The first 8 months of being a PhD student is largely a build up to the, so called, First Year Progress Review. For environmental history this entails two central components:
- 1) Write an essay which [A] reviews what other historians have written about your subject and [B] outlines your proposed project (including your methods, central research questions, and anticipated primary sources).
- 2) Be interviewed by two professors / lecturers at the university who have read your work. This is sort of the test to see if your ideas hold weight, and if you have communicated those ideas clearly to someone who doesn’t know anything about what you are trying to do.
The write up was both a joy and an incredible challenge. The joy comes from allowing yourself to explore and craft a proposed project that you will pour yourself into for the next few years. There is an undeniable excitement that comes with looking at what others have written about your topic, finding a gap for yourself to fill, and shaping your ideas accordingly. Many possible horizons, all inviting you onward.
The challenge comes from actually articulating how you’ll get to your chosen horizon (choosing one is something of a trial as well) . You think it an easy thing at first “I’ll just go there”, but, of course, the trail is not quite so simple. You have to sort out how to navigate your steps, so that you don’t get sidetracked, so that you don’t get lost, so that you don’t end up walking in a circle, arriving back at your start. Thank goodness I have a supervisor who periodically checks my way-points, and has helped redirect my mapping.
It is challenge enough to write out your “trail guide” for yourself to follow. It is a different sort of challenge entirely to actually speak those ideas aloud to established historians. Spending 8 months thinking, note taking, and drafting out essays outlining your ideas in written form makes you almost forget how to use your vocal chords to utter these ideas aloud. It is almost like your voice has atrophied, and perhaps the part of your brain that permits speech. It was a surprising difficulty for me to speak coherently about the ideas that have taken root in my mind, and have been spilling out from my fingers as type-on-page.
That made me, of course, highly nervous about the interview. I decided to give myself a mock interview…writing out questions that I thought they might ask me and then verbally trying to respond. If you weren’t already too deep in your own mind, developing a mock interview for yourself drives you all the way home. Walking to my interview this morning I was talking aloud in response to my interview questions…getting quite a few concerned glances from those that passed me by.
In the end, I’m happy to report, I have “passed” and can officially call myself a “PhD Student”. The interview was mostly a chance to speak your ideas aloud and get feedback and suggestions for how else to expand or direct your project. I may have been extremely fortunate in the two interviewers I was assigned to, but they made me feel at ease, they made me feel like my ideas were actually interesting.
Will try to do a better job of keeping up a blog now that my head is a bit more clear, and I’ve summited the first major hill on this PhD pathway (for Mom and Dad mostly, but also for anyone curious about what being a PhD student is like).
Next stop – my first archival visit next week!