes to research, is not a virtue.
I know a lot of people will disagree with me when it comes to this. But by this, I’m referring to getting yourself out there and doing the research. Of course, with the hard sciences again this might be different, but with record-based research, simply saying ‘I need to visit archive x, y and z’ is completely different from actuallydoing it. Today, I had to stop myself from making an appointment a month away, and a booked it for next week instead. Realistically, archival research takes some fine tuning. It’s all too easy to get distracted by some shiny (or particularly worn and interesting looking) document, the wonderfully convenient titles of collections are often misleading, the very information you look for just might not exists or be in such a lack that some serious supplementing is required. All in all, leave yourself plenty of time to make full use of the archives and collections you need.
To give you an example, for my masters dissertation I only used about a third of all the notes I made from research trips, yet only a teeny, tiny reason for this was because of word-count constraints. It was because I took too long looking at the wrong material, and left myself with no time to get the supporting documents that would have made my paper. But live and learn.
Don’t get me wrong however. Getting access to archives and certain collections isn’t always as simple as ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ (though never forget them – ever.). Restoration and repairs, the transfer of  collections, the needs of other researchers, or the massive backlog of online requests that archivists have to deal with are all circumstances which pop-up pretty frequently. For this, yes you have to be patient. Unfortunately for us, the world doesn’t stop for our theses.
One final thing to do with archival based research – talk to the archivist. At the point of a PhD, you know this already. But it’s like a disclaimer, it needs to be said. These people are terrifyingly brilliant. The know where the little hidden gems are, and come armed with an arsenal of alternative sources incase everything goes to hell. And I have yet to meet one who isn’t genuinely helpful to the nth degree. They are a grossly under-used tool.

There you are, 5 simple tips to get the ball rolling for your (and my) PhD. You may already know all of it, and are quite frankly sick of being told the same ‘great ideas’ over and over again. But if they’re so important, we shouldn’t be dismissing them so easily. Hopefully over the next three months I’ll have kept to my own advice and this blog with be showered with the evidence of it’s efficacy. If not, it’s all on me.

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