By Hayley Mathers |
Week after week this blog has provided encouragement, advice, and recounted interesting experiences. Today’s post will not be so chirpy, although hopefully it proves vaguely useful, if only by providing an example of what to avoid. So far my two years as a PhD student have been a long, painful slog, punctuated by periods of panic, crippling self-doubt, and an intermittent attitude of loathing towards my thesis and everyone associated with it.
I was not one of the fortunate few to receive funding. I don’t think I need to point out that starting a PhD with financial worries is not exactly relaxing. What’s more, some technical errors with my admission meant I wasn’t able to get a student card, enter the library, or begin classes until Halloween. Through no fault of theirs, joining a group of people who had already spent six weeks bonding wasn’t exactly easy for an introvert. On the plus side I had a topic, I liked my topic, my supervisors liked my topic, and then Russia invaded Ukraine. All of a sudden my topic was no longer viable and it was back to the drawing board.
Then I had a brain wave: I would focus on a much more specific case study! After all, everyone loves a case study! I was reinvigorated by the possibilities, and this carried me through the fruitless months which followed as one historian after another failed to provide any relevant information. Regardless, I continued and pinned my hopes on the material stored in the Romanian central archive in Bucharest. The one point which did concern me was my very limited linguistic skills. I had attempted to learn French and German at school, but to this day I can’t make my way through the alphabet of one without lapsing into the other. That said, I felt sure that I would be able to muddle through and take photos of everything, which I could translate with more care once I’d returned home. However, once I reached the archive, it turned out that the archivists did not speak any English. Not a single word. Then it turned out that I had to obtain a photo permit before using my camera in the archive. Cue several hours of me running around Bucharest between the archive, a government building and the post office, because obviously an archive permit can’t be obtained at the actual archive. The result? Me alone in a hotel room attempting to uncork a bottle of wine with a key and a nail file. I did eventually gain admittance to the archive (and the wine), but, as members of the public are not allowed to search for themselves, I had to rely on the archivists to bring me documents they insisted were relevant to my topic.
After returning home it became clear that most of these documents were useless, and the ones which weren’t were insufficient to base an entire thesis on. Once more I was felt lost. I was faced with a choice: continue in the hope that somehow everything would fall into place; or admit defeat, abandon yet another topic, and try something else. Insecurities by this point were at an all-time high. After all, I’d already changed my focus once and was now considering doing it again. Perhaps I just wasn’t good enough.
It’s astonishing how many TV commercials appear recommending holidays to beautiful island paradises at the exact moment you decide that selling all your earthly possession and running away is a valid option. To be honest, I did consider doing just that. I hunted down my passport, withdrew as much money as I could, and planned to hop on the first available plane which was going somewhere sunny. Literally, anywhere sunny. Luckily I managed to talk myself into waiting a little bit longer. By Christmas I decided to abandon my plan to flee the country, and instead inform my supervisors that I had once again decided to simplify my thesis. They took the news surprisingly well and internalised their horror (at least until I was out of range).
Before I had even had time to grasp my topic change, the feared First Year Review had arrived. At this stage I’m sure you can guess what happened next: I failed. Or more accurately, I didn’t pass. Faced with the prospect of being thrown out of university, I once more had to confront my feelings about my thesis: did I even want to do it? This time the answer came more quickly, and my passport remained unused. Devastating as it was to be told that my work was inadequate (and it was) I chose to brush myself off, bury myself in multiple archives, and start my chapter again. Last month I had my resit, and this time I passed.
I think I finally made the decision to fight for my academic life whilst sitting in the National Archives at Kew. I was on auto-pilot, making notes and taking photographs without enthusiasm or interest when I came across a snarky little comment left by a dignified diplomat in a margin, and I giggled. It might not sound like much, but it was the first time in about six months that I had even smiled about something thesis-related. Ultimately, it’s these things that you need to cherish and clutch onto, because it’s those tiny, insignificant moments which will make you think: I’m not going to buy that plane ticket. At least, not yet.
Hayley Mathers is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. She researches whether or not the foreign policy of the British government was influenced by the ‘Jewish question’ in the period between 1919 and 1942, using Romania as a case study. Her twitter profile, @HayleyMathers, suggests that her real interests lie with funny animal videos and politicians who make fools of themselves.