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This is one reason why I love my office.

This is one reason why I love my office.

There are many wonderful things about having an academic office, but the thing that I love the most about my digs is the enormous double whiteboard along one wall. This was an indispensable tool in completing my doctoral thesis: it allowed me to plot the over-arching arguments and structures ‘to scale’, and in a medium which was both fixed enough to stay on the wall for the last few weeks as a visible prompt whenever the minutiae of individual pieces of analysis threatened to spin off in their own directions or subsume the larger trajectory of the material, and flexible enough to accommodate constant reconfiguring or tweaking by the judicious application of an eraser and some different colour pens. The various chapters in the image above were re-numbered and shuffled at least three times in the course of final write-up, as I debated the proper order of materials and the connections between them.

It’s almost a shame one can’t submit a time lapse video of a whiteboard as a thesis! It would be a much truer reflection of thoughts and arguments than the necessarily linear verbal presentation of thoughts that must, by its essence, be partial and in some ways impoverished.

Time to wipe it all off and prepare for the next project… Now that really is the beauty of whiteboards.

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In the olden days, when I was a scout leader, we used this thing called the ‘buddy system’ to make sure all our little charges got back to base after a ‘wide game’ running around the local creek in the dark. It’s kind of self-explanatory: everyone had a buddy, and buddies had responsibility to make sure each other made it back safely. Hold that thought.

There’s been a bit of chatter of late both on the interwebs and in the actual physical corridors about receiving academic feedback. What do you do with it? How do you cope emotionally? How do you view it intellectually? If you haven’t already done so, I recommend going over to The Thesis Whisperer and looking at what one kind supervisor told their student. But this isn’t just about students. It’s not as if academics take a magic ‘grown up pill’ as soon as they get their PhD and suddenly intuitively know how to manage this ‘feedback’ with a sanguine air. If nobody trains you in dealing with this as a student, you’re basically going to be left to figure out a strategy for yourself as a post doctoral scholar. Maybe that will work, or maybe not so much. You might be one of the lucky ones who has a great mentoring structure around you in your career, but equally, you might be (or at least feel) essentially on your own.

I’m chipping in with my two cents here because I’ve noticed some real differences in the course of my career change from the laboratory sciences over to the humanities, and there are some things that we (the humanities) can really take from the science model in this regard. I’ve shared this with various individuals, but it’s obviously ‘a thing’ so maybe sharing here will be worth it. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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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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