Of Tracks and Leaves

A final-year PhD candidate, whose articulate and engaging presentation I recently attended as part of King’s Lunchtime Seminar series, told me the other day: “If you clearly know what you’re doing in your first year, then your topic is too simple for a PhD.” I can’t help thinking that she is right. And I’m wondering about it because, as always, the more I read, the more connections my mind identifies and pursues. Like a tree that starts with a trunk and ends with hundreds of branches and leaves. The first year is almost over, and I’m still mapping. Shouldn’t I have settled on a single leaf by now?

This is particularly ironic because, for as long as I can remember, life has always placed me in the vicinity of people who function, essentially, like a train: they set themselves down on a given track, establish a plan, lower the curtains on all side windows, and methodically roll forward. This organized routine certainly impresses me, but I can’t help wondering about all that remains beyond its tracks-defined tunnel vision. On the other hand, because I find schedules and structure so oppressive, I tend to work in fluctuating flares of high mental and emotional focus (which can easily turn into all-nighters), and this can be less than thrilling to those who prefer more predictability.

We have now received a June deadline for the mandatory first-year report. The main part of this report, a 10 000-word piece of writing, will have to reflect my topic in the clearest way possible. So I’ve been reading more – only to discover (sigh) more and more things to engage with. For instance, a survey of literature dedicated to Kharkov (based on the last update of my PhD topic) has revealed to me a whole new field of scholarship that focuses on identity in the borderlands, theory of frontiers, and cognitive mapping. This captivating area, loosely called border studies, is keeping me up for the second night in a row, with brief pre-dawn naps. Channeling this motivation into several longer but productive weeks – culminating in a good report – is the challenge I’m facing right now.

 

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