Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started My PhD (No. 1 in a possible series?)

Doing a doctorate was something I kind of frivolously ambled into. I made my application for a scholarship before I had even finished my undergraduate degree, when I was still at the tender age of twenty. I didn’t really know what it actually meant, or how it was different from writing an undergraduate thesis. I happily sent off the forms, and then forgot about it as the final term stress of my BA took over. When I miraculously actually got a reply in the affirmative from the ESRC, I was actually a bit stuck with what actually happens nest. I tried to do a bit of half-hearted research, mostly googling, on what to expect from doctorate study, consisting of search terms like “HELP WHAT’S A PHD AND HOW DO I NOT FAIL?” About two years later I am still not really sure what it is all about, or how not to fail, but there are a few things I know now, that I wish I’d known then.

Firstly, archives can be unreliable! We may think of them as vast pools of instantly accessible knowledge, but it doesn’t always work like this. Many need weeks in notice to access particular sources. Others need letters from a supervisor to let you tap into their sweet historical goodness. These barriers can be overcome. Some barriers, however, cannot. The archives I use for the Manchester side of my thesis suddenly shut in the first year of my study. I say suddenly; in reality it had been planned for months but I hadn’t checked to know this. If I had been organised enough, I could have requested the items that were going into the darkest recesses of ‘deepstore’. Many of the records of this archive are still accessible in small institutions dotted around the city, but some of the more obscure documents are gone foreeeeeever (or at least 2013 – when I should have finished anyway).

Secondly, we may be living in the internet-age, but not everything has been catalogued. I have extensively searched computer databases of small local libraries and thought I had found every (published) piece of material on one aspect of my PhD. I then looked through countless footnotes of the secondary literature relating to this aspect, to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I thought I hadn’t. Then one day I was browsing a shelf in the library, and I found an item that wasn’t in the database, nor in any of the secondary literature – an item that undoubtedly will help build and change my thesis argument a great deal. Just because it’s not catalogued, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Finally, a PhD can be all about movement. In one sense, physical; writing my thesis is a multi-locational affair. Originally I envisioned putting in the 9-5 hours in one or two archives, and then writing up in my bedroom. In reality, my project changed to a transatlantic study – and I have now visited at least nine different repositories that I can think of. Getting between all of these places means that I don’t just live alone, but I spend a lot of time travelling on my own too. For this reason it is also about movement in a second sense, emotional; it’s not just the ideas of my thesis that constantly change, but the type of person I am as well – in some ways it has yanked me into independence and seriousness. Well, at least sometimes.

What do YOU wish you’d known then than you know now?