By Eleanor Hardy |
It’s no secret that writing a PhD can be a lonely and insular experience. It’s also no secret that the PhD itself can start to feel pretty esoteric and obscure. Even if you work on a well-known figure or topic that non-specialists will know something about, your particular niche can still seem fairly inaccessible, making it difficult to chat about in a casual way. The problem is magnified when, like me, you work on someone or something so obscure that even specialists in the field have only vaguely heard of them.
So how can you galvanise your subject matter, and more importantly, your own attitude towards it? One obvious answer is to engage in outreach work – presenting your research to non-specialists, and in doing so finding new perspectives on your work and connecting with your source material in new ways. Although this is an important part of academic work, and certainly does often have the benefit of helping you to engage with your work in a fresh way, it can feel daunting or burdensome; another box-ticking exercise to enhance your CV. It can be time-consuming and require a fair amount of organisation and prep work, and the personal benefits can sometimes feel like a happy by-product of the enterprise: positive, but not guaranteed.
In this blog post I want to focus on what I’ve unimaginatively decided to term ‘in-reach work’: activities where the primary focus is on you and your relationship to your research. Often, the best way to engage in ‘in-reach work’ is to do it with friends, especially people who don’t work in the same area as you. Find activities that relate to the interests that first encouraged you to do a PhD, but which don’t place any pressure on you to achieve something, apart from making you happy.
The best bit of ‘in-reach work’ that I took part in recently was a play-reading. I had found some material that tangentially related to my PhD, including a play I hadn’t come across before. Initially I mentally filed it away under the ‘This Could Form the Basis of an Interesting Article – Come Back to it When I Have More Time’ heading, but then I kept returning to it, even though it didn’t strictly relate to my work. On a whim, I decided to message a group of friends to see whether they fancied getting together one evening to do a play-reading. As none of this particular group of friends works in my field, and only some in academia, I didn’t really expect them to be interested, but offered to cook for them to sweeten the deal. Much to my surprise, they were incredibly enthusiastic, and we fixed a date. I decided to make use of the excellent resources my university has for students, and hired a bunch of period costumes, much to everyone’s hilarity. We had a fantastic evening, sitting around in medieval gowns and jerkins, eating and drinking far too much, and reading an obscure early modern play that I didn’t think any of them would be interested in. The evening wasn’t really necessary for my research, but its effects were remarkable. I remembered why I liked my PhD, and also how interesting it can be for people who don’t work in the field. My friends now regularly have casual conversations and jokes about my work, because they feel involved and invested in it. For me, it doesn’t seem quite so stuffy and abstract anymore, and far less lonely.
I appreciate that this is one very specific example of how to engage with your research, and won’t work for everyone’s project, but the basic principle of doing something that involves people you care about, is cheap, fun, and silly, can apply to lots of activities. You could go on a ‘research’ trip, without intending to do any actual research – visit a historical site, or go to an exhibition, or a performance. Go to talks or outreach events (as a spectator rather than as a participant) that aren’t necessarily aimed at specialists. You could form a mini reading group, or set aside time to watch a film or documentary, or listen to podcasts relating to your interests with a friend.
Each of these things can sometimes feel like a big ask when time – especially free time – is very precious. I absolutely understand the feeling that when you’re not working on the PhD you just want to totally switch off from it and have a break, and it’s definitely important to do this too. Exercise, hobbies, socialising: all essential to keeping healthy and happy during your thesis. But ‘in-reach work’ doesn’t need to take long. Taking the time once every now and again – whether it’s once every fortnight, or twice a year – to remind yourself why you liked your PhD in the first place is important. It helps to get though those miserable times that hit every PhD student where you absolutely hate the bloody project. ‘In-reach work’ that involves your friends also means that you’ve built a supportive community who can help you through those times, and who might even start organising activities for you. My friends are all clamouring for another play-reading, which means I need to get back to the archives to see if I can make any more discoveries!
Sometimes, the best way to bring your research to life is to stop researching it for a bit.
Eleanor Hardy is a second year DPhil student at the University of Oxford, where she is working on Edward Herbert’s poetry and the sociability of verse in the seventeenth century. Her research focuses on verse exchange, manuscript circulation, and early modern literary networks. Aside from seventeenth century poetry, she also loves cooking, reading, Netflix, and long walks in the Peak District (preferably accompanied by canine companions). You can find her on Twitter.
Images courtesy of author.