Nothing quite compares to the (anti-)climax of one’s doctoral dissertation’s submission, which follows long and sleepless weeks of a strange semi-scholarly process known simply as “writing up”. This winter, mentioning that I am writing up never failed to evoke understanding, sympathy (/pity) and patience from friends and acquaintances alike. But the day did come, and on 28 February 2014, I handed in my dissertation.
This was about a week after the Maidan’s most fatal days, and only 24 hours before one of my main writers, Serhiy Zhadan, was hospitalized with a concussion. Celebration did not feel in order. Publishing politically charged texts on events in question did not feel in order, either.
Instead, here are five thoughts about the things I wish I knew three or four years ago, when I started this blog and was just beginning to research my topic.
What a New Doctoral Candidate (in Britain) Might Want to Know
1. Explore everything. Do not hesitate to “waste time” on all talks and lectures that grab your attention in a dynamic university setting. With time, you will begin to filter available events automatically; but when you’re still burning with interest and tirelessness, do not feel guilty about it, the way I did. Just keep going. Some lectures were brilliant, and others completely irrelevant. The point is, one’s mind might be making connections even when one is not entirely aware of it. I used to worry whether the number of talks where I could be spotted might lead my colleagues or supervisors to think that I’m not doing much typetypetype-kind of work. I realize now that those were precious times of examining approaches and ideas. Events are an important part of one’s progress through a PhD programme. For the first year or so, I’d say, beware of placing “effective” too far above “attentive” in your priorities.
2. Write things down. I was lucky that my supervisor pushed me to do so from the beginning, when I felt there was not much to write down yet. He warned me in my first year: you will forget. I think I grumbled, but now I’m glad I listened. Three years later, struggling to keep track of the amount of material I’ve looked through, and — especially — to mould it into something coherent during those intense write-up weeks, I was glad I made random scribbles on numerous pieces of paper when I had the chance. Think of it this way: you will not regret those scribbles; at worst, you’ll just toss them away. But you will regret forgetting the details of that bright connection you made in your first year, right before it was dimmed by all the subsequent material. Jot down the author, the page number, and the thought you had. Then see if it comes in handy later.
3. Face the midpoint. For some of us, an important skill is to stop starting, and start finishing. I wrote about this struggle in Midpoint, giving it the admittedly silly name of PRA, or Primary Reading Avoidance. For all I know, I could still keep going, trying to cover all bases and read that “one more article” before getting down to formulating my own framework. The truth is, there’s always a “one more article” out there. Letting it go was one of the things I had to learn — which doesn’t mean it won’t come absolutely naturally to you.
4. Say yes to conferences. Give a presentation any chance you get, with draft chapters as your conference talks. A postdoctoral colleague gave me this advice when I lamented how difficult it was to make a coherent start in light of the usual beginner information overload. She told me to apply for a conference. Its deadlines force one to formulate that elusive thought and leave one with a text in hand (see point 2 above). She was right. The networking, the advice, the push, the resulting ideas — all this was priceless. I might say that my dissertation was built on conferences, with most chapters tested on an audience (sorry). There are surely other methods of putting dissertations together, but this one worked for me — and yielded a number of articles in the process.
5. Let yourself doubt (but keep doing 1, 2, 3 and 4 above). The truth is, we all (with some fairly unpleasant but rare exceptions) come with some form of impostor syndrome. In all top establishments of the world, people secretly wonder who made the mistake that landed their file in the “accept” pile, and what could happen if someone finds out about it. At different stages of our work, most of us question ourselves. As Boris Grebenschikov sings, “deep within his soul, every one of us doubts that he is right — and this gives a theme to a new war”. It seems that active minds often go hand-in-hand with wounded (or simply sensitive) selves. This understanding can make places like Cambridge slightly less overwhelming. Everyone is navigating his or her own path; everyone has worked out different strategies for doing so. (Looking permanently confident or being overly aggressive is a navigation technique, for instance.) Just focus on yours.
These fairly incomplete thoughts come between submission and the actual dissertation defense (know here as viva voce), while things continue to heat up in my hometown, Kharkov / Kharkiv. I will write about it shortly, but not yet. This is it for now. Thank you very much for all your “follow”-s on this blog.
A year later: One Year Since Submission