Wednesday 5 November 2014

Once more unto the breach: The dawn of the PhD

So.. Welcome to my first blog, everyone! I’m Katie, and I have just started my first year here at Leicester. As a previous inhabitant of what is increasingly being referred to as The Real World, it is rather strange to be able to finally say, “I am a PhD student”. Since graduating with my MA in January I have been dwelling in a limbo somewhere between being a University member of staff, a member of staff elsewhere, a volunteer, a researcher, a future student, a member of the NHL Committee and all of the above. On my drive home to a small village near the Warwickshire border I have often been able to see the three tallest buildings on campus, wondering if 29th September would ever arrive.
It did indeed arrive and a month has flown past since. The last few weeks have generally consisted of socialising, reading, listening, a vague sense of panic and a series of induction and training events relating to the fundamental basics of study at postgraduate research level (see my fellow first-year Matt’s recent Lab blog instalment for further information!). Now, as an official PhD student in the Centre for English Local History, I have definitely been wondering where the carpet went.  I’m pleased to report, though, that the majority of my short-term PhD-related woes (the long-term woes can sit tight for the moment) have been – happily – placated.
Induction events are unable to solve the various concerns that may (or may not, but probably will) alight on the shoulders of incoming students; the PhD is an alien thing in itself for all disciplines concerned. Whether we are undertaking an MA, MRes, PhD or otherwise, we all have one goal – to complete the degree at hand to the best of our abilities – and hopefully to make the most of it along the way. On so many occasions I’ve had the brilliant opportunity to discover real people who are studying disciplines beyond the realm of the College of Arts and Humanities. I know, I know, it’s insanity gone mad. But in all seriousness, as we move forward through higher education each stage becomes slightly more estranged from the last, and the experiences of each student branch even further apart. This often ripens potential feelings of isolation which, as I have been told, are perfectly normal. (Again, see Matt’s blog - PhDs must try to stay in the world of the living but ensure to bring their books with them).
It might sound a little odd, but I find it reassuring that I don’t know today what I’ll (hopefully) know in days, weeks or months from this moment. I’ve recently discovered that a lot of my ‘tried and tested’ techniques were a little dusty, so the beginning of the PhD isn’t just about familiarisation with your subject. For want of a better paradox, uncertainty is certain; uncertainty is one of those feelings that most people will experience in these first few weeks, and probably beyond. A large majority of the people I’ve spoken to have mentioned the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’, but seeing as we’re all in the same boat, it doesn’t seem as terrifying – some boats are just painted differently. We all have skills to learn and skills to refine; we all have research to shape and research to test us when we could probably just do with a cup of tea/glass of wine and a nice, dark room.
The first month of my PhD has taught me more than the average induction or training session, and the lesson has been learnt largely from current and previous PhD students and members of staff. The most important piece of advice I could probably give at this point is to write things down, and to make sure it’s written in the same place! I am under no illusion that the journey I have just signed up for will be an easy one and, at this stage, it is difficult to forecast exactly what is ahead. The bottom line is this: it will be hard, but thoroughly enjoyable, and I am looking forward to it immensely. Hope, as always, springs eternal.