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I have a lot of postgraduate students among my friends, and among this august group one reaction has been fairly prominent since I handed in and subsequently passed my doctoral thesis. Students, who are still embedded in the higher degree process, often think that there’s something special about me and/or my work, and that some aspect of this exceptionalism is what has carried me over the line at both submission and passing stages, whereas for them everything will naturally be much more difficult. This is rot. As Research Degree Voodoo recently reminded us:

A doctoral thesis is about 80,000 words (or your discipline’s equivalent) of academic writing that describes a research project that should take about 3 years and can be carried out by someone just starting out as a researcher.

Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s (probably) not a nobel prize. It’s (probably) not the best work you’ll ever do.

If there is one thing about me in particular that helped me achieve completing this PhD, it is the fact that I have done it before. I already held a PhD in neuroscience, and although the content and the quotidian processes of producing it were utterly different, the intellectual and emotional processes were very closely related. If you just plod through your candidature, keeping fairly abreast of what is required and doing ‘stuff’ regularly, completing actually boils down to a fairly simple matter. It’s about knowing when enough is enough; about keeping in perspective the fact that this is ‘just a PhD’ and not your Life’s Work; keeping the panicked voice of your inner perfectionist at bay while being able to say: ‘yes, of course I could go on and do about 100 more experiments, or rush off to a new archive and translate a bunch more charters, or whatever, but what I’ve got here is a respectable, original contribution, albeit not particularly earth-shattering in its importance. It is enough.’

The other piece of wisdom that two rounds of doctoral study have taught me is that by the time you get to the end, nothing you’ve worked on feels new any more. It’s very easy to give way to a sense of despair and, throwing up your hands, cry out ‘it’s all a waste, because nothing I’ve done is actually new or interesting! Surely everybody already knows all of this by now, and I’ll fail for not having contributed anything to knowledge. Therefore, I must now… [return to point 1, above].’ Resist this impulse. Your work feels old to you because you’ve been thinking about it fairly constantly for three or more years; but nobody else has. That’s the point. That’s why your work is yours, and original.

None of these things is easy to realise or tell yourself when you’re within the process (even if you have done it before!), but they’re all true. So if you’re nearing the end of your candidature, next time you get in a panic don’t try and reinvent the wheel, or assume you need three extra chapters, or another six months. Just stop and ask yourself – is it enough? and is it mine? Or if you can’t figure it out for yourself, ask a trusted friend. The answers are probably yes and yes. You’re probably nearly finished.

A post by Bavardess got me thinking that I ought to put these notes up somewhere where they can do most good. I prepared them at the request of some grad students in the USA a couple of years ago after I’d completed a three-month stint working on my thesis materials at The National Archives in Kew, UK. The staff there were extremely helpful, and the archive itself is reasonably conveniently located for emergency trips to buy batteries and tissues, and whatever else one may suddenly discover one needs, but it pays to learn from the mistakes advice of others.

Using The National Archives – A Survivor’s Tale

TNA’s website has comprehensive orientation notes which are very useful to consult before planning a visit.

Location

The National Archives (TNA) is located near Kew Gardens Tube station, which is the second last stop on the Richmond arm of the District Line. It is about a 5 – 10 minute easy walk to the archives from the station. Exit the station to your left in the direction of travel if coming from the centre of London. (The station has both an underpass and an overpass if you find yourself on the wrong side.) Walk down W Park Rd and take the first left (Burlington Ave). At the end of Burlington Ave, cross Mortlake Rd (there is a controlled pedestrian crossing) and continue down Ruskin Ave. The main gate of TNA is at the end of Ruskin.

You can also reach TNA by bus from Richmond station, which is on the District Line as well as being a British Rail mainline station on the routes to Reading and Windsor (among others). The R68 bus from Hampton Court via Richmond terminates beside the strip mall adjacent to the car park entry for TNA on Bessant Dve. Board the R68 at Richmond by exiting the station, crossing the road and waiting at the bus stop immediately to the left of the pedestrian crossing. You must hail the bus or it will not stop. To return to Richmond, board the bus on Bessant Dve at the same stop where you disembarked.

I recommend obtaining an Oyster card (London public transport card) as soon as you arrive in the UK. Travelling on Oyster is considerably discounted compared with purchasing individual tickets. You can purchase an Oyster card at any station and some newsagents (which display signs to this effect in the window). The card costs a small amount to purchase, and then you charge it with any amount you choose. To use Oyster on trains, tap the card on the yellow disc by the entry point and walk through; do the same thing to exit the train station. On buses you only have to register your card upon boarding, as all bus trips are charged at a flat rate.

Comprehensive directions for coming to TNA by car, and alternate bus routes can be found at: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/visit/where.htm

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

You can also find my academic profile on Academia.edu

Twitter: @KB_Neal

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